At Work With Lynn Kenning, PMP, PgMP

Lynn Kenning, PMP, PgMP, started out as a network engineer, but program management eventually beckoned. She discusses the steps (and the skills) that led to her role as director of program management at AFN, a logistics and supply chain company in Niles, Illinois, USA.

Tell us how you landed in program management.

I took over project management responsibilities at my previous company when the person in that role became extremely stressed and clearly overwhelmed. I discovered that not only was I good at project management, but that I also really enjoyed it.

Eventually, I realized I have the ability to see the bigger picture and understand how one project might impact another, as well as what benefits they could deliver if they were run together. My employer saw that I embraced my new responsibilities with enthusiasm and the desire to learn and succeed. Through my continued excitement about wanting more challenges, they realized that I had the capabilities to deliver. That’s when I was offered the opportunity to run a program.

What separates project managers from program managers?

The ability to think past the “now” tasks. In program management, you need to be thinking more than two weeks out, so you can plan for what may or may not come. You need to know what the projects individually will deliver and then relate that to what the organization is going to gain from completing the individual projects and whole program.

What’s a must-have skill for program managers?

Stakeholder communications. It takes practice — spending time with stakeholders to understand what their needs are, asking them questions about how they like to see and receive information. I never want to assume that because a stakeholder has a particular role in the organization that they want to receive information a certain way.

You say you were initially fearful of speaking with executives. How did you overcome that?

I had a meeting with a C-suite individual who gently reminded me that he was a person first, just like me. He taught me not to fear someone who may try to use power as a tool to manipulate or negotiate, but to simply recognize that characteristic.

I learned to embrace situations where I had to communicate, rather than fear them. I would reflect on how the situation went and in some instances follow up with the individual to ask for feedback on how I could have improved our interaction.

And how did you build up your business knowledge?

I have a degree in accounting and used that in practice. Identifying a resource within my organization who really understands financials to bounce ideas off of and ask questions has helped as well.

Learn financials, learn to listen and ask questions — understand what the benefits are of the program and what they’re solving for the organization.

What advice would you give to project managers looking to move up to program management?

Continuously improve your communication skills. First, volunteer to do presentations. Many people don’t like to speak in front of crowds, but by forcing yourself to do this, you learn how to prepare and speak confidently and concisely to the audience. Second, read — both personal and professional literature. It presents new and different communication styles and builds vocabulary so you’re able to better articulate the message. Finally, practice the art of listening. Many people think they’re listening but really they’re just hearing and not really trying to understand.