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Project management careers are increasingly promoted, and a McKinsey survey lists project management skills, along with leadership and managing others, as well as critical thinking and decision making, as the skills that companies are increasingly focussed on.

Before you ask how to become a project manager, you may wonder whether project management is the right career for you. So, how do you know whether you should become a project manager?

Before we discuss the characteristics of successful project managers, it is important to note that you need not meet all the characteristics to venture into a project management career. The characteristics and skills required by project managers depend to a large extent on the complexity of the projects managed, and project managers typically start their careers on less complex projects. Furthermore, the ideal project manager does not exist – and even the most successful project managers who manage major projects do not fully meet every single requirement.

Only if you prefer a routine job to dynamic situations where you have to venture into the unknown, should you discard the idea of a project management career.

7 characteristics of successful project managers

The book Project Management for Engineering, Business and Technology by John M Nicholas and Herman Steyn discusses business, technical, and interpersonal skills required by project managers. It also quotes the following list of personal characteristics essential for project managers:

  1. Being flexible and adaptable,
  2. Preference for initiative and leadership,
  3. Confidence, persuasiveness, verbal fluency,
  4. Effective communicator and integrator,
  5. Able to balance technical solutions with time, cost, and human factors,
  6. Well-organized and disciplined,
  7. Generalist rather than specialist.

In addition, project managers must also “be able to handle the pressure of constant deadlines, great uncertainty, startups and closeouts, and constant changes in goals, tasks, people, and relationships.”

According to Prof Jeffrey K. Pinto, project managers must furthermore have “the ability to understand the importance of organizational politics and how to make them work for project success.”

What work does a project manager do?

The work done by project managers differs greatly depending on the type of project. Even on an individual project, the kind of work typically varies over the project's lifecycle. However, “…being [a project manager] requires wearing different hats, some at the same time; they are the hats of an integrator, communicator, decision maker, motivator, evangelist, and entrepreneur” (Nicholas & Steyn).

How can project management courses help you be an effective project manager?

According to Prof Herman Steyn, project management courses can play a significant role in developing the appropriate skills, but practical experience is also essential.

Project management is relevant in various environments, from national elections to the development and implementation of business solutions and from building large facilities such as dams or power stations to managing relatively modest events. Despite this, underlying principles and skills essential for all projects exist, and that is what is taught in leading project management courses.

Managing major projects is often a second career for individuals who cut their teeth in a specific field, such as business, healthcare, engineering, construction, IT, government, telecommunications, or mining. This is because a senior project manager needs a firm grasp of the specific project's technical aspects and the environment within which the project is executed. Although project managers seldom perform specialized technical work, they must be competent in integrating different disciplines and making technical judgments.

In major projects, the project manager must clearly understand the business environment and the purpose of the specific project. Prof Bent Flyvbjerg explains that successful major projects always have a team that clearly understands their purpose and always keeps one eye on how their actions will help deliver this. The project manager is the leader of such a team.

In addition to contributing to you becoming an effective project manager, much of what is taught in comprehensive project management courses is also valuable in people’s private lives: the general, systematic thinking processes related to doing everything effectively and, more specifically, life skills associated with managing relationships with other individuals, a better understanding of risks, quality, and contractual agreements.

Where can I study project management in South Africa?

In collaboration with Enterprises University of Pretoria, the Graduate School of Technology Management (GSTM) (an Authorized Training Partner of the PMI) offers various short courses in project management – online and in-class – as well as more comprehensive project management courses such as the well-established and popular Programme in Project Management (PPM). Some people who have completed this programme (and have the requisite project management experience) further their credentials by obtaining international recognition as a PMP (a Project Management Professional). A PMP Exam Prep short course is offered to prepare such candidates for the examination related to the PMP designation.


Companies and other employers increasingly value project management skills, and if what we mention in this article interests you, now is the time to take action and enrol in a project management course.

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The PPM is recognized by the following:

  1. PMI (Project Management Institute) – USA and Globally
  2. ECSA (Engineering Council of SA)
  3. SACPCMP (South African Council for the Project and Construction Management Professions)
  4. SACNASP (South African Council for Natural Scientific Professionals)
  5. PMSA (Project Management South Africa)

On successful completion of the PPM, suitable candidates may be eligible to apply for the professional designation of Project Manager (PM) conferred by Project Management South Africa (PMSA). PMSA is the SAQA recognized professional body representing the interests of project managers across sectors.

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Prof Herman Steyn

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