Several hats on a rack

The Many Hats of a Project Manager

31 October 2018

Large digital projects are often complicated and require strong project management. That means having a project manager that can balance several roles while keeping the client happy and the project on track. While project managers are an integral part of any digital project, many people don’t fully understand what they do. Here are some of the many hats that project managers wear in their daily lives.

The Director

When people think of project management, they most likely think of something akin to a film director – somebody who makes sure all participants know their roles and how to complete them. Great project management requires organization, planning and being the central point of contact for all team members. Project managers need to know the status of the project at any given moment and that involves keeping an eye on a lot of moving pieces. That includes everything from schedules and budgets to deliverables and potential problems.

Project managers are also essential for making sure communication between team members and clients is understood and documented, and that isn’t something that comes easy. Without thoughtful and open communication, a project can fall apart, so it’s equally important for the project manager to listen to the client and team members as it is to give direction.

The end results, and the success thereof, are dictated by how the project manager is able to guide each person in completing their role, and weave all of the pieces into a final output.

The Tour Guide

Think back to the last time you went on a guided tour. Chances are your tour guide took you on a pre-planned route while talking you through key points along the way. They probably had the most general knowledge of the subject and focused on sharing that knowledge with everyone, while also answering questions as they came up. If anyone in the group fell behind, the tour guide slowed down the pace until that person could rejoin.

Good project managers serve a very similar role, and know that part of their job is to guide the team and client through the process, from start to finish. This includes using their knowledge and skills to navigate the right path for the project, deciding on next steps, and making decisions when something goes off track. The project manager keeps everyone moving forward while also making sure everyone is moving together as one unit.

Desk with calculator and financial documents

The Accountant

A project manager has to think about money on a daily basis, and this is just as important as any other aspect of the project. From planning how the budget will be allocated, to monitoring and reporting on its status, the project manager is responsible for making sure a project’s budget doesn’t go over. At times this means that the project manager needs to put their foot down on “scope creep” and inefficient team processes but most clients appreciate the occasional “no” if it means they won’t have any surprise invoices when the project is finished.

Many project managers don’t just manage budgets, they also create them. This involves a lot of discussions with the client and team members in order to accurately determine how much money should be allocated to a project in the first place. There is a skill to balancing a realistic budget that covers the cost of production with an affordable budget that the client will accept. A good project manager will find that balance and keep both sides happy.

The Teacher

A lot of what a project manager does involves teaching clients about the digital process and tailoring those lessons to the client’s existing level of understanding. This includes:

  • Explaining digital best practices.
  • Helping clients understand digital considerations that they may not have thought of.
  • Translating technical language (HTML, CSS, etc) into something that is easy to understand.
  • Providing rationale behind design and usability decisions.
  • Clarifying why something technically can’t be done.

Another really important part of this role is to teach clients how to think and make decisions based on data, not emotions. Often clients have a preconceived notion of how they want something to look and function, and this is usually based on the client’s personal preferences, not user data. Personal preferences are difficult to let go of, but a good project manager helps show clients how to focus on what’s best for the user and the business.

The Friend

Clients need project managers in their corner to help get them through a project. When done well, this relationship blossoms into something similar to friendship, with frequent conversations that are honest and instill confidence in the end results.  The project manager and the client become comfortable enough to share their opinions and settle into a way of working together.

The project manager is also there to offer emotional support when a client feels overwhelmed with their responsibilities, and offer emotional release when a client needs to vent frustrations about the project. Once a relationship of trust is established, project managers sometimes offer to be the client’s “excuse” if they are having problems getting their internal team to do something. For example, if a client wants their teammates to write content in a specific way but worries about pushback, they can always say the project manager asked for it that way.

While this particular post focuses on digital projects, the skill sets described can be applied to project managers in any industry.  The most successful project managers use a combination of all these roles in their work and each project will require some hats more than others. As project managers grow in their careers, the transition between these roles gets easier and relationships with clients grow stronger.

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About the author
Veronica Bagnole
Veronica Bagnole

Veronica has worked in digital marketing for 8 years and has held positions in digital agencies in the US and Great Britain. She has an MA in Globalization & Communication and spent 3 years in the Peace Corps.​

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