What Makes a Good Project Manager? Chicago PMs Weigh In.

Written by Alton Zenon III
Published on Nov. 23, 2020
What Makes a Good Project Manager? Chicago PMs Weigh In.
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Influencing without authority. Being an expert at time management. Thinking like an ice skater. 

These are a handful of the many traits that make for effective project managers, according to three Chicago professionals in that role. While these leaders work on wildly different projects across healthtech, design and fintech, the insights they offered center around one of the most important parts of project management: collaboration.

Being an empathetic listener and relying on expertise can help a project manager encourage stakeholders to lend greater assistance. Managing time efficiently helps keep stakeholders aligned on a product roadmap and aware of potential roadblocks. While approaching collaborative projects with the agility, grace and persistence of a skater can help a project lead evolve their knowledge.

Read on to learn more about the skills that help these PMs thrive in their roles. 


pareto intelligence Good Project Manager chicago
pareto intelligence
Jennifer de Visser
Senior Engineering Project Manager • Pareto Intelligence

Pareto Intelligence Senior Engineering Project Manager Jennifer de Visser said project leads that empathize with and understand their collaborators can sway them to buy into a project further. The leader at the data-driven healthtech solution provider said emotional intelligence can help project managers be successful without throwing authority around. 


Projects de Visser manages: My work often happens programmatically, tracking and reporting on all the projects our engineering teams work on. At their core, most of our projects tackle the problem of making sense of the mountain that is healthcare data using big data technology. There is so much healthcare data, and the sooner we can get the right data, in the right format and in the hands of the right people, the better our health outcomes as a society will be.

One recent project I’ve been working on is a service that automatically unzips and moves files on Amazon Web Services based on preset job specifications. While simple at first glance, it has been a complex problem to work on and one that has huge implications in terms of data quality and system performance.


Influencing without authority is one of the most important skills a project manager can learn.”


The most important skill for project management: Influencing without authority is one of the most important skills a project manager can learn. Over the years, I have met more than one project manager who got into the field because they wanted to be “in charge” and then quickly realized that they were not in charge of anything. Being a good project manager means encouraging someone else to do work that they might not want to do while having zero managerial authority over them. 

You can build up authority by becoming an expert on a particular topic or being seen as someone who gets results. However, these approaches take time. For a project manager in a new role, they will have to use influence until they can build up their expertise or results-oriented authority.


How to improve vital project management skills: Learning how to influence boils down to learning about emotional intelligence and honing soft skills. If I had to distill emotional intelligence down to one thing to focus on, it would be empathy. In every interaction, try to understand where someone is coming from and assume the best intentions. We often judge others based on actions but judge ourselves on our intentions. By understanding someone’s intentions, we learn to be kinder and less judgmental and gain an understanding of what motivates their behavior. If you know what motivates someone’s behavior, then you can influence them to change it.

I think there are a lot of great resources specific to project managers on a wide variety of topics related to influence and emotional intelligence: Project Management Institute and the various Agile associations all provide targeted learning materials on this topic. Personally, I’ve enjoyed reading further into organizational psychology and some of the work of Adam Grant.


Adage Technologies good project manager traits chicago
Adage Technologies
Conrad Mendelius
Senior Project Owner • Adage Technologies

Conrad Mendelius said time management is a huge part of success in his role as a senior project owner at Adage Technologies. He said his work at the e-commerce design firm relies heavily on staying well organized and efficient as he juggles keeping stakeholders happy, avoiding roadblocks and hitting deadlines.


Projects Mendelius manages: During my four years at Adage, I’ve managed web-related projects like a full website redesign, smaller UI enhancements and broader digital transformations where we recreated a client’s site and strategized on how to digitize their business model. 

I’m working on a company’s digital transformation that’s currently in its fourth year. We created a year-over-year roadmap to determine how to address the current digital concerns of end users. We’re starting an internal change-management process with staff to understand how to update site features. At the same time, we’re designing, building and launching features iteratively. We’re also working with the company’s communication team to educate employees on the overall plan and how to use the features in the most efficient manner as they launch.


Review roadmaps with clients and team members to ensure everyone knows their expectations.”


The most important skill for project management: An excellent project manager is also an expert in time management. Most, if not all, projects have multiple moving parts with different players, timelines and needs that have to be kept in mind simultaneously. Finding a way to keep track of everything with intricate planning and creative problem-solving is key to keeping everyone happy and engaged, keeping timelines on track and on budget and ensuring that any future needs are defined so they don’t hinder progress.


How to improve vital project management skills: Learn to create comprehensive roadmaps and timelines that detail all requirements, deadlines, needs and resources. Roadmaps should also call out potential risks that could affect time management. These serve as a guide for the team and push the project toward completion. Many times, roadmaps only have some of these elements, but adding specificity and detail helps ensure that all aspects of a project can be considered at all times and nothing slips through the cracks. It’s also critical to review roadmaps with clients and team members to ensure everyone knows their expectations so they can drive toward goals without ambiguity.


supernova Good Project Manager chicago
Kate Schnakenberg
Project and Program Manager • Supernova Technology

Success as a project manager is dependent on a number of factors for Kate Schnakenberg, but one’s agility and adaptability are two of the most important. The project and program manager at wealth management solution provider Supernova said she expects the unexpected and appreciates the professional growth involved in solving new challenges, all with the grace of a figure skater. 


Projects Schnakenberg manages: My role at Supernova is a combination of project and program manager. I work on projects from start to finish, touching every part of the client life cycle, from discovery to deployment. Currently, I am leading the discovery and design phase for a regional bank joining our platform. I also scope the plan for subsequent enhancements and releases. This is a fun and creative phase of projects where I figure out how we can best leverage our technology platform to serve our clients. I also look at other needs they have that might help us evolve our product.

This bank project also entails working on how to best architect a solution based on client requirements. I get to think comprehensively to create solutions and plan for new scenarios at scale. I work with my client and internal partners, taking a collaborative approach to designing and building strong solutions. Establishing strong relationships is the key to making this all work.


Being curious is an effective way to enhance one’s adaptability and agility.”


The most important skills for project management: A good project manager is adaptable and agile. You have to be able to react to the unexpected. Approach questions you have never heard before and enjoy the process of finding solutions. I think of myself almost like a professional ice skater, gliding along through twists and turns elegantly. Also like an ice skater, if I stumble, I need to get up and proceed, all while making it look effortless.


How to improve vital project management skills: Being curious is an effective way to enhance one’s adaptability and agility. Asking a lot of questions is also key to building strong relationships. With strong relationships, it’s easier to collaborate. All of these skills are related to curiosity and enable you to have the rapport needed to adapt and be agile in order to be an effective project manager.


Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies.

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