Don’t Be Great, Be the Best: Qualities of Successful Digital Project Managers

Be Slightly Competitive and Highly Organized

A great digital project manager is cut from the slightly competitive cloth. Not necessarily in competition with others, but themselves. My goal with every project I take is to be at least one or two steps ahead of my team and to do it better than the last one. I get a gauge for how fast my resources move to accomplish a task, how they think, what they need, and potential roadblocks to all moves necessary to execute in a project. If a project carries similar components to projects I have done in the past, I identify my past mistakes, weak points and seek to improve them in this project. In order to do this, you have to treat each project as a brand new opportunity, seeking to be on top of all the moving parts, while leading your teams to think about next steps.

In addition, it is essential that you as an individual are incredibly organized. Your organization with yourself sets the precedence for how you treat your work and how team members treat the project.

How do you manage your time? What’s your file naming convention? How do you organize your folders? Does it support version control? Can anyone in your team navigate your folder system to find what they need? Do they know how to rename files and where/how to communicate changes? Your projects are a reflection of your level of organization in ways, your ability to teach and train people how to work with you. Of course, this is with due respect to how they work as well. Compromise is important, but workability is the top priority.

Have Integrity

There are people who check off boxes and there are those who fulfill each action with integrity. Integrity is not only doing what you said you would do by when you said you’d do it, but also doing it the way that is expected of you,”. This includes delivering actions and products in ways that are not explicitly asked of you.

For example, I create a timeline for the design phase of a website. Great! However, I also make sure it’s presentable and even starts to break out phases and which resources are in which phase. I also look to schedule that in our company Gantt chart and distribute communication across pertinent stakeholders. I also think to walk stakeholders through the plan to ensure everyone understands what the deliverable is, along with expectations, potential risks, and opportunities to negotiate the plan. Integrity is directly correlated to the quality of your work and the project. You set the tone for how this project will run and what level everyone needs to play to when on a project run by you.

You need to make sure you’re on top of your responsibilities so everyone has everything they could need from you to do their part.

Emotional Intelligence & Genuinely Caring About Others

You cannot be a great DPM, or any PM for that matter if you lack empathy. A humane level of empathy and attachment (along with healthy detachment) makes the distinction between checking off boxes and making an impact. Most of our job is to understand people, how they think, where their thinking is going, and how we can help shed light on blind spots. This is not only relevant while planning projects and facilitating conversation, but this is extremely important during execution.

No stakeholder is the same as another and everyone has a unique world in their heads. Personal problems, stress, communication styles, work styles are all considerations. Your effectiveness will be directly correlated with your ability to set yourself, your judgements, and desired outcomes aside and get related to each person’s world.

This can be the most emotionally taxing aspect of the job, but this is an investment. Every interaction you have with a stakeholder that is founded on genuine connection and care while focusing on mutuality and business goals, the faster you can move into the performing stage. Put the effort in and you will have supportive stakeholders which will generate more influence and productivity for you.

Communication: Written, Verbal, Visual, Non-Verbal.

The most important lesson I learned about communication is, “Communication begins with your listening.” There’s the classic adage of God giving you two ears and one mouth and that is pertinent here as well.

What is overlooked most is the habit of what we say in our head before anyone utters a word. This is what sets the environment for workability and generating outcomes. If you’re already dreading a conversation in your head, by the time you’re actually having a conversation, your resignation has already killed off possible outcomes that could improve operations.

In action, be professional in your communication, whether verbal, written or visual. Whenever presenting your work visually, always look at it from the lens of: is this presentable to the highest-level stakeholder this communication will be going to? In every email am I being concise, polite, and is it cleanly formatted? When I am speaking in a group or one on one, am I tying communication to actionable items? Am I focused on facilitating a discussion or am I letting my personal feelings come through in my tone? Is my feedback concise, did I annotate the presentation with actionable feedback? Am I conveying the reality of the project deliverables to the legal team to move this contract along? Am I sharing pros and cons in a linear, logical way that stakeholders can understand and follow?

Check your posture, too. Are you leaning in and looking at the person speaking to you? While on the phone, are you showing signs of active listening? And don’t you dare sigh during that meeting!

Insatiable Curiosity with a Reasonable Thirst for Thrills

You can’t thrive as a DPM without a certain threshold for venturing into the unknown, coupled with waves of chaos. It’s like turning a headbanger concert into an orchestra. I will not lie, that’s the thrill I live for in my job. Amazing DPMs look at chaos and seek to make sense and harmony to it — to start nailing things down to make it, well, manageable. Having a sense of curiosity also bodes well throughout a project lifecycle, namely because our job is to help identify all possible risks and considerations in every aspect of a project.

While we may not be in the code, crafting copy, or comping designs, we have to educate ourselves as much as possible. Some things to always consider are what the project entails, what each resource needs, where their responsibilities lie and what is the most effective ways of leveraging their time, skills, etc. to produce a final product. Unless you want to fake the funk (which I do not recommend), it bodes extremely well for you to have a natural curiosity about everything and anything. It helps make the job not only fun, but you are a naturally better DPM for doing so and your team members feel cared for and their craft respected.

Maintain a Sense of Caution

While you are the type who is willing to strap yourselves in and jump off the plane into almost any project (aka metaphorical war zone), you do so wearing your feasibility hat. Meaning, you don’t just strap in and jump off the plane without a plan. When you jump off, you at least have a few questions answered such as: Where are we landing? What is the optimal jump off altitude? What are the risks involved and how are me addressing these risks so far?

Problems, old and new, arise in any project. While you deal with highly creative minds, you play the balance of supporting that vision through to optimal possibility, but asking the questions around how, when, and with what?

Most of the time, depending on your environment, people don’t like having these conversations. No one wants to listen to feasibility Felicia when they have just shared their revolutionary idea. However, that’s your job as a DPM. Like Don Draper said, “That’s what the money is for!”

It can be tense sometimes, but you are tasked with being the voice of reason that supports the vision, but aligning it to tangible tools, resources, and timeframes. Otherwise, they are no key performance indicators, no way to track progress, if you’re over or under budget, behind or ahead schedule. Might as well be chickens with your heads cut off. Again, it can be thankless and the trickiest conversations to have, but this is where the best DPMs flex.

If you’ve developed great EQ and communication skills like I mentioned above, you will be able to corral stakeholders to decision making points, and go about it in ways you are seen as a trusted advisor instead of a buzzkill.

White Collar Brain, Blue Collar Work Ethic.

Make sure your brain is “on” for each project and your is mind sharp for your industry. This can be done by reading up on trade publications, engaging in discussion with your peers and outside sources, or taking on new, innovative projects while on the job. Even if you may not know every component, you need the habit of asking as many questions as possible.

As you capture that information, you need to know how to package that communication in ways that are effective. This not only includes having clean, presentable documentation, but the appropriate communication for the company’s culture, ergo the white-collar brain. Listen actively, observe the landscape, and politic appropriately. Depending on your industry and management, there will be sliding scales of what is and isn’t accepted. Diplomacy is key.

Great DPMs are humble grinders, hence the blue collar work ethic. The best out-grind everyone on the team and we are fortunate to lead and train people up to grind with us. We are probably the first to rise and last to leave. The first to give up our lunch to get this deliverable out or squeeze in that important meeting. We’re the responsible, reliable, dependable ones. It takes a certain personality and temperament to walk through the chaos and walk out with a finished product.

Be Straight with What You Do and Don’t Know

Plain and simple. Stay on top of your project and all it’s moving parts as best you can. I keep a running, daily status list of all the projects I manage. It keeps me dialed into each moving part, who’s doing what, roadblocks, or next steps. However, you can’t possibly know every answer or fact at any moment. While it’s ideal, it’s not possible. Be honest with what you do and don’t know. If you don’t know, ask your team or facilitate a conversation to generate a decision.

Have Fun 🎉🎉🎉

Great DPMs can find the fun, light, and humor in every project. Another important aspect of our job is to keep morale high. We can’t do that if we don’t feel it in our bones. Every project has its bad days, but keeping a healthy mental approach to these ups and downs are key. These days will pass, even if it seems like it won’t end. I’ve certainly had some grueling projects I can now look back on with my team and laugh. Even in the worst times, this is where bonds and teams can be strongest.

Sometimes the most stressful moments are opportunities for your team to innovate and make magic happen. That state of flow and workability is what I work to have in all my teams, and it doesn’t hurt if you make the experience of working with YOU a fun one too.

Good luck out there and feel free to ask me any specific questions in the comments section!