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7 habits of highly effective project managers

Air traffic controller, master of ceremonies, and therapist in one, a PM can easily feel overwhelmed. Here are pro tips to keep you stress-free—and at the top of your game.

group talks at a whiteboard

Great project managers are the unheralded stars of every successful organization. PMs might not be the ones doing the creative work that make clients smile, but they ensure work gets done well, on-time, and efficiently. They see problems before they become problems, build highly functional units, and boost the bottom line across the board.

We asked two experts in project management and organizational philosophy to share their top tips for highly effective project managers.

1. Get people bonding

Two women laughing with coffee

In this async age of remote offices, team members and clients can feel isolated and alone. There’s no water cooler chitchat, no spontaneous drinks after work, no grousing about shared pet peeves. So make it your job to build time for the team to bond.

“Personal relationships are an important bonding instrument in collaborative environments,” says Dr. Barbara Edington, the director of the Center of Excellence in Project Management and professor in the Management and Information Technology Department at St. Francis College. At Dropbox, for example, our writers have a virtual Friday afternoon happy hour. They gab about their weeks, share what they’re reading, have a drink, and connect as humans—not co-workers.

The person whose idea it was? A PM.

When it comes to involving your clients with a personal touch, consider sending brief videos with kick-off notes, status updates, and post-mortems. (Dropbox Capture makes this a snap!) That way, they can get a feel for team members’ personalities and styles.

2. Establish a decision-making process

Inevitably, questions arise—from the team, the clients, and everyone in between. A good PM establishes concrete rules around how to answer them, and how to make decisions in general.

Cornelius Fichtner, host of the Project Management Podcast, suggests having “a governance structure in place that says, 'These type of decisions can be made by the product manager; these types of decisions have to be escalated to a board; these decisions need to be escalated to the project sponsor.'"

“Understanding who decides what will help build trust," he adds. Using a DACI framework is one way to establish who is responsible for making the final decision as well as who is involved on what level.

Dr. Edington adds, “Make sure that the work flow associated with each task is understood in terms of the individuals who are responsible for those tasks.” (Read: Stay in your lane.)

3. Focus on individual connections


Two women sitting with laptop

A team is only as good as the bonds between individual members. Leaders should work to create strong units that will reinforce one another's strengths and cover for any weaknesses. Sometimes, that means dialing down the size of the team.

"Project leaders must focus on the collaboration between highly skilled individuals rather than attempting to blend [them] together into one big 'team,’” Dr. Edington explains. Why? You don’t want to minimize individuals’ strong suits, she explained, and—crucially—lose ”the feeling of responsibility.”

Consider using a flow chart to show how solo expertise fits into the overall project and connects to others’ expertise, using team member’s names rather than generic departments to reinforce a sense of individual responsibility and accountability. (Nothing like a little flattery to get everyone’s attention!)

4. Develop an air traffic control plan

Think about the assets involved with a typical project: There could be dozens of documents, images, videos, or wireframes. A fantastic project manager will visualize the work flow, making sure contractors have signed on the dotted line, the designer has the correct assets, the developer has the right files, and the creative director can review everything at the proper time. Ideally, you have a one-stop shop like Dropbox where you can send contracts for eSignatures, organize assets, and transfer them securely.

5. Master scheduling—and create a master schedule

Woman sitting with tablet

You are air traffic control. In this global world of remote employment, being able to work in an asynchronous fashion is essential. Project managers must understand when team members are working, and whether their work hours overlap with the right teammates—and keep an eye on the overall picture.

“You need to be savvy in virtual project management, in being able to read a virtual room, and understand how it's going,” Fichtner says.

Being on top of schedules will ensure someone in Boston isn’t waiting for an answer while their Singapore counterpart is fast asleep. The right products will help: Dropbox makes it easy for Mary in Boston to mark up a file or include a personalized video that Brian in Singapore can review when he wakes up. It’s a way for all the questions and answers to live in one place, and for their manager in L.A. to review their work, too.

As for you, consider a good old-fashioned white board so you can tell at a glance who’s working on what and whether it’s done. (Doing this digitally? Consider color coding.) And—if it’s possible—establish a standing time when everyone can check in and ask questions.

6. Request feedback

At the end of the day, a PM—emotional leader, consigliere, friend, coach, and manager—keeps everything together. Confidence in their team, tech, and tools fuels their success.

Conversely, for the team to be great, the PM needs to be great. That means getting feedback from your crew, and constantly trying to improve.

"Get feedback from your team individually, never as a group,” Dr. Edington says. “Go to each team member and ask, ‘How am I doing?’ and, ‘How can I make your job easier?’”

Chatting in a one-on-one rather than a group setting will help ensure that people feel comfortable giving honest feedback, says Dr. Edington. Creating a safe space for people to speak their minds should also improve the team’s functionality overall.

7. Study top leaders (and poor ones, too)

Whose work do you admire? Take a close look at successful and—more importantly—dysfunctional teams and leaders. They don’t have to be project managers or even in your industry, but can be basketball coaches, CEOs, classroom teachers, engineers, or fashion designers.

"Observe, observe, observe,” Dr. Edington says. “What elements did they do well and what did they do poorly?” Study their work, then consider how you can mimic them to help your team be creative and action-oriented.

By building better habits, practicing them, and using Dropbox tools, PMs can do more than just survive: They can thrive. Simpler processes and more efficient workflows don’t need to be just a pipe dream, and project management doesn't have to be a chore. Make it a pleasure.