Project Management Skills: Which Ones Do You Need for a Job?

Project management skills are vital to an organization’s survival. Competent project managers ensure that complex projects are completed on deadline and within a set budget, a monumental task that requires a diverse skill set. Expert project managers don’t just have the right technical skills for the job—they’re also masters of “soft skills” such as time management, problem solving, and ensuring all team members do their best work.

Which project management skills do project managers actually need to succeed in their roles, especially in a technical context? While the required knowledge can vary from industry to industry (for example, a project manager who works on healthcare-technology products must know how HIPPA works), there are some baseline skills—such as customer service, quality management, scheduling, and budgeting—that can serve project managers in pretty much any context. Let’s dig into the product management skills that matter!

Key Project Management Skills

Lightcast (formerly Emsi Burning Glass) collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, which gives it unique insight into the skills that employers want for a particular job. It divides these skills into three categories:

Distinguishing skills (advanced skills called for occasionally) truly differentiate candidates applying for various roles. As you might expect, there’s a lot of education and training necessary to master these.

Defining skills are the skills needed for day-to-day tasks in many roles.

Necessary skills are the lowest barrier to entry; they are also skills that are often found in other professions, providing a springboard for people to launch into a new project management career. 

For project managers, those categories break into the following:

What can we conclude from this list? At its most fundamental level, project management is a job of human relations and leadership skills—any good project manager will know how to manage customers, team members, and senior management. Beyond that, it’s a matter of controlling the project’s flow and resources, which is why so many job postings call out budgeting, scheduling, and planning as defining skills.

At its highest level (i.e., the distinguishing skills), project management demands knowledge of specialized tools and techniques such as JIRA. (For the purposes of this tech-focused article, we can safely ignore “Construction management” on the list of distinguishing skills.) If you’re focused on a particular area of tech, such as machine learning or mobile app development, you’ll also need to be familiar with the related tools, frameworks, methodologies, and more—you might not have to actually code a model or app yourself, but you’ll need to be familiar with how team members do their jobs.

What is a Successful Project Manager?

What makes a successful project manager? According to CIO.com, the best project managers are “stakeholder-focused,” more than happy to give credit to others, good at motivation, invested in the team’s success, accountable, really good at communicating, and able to work effectively in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Meanwhile, a research paper on the site of the Project Management Institute (which knows a little something about this kind of thing), suggests successful project managers know how to re-evaluate a changing situation; prevent their teams from becoming overloaded and overstretched; see the big picture (including what they don’t know), and work to secure “buy in” for new initiatives from team members and senior leadership.

A lot of this boils down to the project manager’s ability to ask good questions, which is a key way (perhaps the key way) to draw out the information they need to make informed decisions. A questioning mindset is also a proactive one: the best project managers will go out and find the information they need to best serve the project. Once they have that data, they can apply the rest of their skill set to overcoming the challenges at hand.

Project Management Skills During Job Interviews

Given everything mentioned above, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that hiring managers and recruiters for project manager positions will drill down into a job candidate’s ability to communicate, lead, and solve problems with incomplete information. When you’re prepping for a project manager interview, you’ll need to ensure you have stories that describe how you used your communication and team skills to deliver results and overcome obstacles.

Managing team members and resolving conflicts are areas of focus for hiring managers everywhere. “As a project manager, you must work with a variety of stakeholders throughout the organization, people who have a variety of personalities. Some are easygoing and some are [more challenging to work with],” Patrick Ryan, senior IT delivery manager for Kelly, recently told Dice. “They want to know how you work with difficult stakeholders.”

Some sample questions that pop up during project manager interviews include:

  • What are some of the types of projects that you’ve managed?
  • What kinds of technologies did you use with these projects?
  • “Tell me about a time a project went off-course and how you fixed it.”

Depending on the job, you’ll likely also field technical questions, including how you’ve solved past problems or approached project setup. Hiring managers will want to make sure you fully understand any technologies involved.

When writing your project manager resume, you should likewise ensure that you list all relevant project management skills (as well as any certifications that prove you have those skills). Coursework is likewise important, as it will show that you’re dedicated to elevating your project management skills while learning new ones. Above all, keep in mind that an ideal resume will show how your project-management experiences have ultimately translated into measurable success for the company—don’t be afraid to list (briefly) how your projects had a positive impact on strategy and outcomes.