The #1 competency of a great Project Manager #pmot

I was talking on Friday to Steve Rogalsky (@srogalsky) about my thoughts on the #1 competency of great Project Managers. As soon as I said that I corrected myself and said that it is never that simple. There is not just one thing. That was something that makes for a great Blog title and Blog post, but is not a true reflection of reality.

But since this is a Blog post, I’m hoping you will allow me a little leeway in the discussion. 🙂

Project Manager Competencies

So what is the #1 competency for a Project Manager?

Think of the best Project Manager you have ever worked with. What was the one thing you remember about him/her?

If you were going to describe him/her to someone else, what would you say they did really well?

Let me hazard a guess that it isn’t one of these statements…

  • Man, that guy really knew his way around MS Project
  • Man, she really knew how to create a detailed WBS
  • Man, that guy knows how to drive a team and instil a sense of urgency
  • Man, she really kept on top of the work and followed a good governance process. I mean her Change Requests rocked!
  • and so on…

My favourite Project Manager

My favourite Project Manager was not someone whom I liked or respected initially. I thought that he was weak on having a detailed plan and the change request process. (these were my pre-Agile days) I mean we were taking on extra scope and missing deadlines. Why was he not pushing the client and the team?

As I worked with him, I started to see the real skill he had.

  • He never used his authority
  • He built relationships with both the client and the team
  • He knew when it was time to push and when it was time to be patient with both the team and the client
  • He knew a great team took time to build trust and to gel
  • He was a facilitator first and foremost
  • He had an awesome sense of humour
  • He honestly wanted to know how you felt and what you thought

I don’t know for sure, but I think he would have had great Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence is defined as:

“Emotional Intelligence (EI) refers to the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions.”  –

Emotional Intelligence has four main competencies:

  1. Perceiving Emotions: The first step in understanding emotions is to accurately perceive them. In many cases, this might involve understanding nonverbal signals such as body language and facial expressions.
  2. Reasoning With Emotions: The next step involves using emotions to promote thinking and cognitive activity. Emotions help prioritize what we pay attention and react to; we respond emotionally to things that garner our attention.
  3. Understanding Emotions: The emotions that we perceive can carry a wide variety of meanings. If someone is expressing angry emotions, the observer must interpret the cause of their anger and what it might mean. For example, if your boss is acting angry, it might mean that he is dissatisfied with your work; or it could be because he got a speeding ticket on his way to work that morning or that he’s been fighting with his wife.
  4. Managing Emotions: The ability to manage emotions effectively is a key part of emotional intelligence. Regulating emotions, responding appropriately and responding to the emotions of others are all important aspect of emotional management.

(reproduced from  –


To me, Emotional Intelligence comes down to being able to having great empathy for others. For your team mates and clients.

Great Project Managers use this empathy to build relationships and read situations when the project is starting to go off the rails. They understand that it is all about the people and not the technology or process. They honestly care. Care about team mates, the clients, and the solution.

Two More competencies

I also believe that a good Project Manager also has a wealth of experience with the type of project being executed. I’m not a fan of the concept that it is best if a Project Manager is not technical expert or domain expert. The Project Manager also needs to be a Problem Solver.

If you do not have the technical expertise, how can you fully empathize with the team?

If you do not have the business domain, how can you fully empathize with the client?


Steve was right. It isn’t that simple.

The best Project Manager I ever worked with had these three competencies:

  • Excellent Technical expertise
  • Excellent Business Domain knowledge
  • Excellent Emotional Intelligence

Although it is rare to have all three, I have found that excellent Emotional Intelligence with either technical or Business Domain expertise is a very good indicator of success. And someone I would like to have on my team.


Author: Terry Bunio

Terry Bunio is passionate about his work as the Manager of the Project Management Office at the University of Manitoba. Terry oversees the governance on Information Technology projects to make sure the most important projects are being worked on in a consistent and effective way. Terry also provides leadership on the customized Project Methodology that is followed. The Project Methodology is a equal mix of Prince2, Agile, Traditional, and Business Value. Terry strives to bring Brutal Visibility, Eliminating Information islands, Right Sizing Documentation, Promoting Collaboration and Role-Based Non-Consensus, and short Feedback Loops to Minimize Inventory to the Agile Project Management Office. As a fan of pragmatic Agile, Terry always tries to determine if we can deliver value as soon as possible through iterations. As a practical Project Manager, Terry is known to challenge assumptions and strive to strike the balance between the theoretical and real world approaches for both Traditional and Agile approaches. Terry is a fan of AWE (Agile With Estimates), the Green Bay Packers, Winnipeg Jets, and asking why?

4 thoughts on “The #1 competency of a great Project Manager #pmot”

  1. The risk with domain or technical knowledge is that it also works against facilitative behaviour and empathy as it brings a strong tendency to act in ‘expert’ mode.

    Given a choice of your three desirable behaviours, you’ve absolutely spotted the critical one, so the preferable outcome is that the PM has some domain and/or technical knowledge, but less than the client/team. Either that, or they work very hard to make it seem that way until and unless it’s really, really needed.


    1. agreed. 100%. That is a great additional detail. The Project Manager should have some technical expertise, but not more than his team…

      I would also argue that if the PM is acting in ‘expert’ mode, he or she doesn’t have great Emotional Intelligence. If they do this, they are not seeing the issues that behaviour is causing on the project and team dynamics.


      1. Yes, that was my inference. Having a high level of technical/domain knowledge risks the essential Emotional Intelligence.


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