Close your eyes and imagine: you’ve been set the task of leading an expedition team through the desert. How do you go about it and prepare? Most importantly, what will you need along the way?

It may seem I’m exaggerating (slightly), but I’ll still say it: project management in the translation industry is a lot like trekking through the Sahara, and to survive you’ll need a fail-safe set of skills to get you through all that sun, sand, and dehydration, scorching heat and waiting predators… and get your team through to the other side in one piece.

So, let’s take a (virtual) box and fill it with everything that a translation project manager (TPM) needs to get the job done!

  1. Communication

In the desert and the office alike, you need to tell your teammates what to do, where to go, when to stop, communicate your progress, shout to alert others of danger, and listen when they do the same. Therefore, the first item we’ll pack is a good old-fashioned loudspeaker, just like the ones you hear at rallies and demonstrations.

It might seem superfluous to talk about communication as a staple skill – after all, these are LANGUAGE services – but the opposite is proved if you delve a little below the surface. The fact that someone’s a polyglot doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be good at communicating their thoughts. Since almost 90% of a TPM’s time is spent communicating, they should be able to convey vision, ideas, goals, and issues effectively—as well as produce plans, reports and presentations, and demonstrate a host of other skills.

  1. Leadership

As a desert-trekking TPM, you’re not only responsible for reaching the end, but also leading your team through the desert. You need to know what is essential for completing the task, and also what each team member in turn will find troublesome, challenging or downright impossible in the course of the journey. You need to be adept at motivating and mediating, providing direction and vision for your team.

This surely warrants a nicely-rolled flag to be lowered into our box.

  1. Negotiation

Although negotiation might be thought of as a subset of communication skills, it takes up so much of a TPM’s daily life that it deserves a category of its own. It’s not just the use of resources, budgets, schedules, scope creep, and other unavoidable compromises, but also demands from vendors, disputes among team members, and many other situations whereby the goal moves further away if you fall into the quicksand of indecision or inaction.

A piece of rope goes into our box as a requirement for this particular skill, either for a friendly tug-of-war or some tightrope walking.

  1. Organisation

TPMs are unlikely to be successful if they are sloppy, forgetful or messy, what with juggling so many different tasks every day. Back to our desert allegory: our team’s progressed quite nicely so far, but somebody’s had to keep track of sleeping arrangements, procurement of essentials, food and water rationing. They’ve had to track progress and measure this against the remainder of the journey, so as to ensure that the destination is reached on time. We all have our own ways of staying organized, but surely a clipboard wouldn’t go amiss? Into the box!

  1. Risk management

Many projects miss deadlines or exceed budgets and expected scope due to unforeseen circumstances. Planning a project, big or small, comes with risk as part of the baggage.  Problem-solving, even before issues arise, therefore involves backup plans and alternatives to cover all possible complications. If the expedition leader has not envisaged, for example, particularly dangerous areas inhabited by predators, or the likelihood that water levels might drop significantly, it’s not very likely that our courageous team will complete the expedition. Let’s add a compact umbrella to the box, as a symbol of prediction+prevention.

  1. IT

Although it could be argued that this is required knowledge, I would say that a natural inclination towards an IT-way of thinking, and a level of comfort when it comes to handling gadgetry, is a big part of one’s skill-set. Nowadays, most TPMs need to deal with several tools, at best. Translation tools and PM tools include the most obvious, alongside dealing with troubleshooting issues when (and not if) they arise from translators, clients, team members. Without a compass and a GPS system, how would our brave TPM navigate the Sahara of translation enquiries? Into the box they go!

  1. Stress management

Regardless of how well an expedition’s been planned, there are always obstacles to overcome along the way. A good TPM will never panic or lose their head when things go wrong – at least not visibly. Instead, they will remain calm, assess the problem, and find the best way to resolve it in order to put the project back on track.

Any swearing, flapping, or excessive sweating should be done in private, if at all, since it’s important to put one’s own health and wellbeing first. Grab a stress ball and lower it gently into the box.

  1. Sense of humor

No, of course you don’t need to be the office clown, but a sense of humor provides a different perspective, one which can decrease stress in the workplace and improve morale among team-mates. A good, loud, shared bout of laughter can certainly help you feel better. So, let’s not box the smile, but wear it daily!

  1. Attention to detail

Last, but not least, would a TPM fail to notice tiny little details that may make or break a successful project? Let’s do a quick test: how many of you noticed that 6 is missing from the bullet points in this article? A magnifying glass for your troubles!

Every one of us has a different “survival kit” with an entirely unique skill-set inside, featuring our own peculiar mannerisms, quirks and idiosyncrasies (not to mention endless cups of coffee) but what matters most is how we apply these to become more effective TPMs, valued colleagues, and better people!

Published in The Elia Handbook for Smart PMs