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Making the Leap - Project to Program Management

Do you feel stuck as a project manager? Is your salary uncomfortable and your work boring? Do you wish that you could lose those final five pounds? (Oh wait! That's a different channel. I can help you with career growth, but don't not weight-loss.)

Assuming that you are a seasoned project manager and want more from life in professional satisfaction and financial rewards, how do you go about gaining skills to move from project management to program management?

Firstly, you must identify the additional that a program manager needs to display, which a project manager does not typically need. These are generalizations, with the accompanying caveats.

Skills that you need to master as a program manager.
  1. The ability to get the work done through project managers. You need to set the vision for the program, continually reinforce the vision and encourage your project managers to demonstrate and evangelize the vision. 

  2. Don't allow yourself to be in the weeds of any of your projects, unless you are helping one of your project managers over a bump in the road. Your task is integration of the project touchpoints, looking for similarities between the projects and efficiency across the program. Let your project managers manage the details of each project while you focus on program level work.

  3. Professional maturity. You need to set the example for your project managers in terms of leadership, calmness and resourcefulness. You can't be the one who is running around like a chicken without a head - you have to be the port in a storm for the program.

  4. Be confident and friendly. This can be hard when everyone on the team is tired from working extreme hours and the project lags behind schedule despite your best efforts.

  5. Assume ambiguity. I find that junior project managers want certainty. They want to know that a tasks will start on June 4th and end on June 28th. This is what project management courses teach. However, in the real world, there is no certainty. Therefore, a key distinguishing skill for a program manager is to be completely comfortable with ambiguity. Help your project managers to keep all project and program plans up to date, but also remind them that the plans are obsolete before the ink dries. This is good, normal and a sign of healthy projects. If a project executes exactly as it is planned, then you are not moving fast enough.

  6. Time management. Schedule time each day, and do your planning and leadership work in this time. Don't allow project managers and their projects to plan your day by reacting to their issues. Make the time to plan, lead and guide your program, with the projects in it. This is why you can't afford to be in the details of any of the projects on your program.

Assuming you want to compliment your project management skills and get into a program management position, what should you do? 

Get leadership training. Program leadership is even more important than project leadership. It is up to you to find good leadership training which includes training to master at least the skills listed below. I recommend joining your local Toastmasters club for inexpensive leadership training. Many civic organizations also offer leadership training if your company is too short-sighted to invest in developing leaders. Leadership training is a contact sport, so get involved and get some scars to develop the thick skin needed for program management. 
  • How to develop a vision for your program.
  • How to communicate it
  • How to deal with conflict - difficult personalities as well as non-performing project managers.
  • How to deal with issues through subordinates. 
  • How to demonstrate confidence
  • How to coach your project managers and develop their skills. 
In summary, I have found that the role of "Program Manager" varies amongst organizations. Some companies have more people with the role of Program Manager than there are AVP's in a bank. Others reserve the title for only the most senior of the senior program management staff. However, one thing is clear. If you are a project manager and want to move up the career chain, your next step is to look around at what program managers do in your organization, and proactively get the leadership training you need to become a "project manager of project managers" i.e. a Program Manager. 

Copyright 2018 Wayne Botha Email Wayne Cell: 860.214.4897