6 Critical Project Management Skills (And How to Learn Them)

Chances are you've recently seen a project manager (PM) job listing. At the time of this posting, a quick search yielded more than 37,000 openings across the US - each requesting a variety of project management skills.

Project management is a successful, growing industry - one that has become increasingly relevant with the trend towards shrinking timelines and high consumer expectations.

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The workplace has changed a great deal, and project management - much like the open concept office - is a horizontal, team-focused position.

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), an estimated 11% of costs are wasted due to poor project team performance. The PM’s job is to ensure efficient results.

But what does it take to be a successful project manager?

Learning and practicing the right project management skills can be the difference between a career that shines and one that hits a dead end.

No matter where you're at in your project management career, these are the essential project management skills you will need to master. Read through one by one, or click on any of the links below to jump directly there.

Project Management Software

Scheduling and Organizing

Language: Coding and Writing

Leadership and Coaching

Negotiation and Diplomacy

Critical Thinking and Research

Hard Skills for Project Management

Hard skills are the technical training you highlight at the top of your resume.

Do you know Python? Have you used data science in an analyst role? Perhaps you work in sales, but are a whiz with SQL queries. Or maybe you find these technical skills intimidating.

Luckily, it's never too late to improve or gain new hard skills. And you don’t need a computer science background - in fact most PMs come from a variety of non-technical backgrounds.

If you're looking for a career pivot or want to shift from team member to team leader, here are 3 project management hard skills that you need to learn.

project management software

Project Management Software

PMs must manage their team. This means task delegation, performance tracking, and clear communication.

Memos, post-it notes, white boards, and ledgers still have their place in brick and mortar offices - but the modern PM must be proficient in at least one project management software.

These platforms utilize workflows, organizational tools, and everything in between so your team can efficiently track and complete tasks en route to the finish line.

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Improve your PM software skills

If you already use a project management software in your current role, break out of your routine and try to explore the software’s full functionality.

Set a personal goal to explore one new feature per week.

If you don't have access to a paid tool, there are plenty of free project management software options. Subscribe to one and start using it for projects in your personal life.

Think about a project you keep putting off. How does it go from an idea to a finished deliverable? Use the software to plan and schedule each task.

Do this for a couple weeks, and you'll quickly get up to speed. Take your learning a step further by checking out one of these free online classes.

project management schedule

Scheduling and Project Control

Project managers see the big picture - better yet, they paint the picture through scheduling and project control.

This should be one of a PMs top skills, as it creates a project framework that the entire team relies on.

A PM must create a project roadmap. This includes making calendars and budgets, delegating tasks logically and efficiently, and making adjustments as needed.

In short, PMs are organized - which improves performance and reduces stress. Plus, team member buy-in depends on the PM’s plan. Unclear objectives, vague feedback, and wasted resources lowers morale and frustrates clients.

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Improve your scheduling and project control

There are many steps you can take to get organized - from decluttering your workspace to mindful time management.

For a bit more help, scheduling tools can help you plan workflows and identify areas of improvement.

If this sounds overwhelming, start by simply making a list of tasks for the next day before you go to bed. That way you wake up with purpose, and can dedicate allotted time to each item.

Plus, science says that planning ahead helps you get better sleep!

coding for project management

Language: Coding and Writing

Coding and writing are all about language.

Sure, coders code and writers write - they are very different people within a company. But as a project manager, you are overseeing a team and must speak fluently across skill sets.

Knowing how to speak about code, and even being able to do some basic Python, HTML, or C++ will take you far. Plus, your engineers will respect you more, and do their best work.

Similarly, PMs need to draft emails, memos, and other important documents. Content and technical writers may do the heavy lifting, but the PM is in constant contact with other departments and clients.

Sloppy writing reflects poorly on the team as a whole and the PM in particular.

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Improve your coding and writing skills

Computers are increasingly accurate at catching and correcting our mistakes.

Sure, auto-correct will save you on occasion, but everyone knows it can also create some awkward moments. Grammarly not only corrects your writing errors, but learns your quirks and helps to improve your vocabulary and syntax.

If you are a coding beginner or hoping to reach the next level, check out these free coding practice sites. Choose the practice duration that fits your schedule, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Whether you're improving your coding or prose, remember what we learned in foreign language 101 - the only way to get better is to practice a little everyday.

Soft Skills for Project Management

"Soft skills” can be a misnomer. When compared with “hard skills,” they are often considered secondary and less difficult to master. This simply isn't true, especially for project managers.

Soft skills are not just character traits.

Sure, some people are born with business savvy or a knack for people - but anyone who puts in the time can become a great PM by honing the following soft skills.

leadership for project managers

Leadership and Coaching

This one might seem obvious, but project managers are team leaders.

Whether you're an expert communicator or lead by example, project managers must adjust their approach to get the best out of each team member.

Keep in mind that leaders don't just make plans and tell people what to do. Good leaders support, encourage, and inspire their team. They ensure that their teams have the right knowledge and resources to do their best work.

Ultimately, a good leader works tirelessly to set their team up for success.

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Improve your leadership and coaching

You might recall a career aptitude test from grade school - if your results didn’t say “Manager,” don’t fret.

Today, there are companies that specialize in leadership coaching. Working with a leadership coach will help you sharpen your skills, as well as identify where your strengths might flourish.

You can also check out these books or attend conferences focused on grooming the next generation of leaders. But remember, leadership comes through experience.

Be proactive in your current role and request more responsibility. Leadership will come organically over time, as you prove your effectiveness with each success.

negotiation for project managers

Negotiation and Diplomacy

What do interns, team members, clients, investors, and the C-Suite have in common? They all speak with project managers, but not necessarily with each other.

Speaking to diverse audiences requires good communication skills, though that is only part of the equation. It also requires navigating office politics and client negotiations.

In each case, the PM works toward mutually beneficial solutions.

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Improve your negotiation and diplomacy

PMs with decades of experience say that the key to effective negotation is listening.

In order to effectively negotiate a contract or resolve a conflict, you must listen to the parties involved. Build trust with your team and your clients, learn their interests and needs, and work towards win-win solutions.

The best part? Honing this skill is actually fun.

Sit in on client phone calls, ask a coworker out for coffee, and network with people from across your company to learn more about them and their work. Be an active listener and your colleagues will want to learn more about you as well!

critical thinking for project managers

Critical Thinking and Research

Contrary to the popular phrase, ideas don’t simply appear from thin air.

Critical thinking drives meaningful research, which in turn leads to creative insights.

Critical thinking means not just accepting a situation at face value. It means looking deeper and considering the issue from different angles. Research is the process by which new information is discovered, and hypotheses are tested.

Remember, project managers are problem solvers for both their team and clients. Oftentimes, this means rolling up your sleeves and diving into the data.

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Improve your critical thinking and research skills

The Foundation for Critical Thinking focuses on actively conceptualizing, analyzing, and synthesizing information. Their website is a great resource for learning more about critical thinking as a theory.

You may have heard that you go to college to learn how to think. Does this seem abstract? Not a problem.

There are brain exercise apps to help improve your memory, recall, and problem solving skills. Though this is just a starting point.

Research for a PM means knowing their product and its competition. Reading applicable news and market reports will keep you informed, both for interviews and once you have the job.

Conclusion

Unlike specialized roles within a company, no single skill on its own makes a successful project manager. The position requires a resourceful and well-rounded individual who can comfortably move through all departments.

If this sounds appealing to you, then you are already on the right track!

This guide covered six different skill areas critical to becoming an effective project manager, as well as a variety of resources to help you get started.

If you are honest with yourself and believe that you would make a great PM, then mastering these skills is the next step in your career.

To learn more about project management as a whole, check out our comprehensive project management guide.