One of the more frequently asked questions by new project managers is: “What skills do I need in order to be a successful project manager?” The typical answer is experience, knowledge, good communication and soft skills. But what does it really mean – “soft skills”? What makes them so important? In fact, soft skills are those that can be learnt in a fancy university or college, but most importantly they must be practiced over time.
Soft skills are emergent properties of the self-hosted project management process. Soft skills do not exist by themselves; rather they emerge in the form of decision-making skills, interpersonal skills, behavioral and emotional skill sets and cognitive abilities that relate to how leaders think. You can also observe how soft skills influence behavior when you work with others. For example, you may notice some people have difficulty communicating what they really mean when talking about a topic or situation. This is because either they do not know their own mind or incorrectly assume others automatically understand them. Other times we might be unaware of our body language which could indicate a lack of confidence in our opinions.
So which soft skills are project managers expected to demonstrate? There is overlap between the critical and relevant skills that are inherent to the role of project manager and those skills which are considered desirable. For example, there is a value placed on technical knowledge because it provides an understanding of the subject matter and domain as well as enabling better decisions. However, soft skills also provide value in decision making by enabling you to move away from thinking about what you know to what you could do. In order to answer this question, three different approaches can be applied:
- For organizations – consultancy companies that ask their clients: “Which soft skill area would your ideal PM demonstrate?”
- For project managers – asking other PMs: “What key soft skill sets/areas should my project team members possess in order for my project management methods and techniques to be effective?”
- For project managers – listing the desired skills and behaviors for job profiling (such as competency models).
In all cases, there is a focus on presentation, communication and interpersonal skills. One of the reasons for this is that soft skills are observable which means they can be assessed by others. Therefore organizations want PMs who demonstrate good public speaking, listening skills or both as this enables them to persuade/influence audiences in order to achieve management buy-in and commitment for projects – something every project manager at some point will have to do.
Furthermore, organizations differ on what is considered an acceptable soft skill set. For example, it can sometimes mean having the ability to smell potential problems before they occur – or at least sooner than others. Other times it means not getting bogged down by emotions and other distractions that may stop you from focusing on being objective about the situation at hand.