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The 5 Un-teachable Attributes of a Project Manager (PM)

Think about your circle of friends. I’ll bet at least one or two people stand out in your mind as “the organizers.” You know the ones: They’ll send out themed party invitations a month and a half before the event, and even a friendly reminder a few days prior to the party. They create a menu and hang it on their refrigerator for everyone to see. They even have Tupperware out and ready so guests can take leftover goodies home. And if one of the hot appetizers gets burned, they don’t panic; they just whip up another tasty dish in a matter of minutes. Those friends were just BORN to be project managers!

Over the years, I’ve recruited and hired individuals who would have never thought to look for a PM job without my prompting. But they had certain innate qualities, which I saw in their daily lives, that inspired me to ask, “Have you ever considered being a PM? You should! Let me tell you why you’d be a success in that job.”

Great Project Managers are Born With These Skills

Why am I bringing all this up? As you probably know all too well, in a busy in-house agency, there’s often no time to “train a PM” on “how to be a PM”. We barely have enough time to train new hires on our group’s procedures and policies, or clients’ branding guidelines, before they get assigned to a project – or even get introduced to the team they’ll be working with! So, it’s very important that you hire new talent who fully understand project management best practices and who can conduct themselves as a PM all day, every day, right from the get-go. We’re talking about talent who innately possess project management skills and aptitudes.

The 5 Qualities a Project Manager Must Possess

Here are 5 difficult-to-teach, intrinsic qualities that a PM must possess to drive the success of your group. Examples are provided to clarify how those qualities might show up at work.

1. Orderliness: Juggling multiple projects with many stakeholders requires excellent organizational and planning skills.

The client calls an early morning Monday meeting with all the creative agencies involved in a new drug launch. She explains that the FDA has approved the new product early – which means the teams must mobilize immediately and provide printed materials to the sales representatives in just two weeks! The project manager sets up an internal team meeting with all individuals who will participate in any and all phases of the launch. She then creates a spreadsheet that details a step-by-step plan including tactics, due dates, compliance requirements, team member responsibilities, etc.– as well as daily check-in meetings, from project initiation through delivery and job closeout.

2. Tenacity: A PM must have the ability to remain steadfast in achieving project goals, yet flexible enough to allow for changes in process (brought on by a sudden shift in the scope of the project, or unplanned internal challenges, for example).

A client calls to change the scope of a time-sensitive job and explains that the due date can’t be moved. The PM respectfully accepts the change in direction, negotiates a change order with the client and then mobilizes the creative and account team to discuss how to revise the plan of action in order to fill the client’s new request.

3. Diplomacy: The roles of peacekeeper, negotiator and mediator are all part of the PM’s responsibilities as liaison for all creative team and client-side project stakeholders.

The account lead reviews the creative concepts for a highly strategic job and isn’t pleased with any of the options. He asks that a new creative team be assigned to the project, but the client presentation date is still firm. The project manager documents the account lead’s feedback and calls an internal meeting with the creative leadership team to explain the account lead’s request. The project manager respectfully explains that although the initial team provided great concepts, other members of the creative team may be able to offer a different approach. A new team is assigned, provides additional creative concepts, and the account lead chooses two to present to the client on the previously agreed-upon date.

4. Poise: In a fast-paced agency environment where the creatives are emotionally invested in their work and clients can be demanding and inexperienced in working with an in-house agency, composure and self-control are critical.

The production manager receives the press proof of a business-critical ad for a drug being launched in a few weeks. She notices that the wrong logo appears in the ad. The project manager is called in to inform the client that the ad will not run. Remaining calm, the project manager talks with the production manager about any possible ways to still meet the deadline. They discover that the publication actually offers submission extensions. Therefore the file can be fixed and re-released in time for print. The deadline will not be missed.

5. Candor: Honesty, and respectful, clear and accurate communication require a degree of courage and objectivity when addressing project-critical challenges.

A client insists during the intake meeting that the poster she’s asked the agency to create does not require medical/legal review and can therefore be developed and released more quickly. The project manager knows that this assumption is incorrect and puts the project at risk of noncompliance. Realizing that she needs to be candid, but respectful and supportive of the client’s position, the PM explains that, based on the standard operating procedure, review is required. The PM offers other ways to meet the tight deadline while ensuring compliance.

Final Thoughts

The project management team is absolutely critical to the successful execution of every in-house agency project. Therefore, when hiring your project management team, remember that although process can be taught and skills can be honed, arguably, the most important and basic project management skills are intrinsic and difficult to establish in individuals who don’t innately possess a PM mindset. So set your team up for success by taking your time to hire resources who can hit the ground running and offer powerful support to both your team and your agency’s clients.


Danielle Karpinski

Danielle Karpinski, the Project Management Team Lead within the Cella studio at Merck, has been in advertising and marketing for more than 20 years. She began her career as a Traffic Coordinator at CommonHealth, quickly earning account management roles on a succession of new drug launches. She's worked at Novartis, InVentiv Health and EarthColor. Most recently Danielle was the Account Lead for the Diabetes Franchise at Bristol-Myers Squibb's in-house creative agency. It was in that position that she realized her passion for creative operations. She focuses her attention on routinely rethinking workflows, embracing new project management tools, training and driving best in class customer service.

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