Choosing the Right Project Manager: Linking Personality Traits to Successful Projects

Phyllis Kulkarni

So your company has a great new capital project that the business is anxious to get underway. If the project is a success, it will increase the company’s market share in a competitive market. The company must decide who it will tap to serve as the project manager, a decision that should not be made lightly.

With so much at stake—how should the organization decide who should lead? They could leave it up to fate—“Well, he was walking by my office at the time and isn’t leading another project”—but we all know this approach is not ideal. However, the leader may feel he or she has a firm understanding of what is required to lead the the project successfully:

“Jerry’s a solid project manager, but he doesn’t work well under schedule pressure—we’ll need to assign someone else to this rush job.”

“This project has so many stakeholders…. Let’s assign Lisa, she gets along with everybody.”

Sure, the approaches above are much better than choosing the project manager solely based on availability. However, they are hardly scientific.

What Project Manager Characteristics Drive Success?

IPA and many of our clients felt there had to be a better way to choose the project manager best suited to lead a particular capital project. A wealth of IPA data shows all project managers, regardless of experience or background, benefit from robust work processes and an optimal organizational approach. But IPA’s clients wanted to dig deeper. Clients asked: “How do we match the right talent with the right job?” and “What specific Project Manager characteristics have a proven link with project success?”

So in 2016, IPA Senior Analysts David Purzer and Jon Walker conducted research on What Makes an Effective Project Leader, published at IPA’s 2016 Industry Benchmarking Consortium (IBC). The study surveyed over 250 Project Managers whose projects IPA had previously evaluated. This allowed them to connect the attributes measured by the survey—which covered work experience, educational background, and even a personality test—with project outcomes, including whether the project came in on budget and on schedule, whether it was competitive in terms of cost and schedule (lower cost and/or faster than peer projects), and whether it met technical objectives. In a number of cases, IPA had evaluated multiple projects from the same Project Manager, allowing IPA to observe how managers mature over their career and establish a robust link between Project Manager characteristics and project outcomes.

Before sharing the findings, it is important to emphasize that several hundred Project Managers were willing to share information with IPA about their education, take a quiz to assess their emotional intelligence and personality traits, and provide details about their work history. This is a testament of our clients’ confidence in two critical areas: (1) that IPA will maintain their private information in the strictest confidentiality and (2) that IPA will use this data to generate well-founded, critical research that will benefit their careers and the success of their companies’ capital projects. Thank you again to all those Project Managers who participated!

Key Research Takeaways

Now, to share a few highlights from questions the study investigated and answered:

  • Is it more beneficial for project managers to have experience in other functions, such as operations and construction management, before moving into project management?
    The study found a link between project managers with construction management experience and better project outcomes. Interestingly, the benefit varied considerably by function and type of project. This means construction management experience is more critical for certain types of projects, whereas experience in a technical function may be more beneficial in other scenarios.
  • Should project managers have experience delivering small projects before they are assigned to working on a major capital project?
    The study found that the ideal personality profile for an effective project manager for large projects looks quite different than the effective profile for small projects, specifically in the area of leadership and management styles. For instance, project managers for large projects are more tuned into the use of engineering deliverables in identifying design mistakes. A small project leader, in contrast, recognized that their time is better spent on project management tasks and not necessarily involving themselves in engineering activities. This suggests that to effectively transfer a project manager from small projects to large projects, his/her leadership style must evolve accordingly.
  • What personality traits are most commonly found in successful project managers?
    As expected, the study found that successful project managers for both cost-driven and schedule-driven projects tend to be highly vigilant. More noteworthy is that project managers for successful cost-driven projects tend to be optimists, whereas for schedule-driven projects, it is more beneficial for the project manager to have good control of emotions and value innovation/creativity. Also, project managers better suited to lead schedule-driven projects are better at fostering a “team mindset” to support guiding the project through the work process.

These are just a few snippets from the study, one of the top-rated studies IPA has produced based on IBC member-company feedback. The study gave participating companies an objective framework for matching the right person to the right job, a new way to think about the strengths particular project managers can bring to a capital project, and a set of guidelines that can be used for strategic development of individuals and the project management workforce at large. The study was so well received, IPA has developed a tool to help project leaders take the guesswork out of selecting the “right” project manager, conducted similar research study in  focusing on Construction Managers, and has published a related book, Leading Complex Projects, written by IPA’s Edward Merrow and Neeraj Nandurdikar.

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