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A Program Manager is More than a Great Project Manager

The project management practice environment consists of Portfolio, Project and Program management. To date, significant progress has been evident in organizations’ awareness and adoption of portfolio and project management, but advances in program management have lagged behind. In an earlier article, we explored how Program Management is a key solution to closing the gap between strategy formulation and strategy execution; we defined programs and program management and outlined six steps to getting started on implementing a program management environment in an organization. A critical factor in ensuring program success is entrusting the management of programs to individuals with key skills and experience. In this article we explore in detail the attributes and requirements of the successful program manager, and outline how to develop program management competency within an organization.

Profile of a Successful Program Manager

If programs are held primarily responsible for realizing benefits, then program managers have a critical role to play in effective strategy execution.

What makes a successful program manager and why? Great project managers don’t always make great program managers. The attributes of a successful program manager – below – are all very important, but the order they are listed in indicates the conscious priority that we place on the senior level of consulting and general management expertise as opposed to strictly project management capabilities.

  • Business manager
  • Seniority of experience
  • Change Management expertise
  • Superior communication skills
  • Objectivity and fairness
  • Risk Management capability
  • Project management expertise

The following table explains each attribute in further detail:

Attribute Explanation
Business Manager Initiatives are ‘business’ investments – a program manager must be cognizant of how the program is expected to change the business and to be able to make it happen. They need to transcend functional boundaries; ensure alignment and continual assessment and adjustment of program outcomes in line with strategic objectives; be business savvy – Market, industry and product/service knowledge, financial and business knowledge, competitive intelligence, organizational systems and undertake benefits planning, assurance and sustainment.
Seniority of Experience A program manager may succeed based entirely on innate ability but more likely has had a richness of business experience to be able to manage proactively.
They need to anticipate and manage issues; bring authority and influence to the team; be able to leverage lessons learned from past experiences.
Seniority of Experience A program manager may succeed based entirely on innate ability but more likely has had a richness of business experience to be able to manage proactively. They need to anticipate and manage issues; bring authority and influence to the team; be able to leverage lessons learned from past experiences.
Change Management Expertise Programs by their very nature are instruments of change – the program manager therefore must be a change agent with the key responsibilities. They will need to define goals of the change; develop internal commitment; develop trust; understand current and target culture and take explicit steps to transform; build organizational capacity for change; prepare for and deal with resistance.
Strong Communication Skills Given that programs cross functional and organizational boundaries are complex initiatives with large teams and many moving parts, strong communication skills are critical. Program managers will need to manage a multitude of stakeholder expectations; ensure that appropriate governance processes and structures are in place; facilitate timely and effective decision making; undertake critical negotiations with entities, internal and external to the organization; resolve inevitable conflict and motivate the team to get goal commitment and excellence in execution.
Objectivity and Fairness  In order to stay focused on the goals and objectives that are the purpose of the program, program managers will have to make difficult and unpopular decisions. It is essential that they demonstrate a rational, fair and supportable approach to resolution of issues; selection of corrective actions; resource and funding allocation and prioritization.
Risk Management Capability Risk management at the program level is not simply a consolidation of constituent project risks. The alignment of programs to strategic outcomes introduces a level of business risk that must be handled at the program level through identification, assessment, development of mitigation strategies, monitoring and corrective action.
Project Management Expertise Program execution must reflect project management best practices. The program manager can be likened to a symphony conductor, leveraging project management skills, organizational strategy and business know how to deliver maximum value where the whole is significantly more powerful than the sum of its parts. Key elements would be integration of component projects; resolution of inter-project dependencies; development and tracking of program roadmaps, milestones and schedules; continual assessment and adjustments of resources and funds; contract negotiations and centralized vendor management and consolidated program status reporting.

Finding the Right Program Manager

Given the skills and expertise that are required for a successful program manager, where could we find the best candidates in an organization? More often than not, other than in very project management mature organizations, it is difficult to find one individual with all the requisite skills. An effective approach is to use a combination of two individuals

  • A business leader partnered with a project management practitioner or
  • A seasoned project manager assisted by a senior business leader

Option 1. Business leaders partnered with PM expertise: As program managers are tasked with ensuring strategic alignment and benefits realization, first and foremost they need to have a high level of business acumen. As a result, business leaders in an organization are best suited for this role. Recognizing that these individuals may not have the PM expertise, assigning an individual with senior PM expertise to work together is an effective strategy.

Option 2.  Seasoned project manager assisted by a senior business leader: The second option is to select a senior PM to lead the program partnered with a business leader with knowledge of the business area impacted by the program.

The option selected should be based on strategic importance, magnitude of business change, technical complexity, and number of constituent projects. If the program involves business process innovation, significant organizational change management and realization of business outcomes, option 1 would be more appropriate. On the other hand, if the program involves new technology, outsourced components, project management expertise becomes more critical and option 2 may work better.

Building Program Management Capability

Since it is important for organizations to move towards program management as a means to successfully execute strategy, it is critical to develop a core competency in the program management discipline.

  • Recruiting: Program management expertise, though not professionally recognized till recently, has been developed through practical application by individuals. These program managers are highly sought after, especially if they have industry knowledge and experience – recruiting this talent may be a viable option.
  • Temporary outsourcing: Engaging the services of a consultant program manager is the second option. Consultant program managers who offer an unbiased perspective, typically can bring both senior experience and expertise to an assignment. Being external to the organization, they can more easily make unpopular but necessary decisions. If knowledge transfer is included as an integral part of a consulting program manager’s responsibility, this option can be both cost effective and help build internal capabilities.
  • Training: In recognition of the role of the program manager. The PMI has relatively recently developed a professional designation and supporting curriculum and standards. Expert opinion says ‘the jury is still out’ on their effectiveness. The ‘newness’ of these efforts are reflected in the number of PgMPs (Program Management Professionals) to date. As of June 30, 2009 there were only 294 PgMPs compared to 360,000 PMPs worldwide. In addition to PMI, there are a few commercially available courses from other education service providers.


It is becoming widely recognized that managing initiatives as programs that drive strategy and do not compromise on execution excellence or benefit realization is an important capability for an effective organization. Entrusting this responsibility to the right person(s) either internal or external to the organization is critical. Given the business climate today and lessons learned from the recent economic crises, can we afford not to take a step in the right direction?

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Ruchira Chatterjee is a Managing Consultant at SPM Group Limited with over 30 thirty years of experience managing progressively larger departments and more complex programs and projects in both private and public sectors. She has held senior positions such as Program Director in Wealth Management, Director Client Services in IT, Director Model Operations in Property Casualty Division, managed Application Development and Business Systems functions and most recently has been a Managing Consultant with SPM providing consulting and program management services to clients. .Ruchira holds a Masters in Economics and is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) as dgnated by the Project Management Institute.


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Managing Strategic Initiatives in Turbulent Times, White Paper, SPM Group Ltd., February 2009

PMI Program Management Standards – second edition

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IBM’s Making Change Work Study, 2008

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