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Becoming a Program Manager

I have had a several conversations recently, both with colleagues and other project management professionals, around the topic of how to become a program manager.

Here are some of my thoughts on the career progression to program management.

Program management is a natural progression for many experienced project managers. Being a successful program manager, however, is more than having a PgMP certification. Program managers are expected to manage complex projects and have the interpersonal skills to be able to navigate business strategy and executive relationships.

There are many career rewards for a career path into program management. On average, program managers have higher annual salaries, tackle greater business challenges, work closely with customers, have opportunities to mentor project managers and even grow into executive suite careers. However, steps to transition from project to program management are not always obvious and some professionals struggle with the career transition.

Is program management right for you?

From the outside, it may be difficult to know if this career path is the right one for you. Program management is not simply managing ‘larger projects’ or a group of projects or managing project managers. Programs are about business objectives and business operations. They have much longer durations than projects. Program managers need to be focused on organizational priorities and business objectives, more so than delivery of a product or service. Program managers may even need to cancel projects based on a change in strategy or lack of business benefits.

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How do I transition from project management to program management?

Like other transitions in life, a project manager will need new skills and a different attitude to succeed in program management. Skills such as organizational governance, strategy and navigating executive relationships are key parts of success in program management. Project managers who desire to make the transition should make their goals known to both internal and external networks and actively look for program management opportunities.

Pursuing a PgMP certification will help an individual stand out from the crowd. The real value of the PgMP certification is in the knowledge gained by studying for the certification. The preparation requires the project manager not only to study program management concepts and terminology, but to see the relevance of those terms and concepts working as a program manager.

What mindset changes are required for a transition to program management?

Taking on a program management role requires a mindset change to move from the tactical to the strategic. From my perspective, the first thing that surprised me was that I was responsible for program outcomes without having a direct line of sight to all aspects of a project as when I was a project manager. In short, I was responsible for the program’s overall success, but had to rely on others to manage the details. A change of mindset was also required.

As a program manager, there is more focus on business and the delivery of benefits. I also began to have more interaction with executive-level leadership and spent more time building relations with key stakeholders. I began to spend more time thinking about how to structure and govern the program, how to organize the projects within the program, to achieve the business strategy. I spent more time identifying and managing inter-project or inter-organizational risks.

I welcome any feedback or comments from others on their on their career transition from project to program management.

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