The Key Attribute of a Project Manager

I recently enjoyed a discussion on the key attribute of project managers. It started from a conversation about whether a project manager should just do what they were told, or if they should do their best to deliver the greatest value and benefits to the organization. I am biased towards sustainable project management, so the following two interesting and not mutually exclusive observations were focused on. The image above came from the fact that I believe being entrepreneurial and political may be interpreted as two sides of the same coin.

Just for reference purposes, there are many words that could be used like characteristic, criterion, differentiator, focus, feature, hallmark, mark, property, quality, trait, but I chose attribute: a quality, character, or characteristic ascribed to someone or something (Merriam Webster).


One perspective came from a Corporate Executive Board (CEB) Project Management Office (PMO) Executive Council report entitled “Making Your PMO Adaptive – A PM–Led Approach to Delivering Business Outcomes”, 2011. It recommended evaluating organizational talent to determine which project managers are Entrepreneurs, Process-Crats, Apprentices, and Laggards (this post is not advocating for this categorization, though it is interesting). There was a suggestion to focus on hiring project management candidates that have the entrepreneurial skills that are difficult to develop such as (from page vii):

  • Stakeholder Partnership
  • Judgment
  • Risk Management
  • Team Leadership
  • Ownership and Commitment
  • Learning Agility

Furthermore, one should “…target entrepreneurial candidates in recruiting — (as) chances are that you will find enough Process-Crats to satisfy your needs while looking for” (from page vii) project management talent.

Figure 1: Resulting Segmentation Model Reveals Performance Segments, from page 30


The rational was that entrepreneurial project managers had a higher chance of meeting or exceeding expectations, which by definition is more sustainable:

Figure 2: Segmentation is a Powerful Performance Predictor, from page 31

Personally, I have a bias towards this perspective. Organizations are looking for project managers that will take the hill and get the job done to deliver the benefits. This follows perspectives outlined in the post “Flaws with the Iron Triangle.”



The second observation came from the 2014 IPMA Research Conference in Tianjin China. It was identified that there is a perspective in China that project managers should fundamentally be small “p” political. That is to work the system and relationships to deal with a projects continuously evolving changes and risks. In the west, we often say that programme managers should be political, often describing that as a key differentiator between project and programme managers.

I can see rationale though from the projects that I have managed over the past thirty+ years.  There have been some discussions on this, including “Project Politics” by Nita Martin. In the IPMA Individual Competence Baseline 4th Version (ICB4) politics is also frequently referenced. However, the notion that being political as a key attribute of a project manager is intriguing.


Cultural Differences

Michael Young identified an interesting observation that the entrepreneurial focus is very western and individually based, whereas the political focus is very social or eastern based. There is a fun acronym for “westerners” called WEIRD: western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (Haidt, page 112). I thought this was a telling quote:

Several of the peculiarities of WEIRD culture can be captured in this simple generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships. It has long been reported that Westerners have a more independent and autonomous concept of the self than do East Asians (Haidt, page 113).

Most people think holistically (seeing the whole context and the relationships among parts), but WEIRD people think more analytically (detaching the focal object from its context, assigning it to a category, and then assuming that what’s true about the category is true about the object) (Haidt, page 113).


Not Mutually Exclusive

A key point though, is that whether you believe that a project manager’s key attribute should be entrepreneurial or political there are interesting similarities between the two and I would argue both are applicable and sides of the same coin.

I would welcome any other feedback or perspectives. I realize there is probably no real answer to this, and it is a depends type question.



Corporate Executive Board (CEB) PMO Executive Council (2011). “Making Your PMO Adaptive – A PM–Led Approach to Delivering Business Outcomes”.

Haidt, Jonathan (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.


Peter Milsom

Peter Milsom is an entrepreneurial advocate for sensible, sustainable change delivery practice. Peter has come to realize that sustainability is the perfect catalyst for Project / Programme / Portfolio / Risk / Value / Business Case and Benefits Management improvement. As an entrepreneurial methodologist Peter's unique value proposition is the vast array of tools and techniques that he brings to every engagement using the most cost effective and efficient methods based on the situation and tailored to meet your needs. This is based on his unique combination of experience and extensive training / certifications in change delivery, value / risk / benefits management business case, and business architecture.

One thought to “The Key Attribute of a Project Manager”

  1. Interesting article, Peter. As this is long standing interest of mine, here is a link to on-going research I have been doing with Harrison Assessments, where we have been doing BEHAVIORAL PROFILING of “successful” project managers. While we have done subsequent studies to confirm the validity of the attributes of “successful” project managers, we have yet to find any company willing to participate (fund) studies to validate the behavioral profiles o the “somewhat” or “fails” expectations group.

    However, recently discovered the work of Angela Duckworth and her “GRIT Scale” and I have a strong suspicion that this is at least one of, if not THE predictor of “success” as a project manager.


    Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

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