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Skills of an Effective Contract Manager

Skills of an Effective Contract Manager

Business professional looks over the details of a contract before signing it.

Last Updated March 7, 2024

Contract management isn’t done by rote. Each contract has its own particulars whether they come from the legal, business or personnel side — or all three.

“It’s not cookie-cutter,” said Christie Harris, MA, a contracting professional and adjunct professor in Villanova University’s Contract Management program. Every situation is different and it’s up to the contract manager to “find the most advantageous way” for your organization, Harris said.

The skills necessary to be an effective contract manager are varied, reflecting the amount of detail that goes into creating and administering a contract.

As Harris put it, “You’re wearing a lot of hats.”

Legal and Financial Knowledge Are Key

Contract managers must be well-versed and up to date on any legal issues that their contract may involve, Harris said. Particularly for contracting professionals who work for or with the U.S. government, this means knowing the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) System, which establishes guidelines for the government’s purchase or lease of services and goods.

Another role contract managers play, Harris said, is business adviser. Contract managers seek the most advantageous terms for the client but also must make them agreeable to both parties.

Contracting professionals who work for the government have the additional duty of “being a fiduciary steward of the taxpayer’s dollar,” Harris said. That means trying to “get the best bang for the government’s dollar” by encouraging competition among service providers in order to keep costs as low as possible.

Fortunately, contract managers usually have legal and business professionals in their organization to whom they can go to for guidance.   

“No contracting officer works in a vacuum,” Harris said. “It’s teamwork. They work with technical specialists, policy analysts and budget managers.”

Communication Skills Go Both Ways

Being a good communicator is essential for effective contract managers, Harris said. While that includes being able to write and speak clearly, sometimes it means staying quiet.

“You have to listen to the contractor, you have to listen to your COR (contracting officer representative), you have to listen to the government customer, you have to listen to know what is going on,” Harris said.

Communication also means staying current with industry and legal developments. Clear communication with outdated information amounts to nothing.

“Training, going to classes, seminars, conferences,” Harris said, “make sure you’re staying sharp with your skills.”

Math skills can aid effective communication as well. Contract managers sometimes develop cost and/or price analysis reports, as taught in Villanova’s Certificate in Contract Management program. Math skills come into play as the contract manager charts monthly sales and answers stakeholders’ questions regarding profits and spending.

Ethics and Documentation

Harris said ethical behavior includes “not doing anything that even looks improper.”

Clandestine meetings with contractors and sharing information that’s private or classified are obvious breaches of ethics that must be avoided. Beyond that, ethics include “documenting everything appropriately, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, going by the book,” Harris said. “There’s a lot of documentation and paperwork.”

Ethical behavior includes “making sure you’re following contracting guidelines and agency supplemental guidelines,” Harris said. As with communication skills, that means staying up to date with developments in the industry, especially legal ones.

That’s particularly important for contract professionals who work for the government, such as Harris, who is employed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“As an agency that falls under the executive branch, we are required to report to Congress all our contractual actions,” Harris said. “Leadership is accountable to Congress. They will explain what occurred with the fiscal year budget and ensure the agency is abiding by appropriate regulations.”

More Contract Manager Skills and Competencies

The Contract Management curriculum recommends several skills and qualities for contract managers. Among those are:

  • An analytical mind
  • Understanding the impact of decisions
  • Organizational skills
  • Planning/project management
  • Understanding process, roles and responsibilities

Also included in the course is a list of contract management competencies:

  • Personal: A commitment to change and improvement; communication; interpersonal relationships, leadership, negotiation and problem solving
  • Knowledge of employer and industry: Specifically, knowledge of products and services; goals and strategies; local and global production; logistics, capabilities and needs; organization/management system/business process
  • Client relationship: Consulting, relationship management, understanding clients’ needs, understanding market industry and norms

Ultimately, these competencies aim to keep the contract manager’s focus on the client.

“Who is your audience? What are their needs? What kind of information do they need to make a decision?” the program teaches. “This is part of problem-solving.”

Many Disciplines, One Profession

“It’s not just one discipline,” Harris said of contract management. “There are several disciplines contract managers utilize in fulfilling their job responsibilities.”

Like many Villanova instructors, Harris brings years of professional experience to the classroom, and is able to illustrate lessons with examples from her career.

“Instructors who have real life experiences to share,” Harris said, are one of the qualities of Villanova’s 100% online Certificate in Contract Management program.

The program is designed for professionals who want to pursue a career or advance their expertise in contract management. The curriculum aligns with the National Contract Management Association (NCMA) Contract Management Body of Knowledge and covers how to effectively practice contract management in the public and private sectors. The program can also help students prepare for the Certified Commercial Contract Manager (CCCM), Certified Professional Contract Management (CPCM) and Certified Federal Contract Manager (CFCM) certification exams from NCMA. Villanova’s contract management curriculum is pre-approved for NCMA’s continuous professional education (CPE) points.

“These classes prepare you for taking the National Contract Management Association certification,” Harris said, adding that passing an NCMA exam “makes you much more attractive to employers because it shows that you are obviously very serious about your career path.”