Project portfolio managers require distinctly different skills to project managers, so finding a candidate with the appropriate skill-set is crucial for the performance of the whole portfolio and organisation. A portfolio manager needs to be less focused on the tactical management of each project and more oriented toward the whole picture, identifying opportunities, driving growth and anticipating risks in order to deliver on a portfolio’s objectives.
The ideal project portfolio manager needs to combine different skills. In this post we will discuss the responsibilities of a portfolio director and the ten most relevant skills that they should bring to the table.
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What are the responsibilities of a portfolio manager?
According to Gartner, the discipline of project portfolio management is composed of functional areas:
Business strategy planning
Creation of the portfolio
Evaluation of the portfolio
Balance of the portfolio
Communication of the portfolio
Evaluation of the portfolio
Unlike external projects for clients, which are relatively independent from each other, internal IT projects are very complex, since almost all technologies used within the organisation are interrelated, and their performance is subject to pressure with each new change. For this reason, the portfolio manager must ensure that IT teams maximise their efficacy and focus their efforts on the technological systems that best support the productive part of the business.
The 10 key competences of the portfolio manager
The soft skills of a portfolio manager are like those of a project manager, only their impact becomes much more relevant. The difference between the two profiles lies in the scale and importance of the decisions the managers have to make. If a project manager makes mistakes, their project suffers. But if a portfolio manager makes mistakes, the entire organisation suffers, which will mean a loss of competitiveness.
A project manager must be able to follow a very rigorous methodology while attending to all the aspects of people management that make the project a headache. Portfolio managers, on the other hand, need to have deep technical knowledge to perform their job, which includes the coordination of project managers and exchanging technical opinions with them.
The methodological aspect should be combined with very clear organisational leadership. This means that the portfolio manager must be able to make quick and well-informed decisions based on the information at their disposal. For this, you need a good PPM system for project and portfolio management and planning.
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1. Decision making
Of course, a project manager cannot be an indecisive person. A project manager can plan to the smallest detail in a limited area of responsibility to understand the consequences of a particular risk, so their decisions always have a technical outlook. On the other hand, a portfolio manager must make decisions that usually affect people around them: each time a project is cancelled there is a sponsor that is affected, in addition to a project manager and a whole team that has to be reassigned. These decisions tend to create a dilemma between short- and long-term gains, internal balances and business priorities, so a very balanced mind is needed to be able to take decisions cooly and without biases.
2. Competitve spirit
It is recommended that a portfolio manager promotes a culture of internal competition intended to stimulate project teams. Of course, it is important to keep control of motivation levels, since internal competition can clearly affect the emotional health of the organisation if it starts to translate into envy, quarrels or political disputes.
The internal competition should be well directed. The objective is never to promote confrontation, but to stimulate the improvement and the performance of the teams involved, promoting excellence as a value and associating it with the identity of the organisation. In the case of external competition, this type of corporate culture translates into an advantage over competitors.
3. Entrepreunarial spirit
The portfolio manager must be a person open to new ideas and constant transformation. In a paradigm that adopts portfolio management according to agile principles, it is especially important for the portfolio to be subject to constant scrutiny for identifying those “unicorn seeds” that can appear at any time.
4. Emotional intelligence
Sadly, many managers are excellent at decision-making and analysing complex financial data with a practical approach, but are unable to connect with their teams.
Empathy is an essential emotional characteristic for every portfolio manager. When your decisions directly impact project managers and their teams, anticipating the emotional reactions of those affected and finding formulas for motivation is as important as making the right decisions. Otherwise, they risk losing authority and leadership.
Portfolio managers must face the harshness of their decisions and be able to justify them with fair arguments. Hiding behind the decisions of a committee, the emails of the secretary or the agenda it is not advisable or effective.
Of course, communication must be proactive. Otherwise, the people in the organisation will never have enough information about the current strategy, what is expected of them and how they should collaborate to make the management’s plans a reality.
6. Proactivity and agility
It is obvious that a portfolio manager cannot wait for the bad news happen. If there is a chance that a strategic project won’t achieve the expected results, the portfolio manager must be the first to know. For this, it is essential that project managers understand and extend a culture of transparency in which the failure of a project is not (necessarily) seen as a personal failure, but as an opportunity to rectify, learn and face a new challenge.
7. Independence and impartiality
No matter how intelligent, successful and far-sighted, a portfolio manager loses all credibility if they give ground to favouritism.
To avoid this, it is useful that the manager recognises the biases that exist, identifying any colleagues they may be inclined to lend preference to, and recognising that it is at least possible to make decisions that moderate the natural predisposition and maintain independence.
8. Analytical ability and numerical intelligence
Although this list includes mostly soft skills and character traits, it is worth remembering that a strong portfolio manager, beyond the methodologies in project management, should have the ability to analyse swiftly, interpreting statistics and KPIs in a matter of seconds and detecting relationships between parameters.
In short, hiring a big data enthusiast as a portfolio manager is be a good idea.
Sometimes a portfolio manager must make hard decisions whose consequences are hard to bear for everyone, including the manager. On other occasions, abstract decisions are made but fail to be translated into real actions or put into practice.
A portfolio manager must be able to deal with resistance to change and maintain their decisions.
From all the previous points in the list, it may seem that a portfolio manager should be a kind of business genius, full of virtues and without any defect. Of course, no one is perfect and even the most brilliant of project experts will make mistakes, again and again. For that reason, a slightly less “brilliant” mind whose decisions can be swayed because of the ability to recognise mistakes is preferable than a superstar of project management that does not change course once the decision has been made.
In fact, the nature of portfolio management consists precisely in rectifying in time; and that sometimes means to undo your own decisions.