How to Spot a Top-Shelf Project Manager

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By Christian Bisson

The number of years a project manager has been working certainly gives you a clue about his or her ability. But this isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the only information you can use to spot a project manager who is a cut above the rest.

Below are a few tips to help you assess if someone really knows their stuff. Just as you’d adapt your expectations of junior project managers to their experience, use these tips to get a sense of how “experienced” or “senior” someone really is. I’ve recently put them to good use when a project manager was temporarily hired to take my place while I was out on paternity leave.

Ready to Ask Questions

The first sign is simple. A project manager who aims to do the job correctly will proactively ask questions when planning a project, instead of delivering an asset that is incorrect. Or, the project manager will deliver the assets but will clearly state he or she was missing some information and did what he or she could as best as possible.

If you receive an asset that is supposed to be ready and yet you need to revise multiple times, you’re probably working with an inexperienced project manager.

Organized and Responsive

Being organized is a typical quality used to describe a project manager, and it’s something that should also develop throughout the years. Assuming the project manager’s workload is reasonable, here are a few clues to help spot if the person really is organized:

  • If he or she is managing multiple projects, are projects being prioritized properly?
  • Are emails sent to the project manager acted on in a timely manner, or do you have to follow up on most of them?
  • If simple, straightforward information is discussed, has it been noted or used properly, or has it been forgotten (for instance, a delivery date discussed that should be added to a schedule)?

Can Cope With Change

Change is part of project management, whether because of client requests or other issues that arise. An experienced project manager is able to adapt accordingly and drive the project forward. Ask yourself these questions about your project manager:

  • Is the team properly made aware of the changes?
  • Does the project manager remain calm at the prospect of change?
  • Are issues met with a solution-oriented approach?

Past Jobs

This is the only tip that could help assess a project manager’s experience prior to working with him or her. Although it’s a vague indication, spotting the extremes can help.

  • If project mangers worked at only one place all their career, it might indicate that they are used to the routine of that place and are inexperienced in anything else.
  • On the other hand, project managers who seem to change jobs every few months might not be well-suited for this line of work.
  • Also note that where someone worked means little; what really matters is what he or she did.

Have additional tips for judging a project manager’s abilities? Please don’t hesitate to share.

Posted by Christian Bisson on: January 26, 2016 08:08 PM | Permalink

Comments (15)

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Perfect teams exists on papers!
nice article.

I would add "not losing his cool". When I notice that a PM is getting frustrated or angry at basic obstacles, I usually suspect that he's not very experienced.


I agree, it is indeed another sure sign. Someone experienced will not be so easily shaken by obstacles.


I think another way to spot good project managers is your intuition. Do you get a sense that the person is honest and trustworthy?

The way requirements are elicited, recorded and agreed upon is an important sign. Managing the team in a coherent way is another sign.

Nice article; just may want to consider that traits/experience you are looking for in hiring an interim project manager to provide guidance on your project for a few months may be different that a full time/contract project manager for a 1 - 5 year project/program/portfolio.

It's always good to select a PM based on right fit of skillsets, for the right job, for the right customer that fits into your project culture.

I'd also like to say that many times you don't get to pick your team; you may not get to pick your PM. A PM may be assigned by the sponsor, contract manager or from a PMO or Program based on their availability, skillset and experience in the business area. A seasoned PM should be able to step into any project and make sure it stays on track for a few months until the PM returns.

Nice to see your insights here on Christian.


thanks for your feedback, it is true that someone with very specific experience could be the perfect fit for a specific role or contract.

And you are correct when specifying that a PM might be imposed either by someone or by circumstances (as it was when inspired to write this article!), but at least by properly assessing that PM's true experience, you can work around it as best as you can. For example, if you expect the work to be done poorly, you will make sure to revise the work more often or delegate simpler tasks.

In my case, since I was leaving and could not actively action on the problems, I made sure to provide proper documentation and have projects move forward as much as possible to minimize effort while I was away.

Thanks for sharing.


Good one.

good discussion...just stand on a ladder!...:)

here are some metrics re number of years experience

Well said, to add probably the project experience of the PM across multiple domains/industries and/or deliver of multiple kinds of products/service/results again across industries.

And also the various roles and responsibilities in/out of the project fraternity, he/she has held during the course of PM career.

In this case the position was a temporary one and the interim PM probably needed to hit the ground running. As such, experience and flexibility would be important criteria to assess in prospective candidates. However, I wonder - if you used the vacancy as a career development opportunity for someone with "potential" to be a future PM, would the criteria be different? How would you have assessed a less experienced person's "potential" to be a good interim PM?


very nice question.

Expectations for a less experienced PM would be lower of course, meaning that how surrounding people act should reflect those expectations.

For example, if you hire a junior PM, you expect to hold him by the hand, this means requesting to review his work at every key step (review project estimate, review schedule, etc) , follow-up more often, etc. Therefore, you plan that people can actually spend this extra time "coaching" the PM or doing a bit of extra to compensate accordingly.

In the case of a senior PM, you expect that person to know how to do the job, and might only need to provide support by sharing knowledge on how the agency works or the current ongoing projects status.

So to answer your question, I would assess the exact same way, but my expectations would be different!

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