Improving soft skills

A former student wrote to me: “After three years of working as a software developer for a company, I got promoted to project manager. I am happy but also worried because I do not know what do I need to succeed in this new position. Please advise.”

Answer: Project management is about having “half” technical skills and “half” soft skills. A good project manager knows how to work with customers to get requirements, plan a project accordingly with good estimates, and reasonable schedule, and how to build an effective team who commit to making the project succeed. In another word, an effective project management is a balance of technical skills and soft skills. Besides the technical aspects, the project manager should be able to create good working relations among all team members, so everyone is working toward a common goal: To complete the project on time, within cost, and with quality.

Many people believe technical skills are an important factor for a management position and promote people with high technical skills without considering their soft skills. Even with technical skills such as managing the project’s scope, costs, risks, and schedule, but without soft skills such as leadership, communication, negotiation, conflict management, and motivation, the project may not succeed. In my experience, the key challenge for a project manager is the management of people, not technical. A strong team can overcome many technical problems, but a weak team, full of problems and conflict, will never achieve the project goals, regardless of how easy they are.

If you have not developed the soft skills yet, you need to read books about this topic to have a basic idea to help you improving your skills. But remember that you do not develop soft skills from reading books but by practice. You must be willing to change yourself if you lack some skills. Once you know your weaknesses, it is necessary for you to reflect on what you have learned from these books and take necessary action to change yourself. No one is perfect, but if you are willing to put in the effort to change yourself, even it may be uncomfortable, you will develop that soft skills.

As a new project manager, you should observe other successful managers in your company and see what you can learn from them. You need to learn about communication skills, motivation skills, organization and coordination skills. You can also observe some managers who do not have these soft skills. They are the ones who are unwilling to face a challenge, or unable to manage their team properly. These are managers who are always busy in meetings, to keep themselves busy and often get angry about small things. There are a lot to learn just by observation, to see the good skills to follow as well as the bad things to avoid, but you need to put what you learn into practice as it takes the time to change and develop these skills.

To continue to move up a management career, you need strong leadership skills. Leadership is different from management; it requires different knowledge, different skills to achieve a different purpose. Management deals with the present when leadership deals with the future. Management deals with the schedule and costs when leadership deals with people. Management deals with facts and data when leadership deals with ideas and vision. While leadership is not something you learn from books but you need to be patient because the time that you invest in improving your leadership will be worth the efforts.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University