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What is a Program Manager?

First we should start with a definition of program management.

What is a program?

A program is a collection of related individual projects, all with similar aims, objectives and resources that together deliver a common outcome and/or significant change; for example, moving the company to being a paperless office would be a program with a number of projects like:

  • Choosing and implementing an electronic document management system for Head Office
  • Designing a paperless sales process for use in the company’s shops and implementing it to all branches
  • Launching an employee portal for electronic payslips and HR information
  • Launching an electronic expense management system with approval workflow
  • Developing the digital strategy for future projects to follow

And so on.

Each of these are projects with a project manager, but together they deliver a transformative change for the business. The overall change is managed as a program, under a program manager who consolidates program-level risks, manages resource conflicts across all projects, controls the budget and works with business owners to realize the benefits across all the initiatives.

Regardless of what type of program it is, programs tend to deliver strategic objectives and organizational change – bigger transformations than individual projects. Because of that, strategic alignment for the work is really important and you should be able to see how your work drives the organization forward.

What is Program Management?

Program management is the ability to lead a program, keep all the moving parts moving in the right direction and deliver the overall change.

Program management requires a different skill set to project management, but it’s often considered as a future career move for experienced project managers.

What is a Program Manager?

A program manager is someone who is responsible for leading a program of change. They coordinate the work of multiple teams managing multiple projects to ensure that overall, the business gets to where it wants to be.

You’ll find some program management skills do overlap with project management skills but the easiest way to think about it is this: a program manager sees things at the next level up from a project manager.

There are multiple projects with interdependent resources, risks, and timelines. There’s a lot more juggling to do. It’s a bigger picture role.

Personally, I always found program management more interesting because it’s more strategic, longer term and it’s easy to see the value.

However, you do have to be able to live with uncertainty and not be too stressed out not knowing the exact detail. There’s a lot of trust involved as the project managers need you to get out of the way so they can manage the detail.

Responsibilities for a Program Manager

Let’s look at what a program manager does all day. Much of this will be written into your job description.

In this role you’ll work under your own initiative most of the time. You’ll receive broad direction from your leadership team. You are responsible for maintaining the program plan and scheduling work at a relatively high level, and you’ll also assign tasks to other people. These could be project managers or PMO colleagues.

A program manager is responsible for:

  • Defining, facilitating and completing programs, including setting the approach. These will be made up of a number of projects with clear deadlines and direct business impact
  • Designing the program organization structure (get an org chart template) and securing the resources to do the work
  • Making sure project teams have what they need to get their work done and that there is a flow of communication up and down through the program
  • Helping teams select the right project management methodologies for the type of work they are delivering
  • Day to day management of the program, including dealing with questions and escalations from project teams
  • Identifying, assessing and managing risks that might stop the program being successful
  • Ensuring that the related project plans are realistic and up-to-date, in line with the methods used, and that they make it possible to meet deadlines
  • Managing dependencies between projects
  • Preparing, circulating and managing program documentation
  • Ensuring that there is regular communication with the stakeholders, and that this accurately reflects what is going on
  • Regular reporting to key stakeholders and the PMO
  • Ensuring that quality reviews take place effectively and at the right time
  • Managing the change control procedure for the program
  • Being responsible for program governance including sitting on the Program Board and program controls
  • Showing strong leadership
  • Preparing a plan for benefits realization and ensuring that it is carried out so the organization receives the planned benefit
  • Ensuring that project deliverables are completed within the parameters agreed around budget, resource and schedule, and that deliverables are handed over to users and signed off

A successful program manager does all this.

What skills do you need to be a Program Manager?

Program management isn’t the same as managing projects and the skills you need are quite different. However, they are certainly aligned and many project managers successfully make the leap into the more strategic and higher-level role of managing a program of work.

If you want to move into program management, these 5 skills will help you prove you are capable of doing the role:

  • Resource management
  • Stakeholder engagement
  • Data analysis and synthesis
  • Data-driven decision making
  • Change management.

You’ll see these skills on a program manager job description – and if you don’t you should be asking why!

essential skills for program managers chart

Practical experience as a project manager or operational (line) manager will also help.

1. Resource Management

You’ll need to be able to review work allocations across multiple teams and check people are working efficiently – and on the right tasks.

That might mean pulling people off a project to focus on another piece of work. You’ll need a good understanding of what the individual projects are all about so you can make sensible resource choices.

Resource management also involves capacity planning, so you’ll be looking ahead to what skills the program needs in the future and making sure the people on the teams can fill those needs. If they can’t, do a training needs analysis and get your team skilled up.

2. Stakeholder Engagement

In my experience, stakeholder engagement at program level is more ‘political’ with a small ‘p’. It’s part of the leadership skills you’ll have to demonstrate in the role.

There are more stakeholders to work with, and they tend to be higher up the organization. They have agendas of their own and are connected to strategy in ways you might not realize.

There have been a few times where I’ve been in the room with board members and they’ve said something that I had been totally unaware of – something that was a driving force behind shaping strategy within the company and the industry more broadly.

You’ve got to use business acumen and deal with the bigger picture on a much larger scale and the influences that puts on your stakeholder community.

3. Data Analysis and Synthesis

Data analysis is going to be significant for the future of project management. There are multiple data sources at program level and you have to look at them all, focusing in on what is really important.

It’s essential to be able to assimilate lots of information and condense it into a format that people can understand. You need to be able to tell the story of your program in a single slide, all the while focusing on what people want to know and need to know.  

4. Data-Driven Decision Making

You have to make decisions for the good of the program. That means relying on facts to work out what to do, not emotions.

You need the confidence to stand behind your decision and instruct people on what you’ve decided.

Basically, decision-making at this level requires more exposure because there are greater implications for when things go wrong. Honesty and transparency become more important in how you reached a decision.

5. Change Management

In the ‘old’ way of thinking, projects deliver outputs and programs deliver outcomes. I’ve always had a bit of an issue with that approach, but let’s not go there now.

Change management on programs is about making sure that the outputs from projects are integrated into the business and used. It’s important to make sure the end result is adopted (and, ideally, loved by users).

Being able to change behavior at an organizational level is key to being good at managing programs. People have to understand what the program is all about, how all the component projects contribute to the bigger picture and what role they help play in delivering this part of the strategy. (Because programs should in 99.9% of cases deliver strategy.)

What’s the career path for a program manager?

After spending some time managing projects of some complexity, you’ll be thinking about the next phase of your career. Program management roles are often seen as a natural choice for project managers looking for their next challenge.

As businesses get more strategic with project management and start aligning projects together into programs of work, the need for skilled program managers grows. You might start asking yourself how to become a program manager because of the need from your company, in which case, you can simply go ahead and pitch that role to your management team.

(Make sure the proposal also includes the need to recruit a project manager to replace you.)

However, you could move into program management from a senior operational role or another PMO role as well.

Program Management in the Organization

Managing a program should be considered a senior, influential, leadership role. It requires a wide range of interpersonal skills, experience and a fair bit of courage to be able to stand up, take the decisions, and lead organizational change at that level.

However, it’s a hugely rewarding job. When you see what’s being delivered through the individual projects and the benefits realization starts, you’ll appreciate what a mammoth effort you and other team members have made to make that happen.

Being able to juggle interconnected projects is truly a skill. It’s the way strategy gets delivered and it’s a role that supports colleagues across the organization because you put the plans in place to make their goals a reality.

FAQ

  • Is being a program manager hard?

    The technical skills are straightforward. The challenge with being a program manager comes in juggling the multiple stakeholder expectations and senior level politics within the organization.

  • Is being a program manager a good career?

    Yes, program managers are well-paid with good career prospects. It’s a respected and interesting job, so it is a good option for individuals wanting to move on from project management.

This is an edited extract from my book, Project Manager (BCS Books).

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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