Attend a Conference Outside your Discipline

At my current agency, I'm a project manager. Although I come from a human-interaction background, my role today is a much more traditional PM position. Think managing requirements, timelines, deliverables, and of course, team and client happiness. So - why did I attend a web design conference?

A PM walks into a design conference. Why?

Honestly, I love web design. Attending An Event Apart has been a dream of mine for the longest time, and it was a great opportunity for me to nerd out with other like-minded individuals who fall more on the design side of the spectrum. Coming from a UX background, I relish every opportunity to keep my creative skills sharp. 

However, the value I also brought back to my agency as a project manager was significant.

Be a better client communicator.

The talks at most conferences range from the 10,000 foot view down to weed-whacking with the best of them. At An Event Apart, the higher level web design trend talks were excellent for my role in being the my internal team's proxy for many conversations.

Being able to answer client questions from a position of understanding earns you trust. Being there first hand and being able to ask the speaker questions is invaluable in the learning (and retaining) process. There are only so many blog articles and Dribbble shots you can absorb passively.

Even if you aren't a designer yourself, web design is the world you live and operate in. Be interested in the "how its made," and share that wealth of knowledge with your clients, who are undoubtedly mired in their own industry and counting on you to be the expert. 

Be a better cross-functional team communicator.

Similarly, your team lives and breathes this stuff. They're moving so quickly, keeping up with trends, and learning so much that sometimes, it's hard to take a moment to explain concepts to a layperson. 

Plus, as a project manager, it's your job to be the translator. Attending a conference for development or design helps you understand not just individual ideas and where the industry is headed in the near future, but also the discipline's guiding philosophies. Immersing yourself in the culture helps you communicate better with your team, and they will sense you understand where they are coming from.

Be an active participant on the team.

The more you understand the details of what makes other disciplines work, the better you can work with others. And - it opens up the opportunity to be even more of a contributing member to your team.

Be a producer! Come up with ideas. Run with the wolves a little. Understand that your team often has a lot going on - and you can help by filling in the gaps when you see them, or helping in brainstorming sessions. Understand that everyone has their area of expertise; but that doesn't mean the ideas of outsiders isn't valued.

Personality Traits that Make a Good Project Manager

I believe anyone can be ‘good’ at anything, as long as there’s enough motivation. If a shy, soft-spoken individual wants to be an inspirational speaker, she can still make a great one, though her work may be cut out for her.

That being said, there are some traits that naturally lend themselves to certain occupations.

Many of us are familiar with this concept from elementary school aptitude or Myers-Briggs personality tests, with results that include dramatic titles such as, “The Scientist” (INTJ, if you’re wondering). Around 60- 70% of Americans come across one of these tests during the interview process, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Though the field of project management spans diverse industries, the job description remains fairly similar. As a PM, you’re responsible for timelines, budget, scope, and quality. You often work with project stakeholders as well as your internal execution team. I’ve found that a person in their element as an effective project manager typically have a few common traits.

Empathy

This is the number one trait that project managers must have and cultivate. Empathy allows us to feel what the client will, and in turn, cut down on time spent in additional feedback loops. Empathy for the team is equally crucial. Team motivation and energy goes a long way in delivering a quality product that everyone can be proud of. One of the hardest interview questions I’ve been posed was, “Pick one: Team happiness or client happiness?” I think the answer is always case by case- but keep in mind that you can only ask your team for a favor so many times until motivation starts to suffer. If you do need team members to work extra, you should stay as well, to make sure everyone is taken care of. 

Rationality

On the flip side, project managers can’t be overly soft-hearted. Having good clients and a good team cuts down on the danger tremendously, but we have all seen how ugly it can get when clients smell blood in the water. Some will ruthlessly pick fights to get free work, or maybe even worse, lose confidence in you (and by extension, the team and project). Don’t allow your judgement and fairness meter to be clouded by being too much on either the client’s or team’s side. Remain calm, stable, and hold your ground. You have to do what’s right for the project, and that includes balancing both team and client needs. Take a look at the facts, and don’t be afraid to make the hard call for the good of the project.

Accountability

As a project manager, the buck stops with you. When the project goes well, all credit goes to the execution team. When the project has a delay, or a requirement was missed, it’s on you. It’s the project manager’s job to make sure everyone has what they need at any given time. If parties are uncommunicative, you have how they prefer to communicate. Most individuals in the workforce are pretty reasonable and you must strive to discover the root cause of the issue/hesitation and resolve it.  

Curiosity

At larger organizations, project managers often don’t produce any of their own work or directly help create the deliverable. Because of this, PMs sometimes get the reputation of being out of touch, and not really understanding the task at hand.

I urge any project manager to get into the weeds a bit, and learn what it is that your team does. Have them explain their decisions, and ask their opinion early (project planning, etc.). Having a natural curiosity and genuinely wanting to understand how the cake is baked goes a long way in both helping in traditional PM duties (scoping, estimating), as well as earning the respect of your team.

There are dozens of effective project management styles, but I've found these traits in common between the best project managers I've had the pleasure of working with.

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