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The Nuts and Bolts of Program Management: How to Become a Successful Program Manager

Program and project management roles have grown over the past two decades due to the development of organizations and institutions in which they are the focus. In particular, organizations across all industry verticals have an increasing need for skilled program management practitioners. A program manager, often confused with the more familiar project manager, generally provides necessary oversight for the many related projects of a new business initiative.

This article will provide clarity on the role of a program manager in an organization, while distinguishing it from the work of a project manager.


What Is Program Management?

An often-used definition of program management states that the discipline provides necessary administration for a slate of projects enacted to achieve a beneficial business goal. Programs may focus on ways to be more profitable, reduce waste, manage a business or cultural change, or deploy a new system or product.

In The Handbook of Program Management, author James T. Brown characterizes the leader of a program: “The Program Manager must create, manage, and continually improve a culture that enables successful projects.” Under this definition, a project manager’s role entails tactical management on a smaller level, while the program manager is responsible for coordination to realize a larger goal.

The benefits of program management typically manifest in the form of business improvement, such as increased revenue, decreased costs, competitive position, and improved customer satisfaction.


What Are the Main Roles and Responsibilities of a Program Manager?

A program manager attempts to provide oversight to achieve a stated outcome. Effectively coordinating numerous projects, managing different stakeholders, mitigating challenges, and working to achieve the desired outcome are all hallmarks of good program management.

Unlike projects that have timetables and life spans, a program can deploy, conclude, and outlive many different projects. Some will argue that programs, like projects, also have an eventual life span; however, more often than not, programs are ongoing and evolving initiatives.

Successful programs require several moving parts. For example, a program often begins with a sponsor or a senior responsible owner (SRO) assigned by the sponsor or board of directors. Regardless of designation, this senior-level champion is the representative who sets the goal, secures funding, and provides visible support.

An SRO’s main function is to protect the interests of the C-suite, board of directors, or main sponsor through oversight and decisions that keep program objectives in line with overall business strategies. To do so, the sponsor works closely with the program manager on governance activities, accountability, risks and benefits realization, and communication that clarifies decision making.

The program manager may work as part of the program management office (PMO), which the program office manager oversees. The program manager collaborates closely with the PMO staff, and together they provide the structure to achieve the business mandate.

Rather than micromanaging individual projects to fit the program, a successful program manager employs strategies that guide, referee, and integrate the various projects and the respective project managers involved in the initiative. A skilled program manager can coordinate the effort, communicate the vision, and offer a high level of oversight to bring together multiple related projects and, thus, create a business benefit or change.

Often, the program results in change that is felt through an entire organization. A business change manager (BCM) is in charge of handling the ensuing adjustments and works alongside a program manager to measure the key indicators and provide the needed business continuity through the shift.

Additional supporting roles associated with programs or individual projects include the senior user, who represents the interests of users, and the planning coordinator, who manages logistics and communication.

The following tasks are associated with program management:

  • Overseeing all activities associated with all programs in order to ensure goals are achieved
  • Decision making and problem solving associated with programs and projects
  • Actively communicating with project managers and other stakeholders
  • Identifying and understanding objectives
  • Planning programs
  • Monitoring daily program activities
  • Reporting and analytics
  • Identifying projects necessary to achieve the program’s objectives
  • Coordinating interdependent projects associated with program
  • Resolving program problems and delays
  • Managing budget
  • Managing timelines and quality of deliverables
  • Identifying and assigning program team members
  • Managing program risk
  • Documenting the program
  • Identifying and managing program adherence to standards and governance
  • Ensuring alignment with business goals and objectives

What’s the Difference Between Program and Project Management?

Confusion continues over the function of program management versus project management. It may help to look at activity and outcome.

In project management, you generally have a scope, a budget, and a timeline that result in a tangible deliverable. The project manager’s prime responsibility centers on delivering one piece or element of a larger vision.

In contrast, programs are more complex and have more cross-functional elements. It may be tempting for an organization to make projects bigger in scope and keep them under a project management process. However, the overall value of program management is the ability to take the sum of multiple project outputs and integrate them to realize a greater business outcome.

As reflected and structured in job descriptions, those with progressive project management experience are good candidates to transition into a program management role. Excellent organizational, administration and management skills are of high value in both professions, but program managers should also possess or develop skills that enhance their ability to look at the big picture, negotiate through disputes, and provide inspiration. These intangible soft skills are often needed to successfully construct frameworks and mentor the people who develop program outcomes.

When you understand the differing roles of a program and project manager, you know that the size of a program or project is not the sole defining element. Instead, you recognize the functional process that has distinct goals.  Some of the differences can be seen in the following table:


Program Manager

Project Manager

Provides the roadmap/framework to integrate many projects

Manages the day-to-day tasks of a single project

Manages ongoing, long-term programs

Manages short-term, definitive timeline, and closes when complete

Focuses on strategy

Focuses on tactical/technical details

Provides a business outcome

Provides a deliverable

Impacts overall business revenue

Works with single budget

Manages scope, schedule, budget, and plan

Manages scope, schedule, budget, and plan

What Business Departments Employ Program Managers?

Part of today's business environment involves enacting large and complex activities and initiatives, and skilled program managers are needed to lead them. From marketing to manufacturing, customer support to new product development, programs guide the project teams to develop business benefits that provide competitive advantages.

But it is also true that many organizations augment the project management role rather than initiate a new program manager position or a program management office. However, it should be noted that for large change initiatives, whether the team leader’s title is program manager or project manager, the skills needed to succeed remain the same, with an emphasis on mentoring, negotiating, and strategic skills, rather than tactical planning and delivery of a tangible item.


How to Become a Program Manager

You can learn program management skills through both training and education, but program managers also have personal attributes such as self-confidence, common sense, and dependability. Many of the marks of leadership and preparedness that drive project success are valued traits for a program manager.

To become a program manager, you need knowledge of project and program management methodologies and a desire to head initiatives that are often greater than the sum of the individual parts. A program management professional is organized and task focused, and is also a leader and a team builder. The role values technical and tactical skills, but an individual should develop a more strategic outlook. They often need to learn intangible skills that inspire, communicate vision and enthusiasm, and settle problems across political and territorial areas. They must also demonstrate these skills to satisfy a wide variety of business stakeholders.

Not all program management titles are the same. Some provide clarity of job responsibilities, such as technical program manager, senior program manager, IT program manager, and program administrator.

For those planning a career in program management, reported salaries can also be an incentive. According to Glassdoor, the national average annual pay for program managers is $86,000 (compared with $81,000 for a skilled project manager).

Whatever the title, program managers should incorporate the following skills to drive success:  

  • Communicate the big picture or vision to everyone consistently.
  • Be proactive in resolving challenges.
  • Set realistic goals and timelines.
  • Advocate simplicity and common sense.
  • Take care of the people involved over the technology used.
  • Maintain the ability to work with others.
  • Gain a clear understanding of the business needs and goals.
  • Clearly articulate the program scope.
  • Delegate as necessary.
  • Drive movement toward business goals and change.
  • Seek commitment from key stakeholders.
  • Arm the team with tools and knowledge.
  • Manage uncertainty and conflict.

Alexander Bekhterev

Alexander Bekhterev, Program Manager at Emarsys, has over 8,000 hours of project management experience and over 1,000 hours of program management experience. He advises new program managers to “connect with an experienced mentor, gain real-life experience, take classes in both project and program management, and sign up for project and program management software trials, demos, and webinars in order to learn the software relied upon by both professions. This will prepare you for future success and your PMP and PgMP certifications.”

Program Management Certifications/Training Courses

The Project Management Institute (PMI) offers certifications and training for both project and program management. These certifications focus on the core competencies for success in each area. Project management training includes the skills for initiating, planning, execution, monitoring, and closing projects. Learn how to boost your career with PMI’s PMP certification. The Program Management (PgMP) curriculum focuses on stakeholder and benefits management, governance, program life cycle, and strategic management.

PMI also offers the PMBOK Guide, which includes protocols and rules for project, program, and portfolio management.


Master the Role of Program Manager with Smartsheet

Program managers must manage several moving parts and cover multiple projects and initiatives to enact change and achieve business goals. In order to be successful, they need a modern, powerful tool to view always up-to-date program status, as well as the long-term implications of the collective development.

Smartsheet is a work management and automation platform that enables enterprises and teams to get from idea to impact — fast. Top program management leaders rely on Smartsheet to help align the right people, resources, and schedules to get work done.

Use Smartsheet to create consistent program elements, increase speed, and improve collaboration with scalable options that fit individual work preferences. Hold yourself and your team accountable, improve visibility into team priorities, and ensure nothing slips through the cracks.

Discover how Smartsheet can help maximize your program management efforts, today.

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The Nuts and Bolts of Program Management: How to Become a Successful Program Manager

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