​Project manager jobs: What employers are really looking for

These are the project management skills that bosses think are the keys to success.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

As demand for data scientists continues to soar, it can sometimes feel as if the need for traditional IT skills such as project management is on the wane.

Research from recruiter Harvey Nash and consultant KPMG backs this trend, suggesting that while almost half (46 per cent) of digital leaders believe their business has a skills shortage in big data and analytics, just a quarter cite a deficiency in project management. This proportion is significantly down on 2015, when 36 per cent of CIOs noted a project management skills gap.

Yet while the shortage for these skilled professionals is not as great as in the past, project managers remain a crucial part of the IT programme delivery process. In fact, Harvey Nash and KPMG suggest some organisations could struggle to attract the right talent, meaning highly capable delivery experts are still in demand.

So, what kind of project managers do firms require in the digital age? Five experts give their take on the skills that matter most.

1. Customer-focused specialists who make a difference

Richard Gifford, CIO at logistics firm Wincanton, says effective project management at his company is tightly related to client requirements. "In our business, it's about understanding what customers need," he says. "Making sure you know the scope is properly nailed down and then breaking the project into small chunks for delivery."

The speedy delivery of new projects relies on several key factors, such as understanding requirements and building rapport with stakeholders: Gifford says project managers who excel in those areas are key.

"We have trusted lieutenants to help us do that, but we also have very strong governance and oversight. So, whilst they have the autonomy to go away and do their work, we operate in a very low-margin business -- we can't afford to get too many things wrong," he says.

"We must be slick at what we do. And the effectiveness of that management process involves passing data back on the progress of our initiatives to the project boards. We then respond to leadership requests through those governance boards."

2. Goals-oriented managers who keep a sense of perspective

Gideon Kay, European CIO at advertising specialist Dentsu Aegis Network, says there is no silver bullet for digital leaders looking to create effective project management. Yet he stresses the importance of having a strong idea of desired outcomes -- and that means great project managers focus on the change the business is delivering.

"Be clear about signposting how that change is going, both the ups and the downs," he says. "Be clear about steering, which is where I think a lot of this stuff goes wrong. Have the right balance of pressure in terms of time to deliver and the opportunity to call out when things are going wrong."

Kay says quick wins will help prove the potential benefits of initiatives to cynics. At the same time, he advises project managers to avoid doing too much too quickly. IT professionals must avoid being over-ambitious in terms of what they believe their projects can achieve.

"Have some stretch in your project goals but don't be ridiculous in terms of acceptable project lengths," he says. "Don't over-commit, so people on the ground end up with something that won't work, which you then only find out at the last minute."

3. Integrated leaders who take ultimate project accountability

Lisa Heneghan, partner at KPMG and head of digital transformation, says that while demand for project management has fallen, it's still an important skill. She says projects don't fail because of management skills. Instead, failures are more to do with ownership issues and lack of senior support from within the business.

"I still see it all the time where big change projects are still simply treated as technology programmes, and it doesn't work that way," says Heneghan. "For these big initiatives to succeed, you need to have an integrated approach to business and technology. You have to have somebody who is ultimately accountable for projects success in the business."

Heneghan suggests too many IT professionals are overly optimistic about what a project will deliver and when. While expectations of digital transformation projects are high, CIOs and their executive peers must work together to establish achievable targets. "There's a heavy dose of realism that's needed," she says.

"We talk an awful lot now about minimal viable products and I think this is critical. Organisations with transformation programmes need to be very realistic about what can be delivered in a reasonable amount of time that will start to deliver value. Then you can start to create a positive momentum around these projects."

4. Active players in decision making who facilitate change

Phil Lewis, director of digital experience at retailer Boden, says the key to effective project management is making sure the business has people in charge with a broad set of skills. Lewis says a great project manager is much more than an administrator who keeps an eye on checks and balances.

The bad news is a lot of project managers are still involved in what Lewis refers to as "traffic management". These managers spend most of their time ensuring people and resources are in the right place at the right time. Lewis expects more.

"Good project managers are involved in the detail. They understand all the concepts of the initiatives they are facilitating and the risks for the business," he says.

"They don't just tell people what they've got to do next. They are actively involved in helping the business make decisions. That involvement is what makes a great project manager versus someone who just comes in and runs an initiative."

5. Knowledgeable professionals who draw on a kit bag of approaches

Peter Ironside, director of CIO Advisory at KPMG, says the move towards digital is changing how people run projects. He says business transformation needs a nimble way of working to deliver at the pace the organisation requires. Agile often provides that flexibility -- but it should not be seen as the perfect solution for all challenges.

"Agile can be great, especially when updates might be needed daily," says Ironside. "But IT professionals must also be aware there can be a danger of taking Agile too far. Understanding what you're deploying and why is key given the pace of change that's taking place."

Ironside says some IT leaders try to run every initiative in an Agile way, no matter what type of project they're running. Project managers should ensure the business only deploys new techniques when the time is right. "A good leader has Agile as part of a kit bag of approaches," he says.

"Great managers know when the characteristics are right to use Agile or when it might be right to approach a project in a different way. It's not one-size-fits all -- not everything needs to be Agile, just like not everything needs to be Waterfall. There's a balance to be struck and that depends on the use case."


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