Project Management Institute

Inside track



For many organizations, hiring a program manager requires valuable time and resources to scour the area—or even the globe—for the ideal candidate.

What many might not realize, though, is that they don't necessarily have to look very far. The next successful program manager could already be within their office walls.

When groomed properly, project managers in your organization often make the most effective program managers, says Michael Berendt, PMI-RMP, PMP, Columbia, Maryland, USA-based vice president of intelligence at Serco Inc., an IT and management consultancy for the federal government.

“When promoting an internal project manager to program manager, the real benefit is you have someone who already understands the organization, the personalities within the organization and organizational process assets— all those things that are internal to a particular company,” says Mr. Berendt, who's also vice president of programs for the PMI Baltimore, MD Chapter.


The first, and perhaps most important, step in the grooming process is coming up with a good job description. And that means realizing that program management is not just a larger version of project management. “Many organizations believe that program management is mainly about managing a group of projects or one massive project. ” says Omar Zein, partner at Projectize, a project, program and portfolio management consultancy in Turin, Italy.

Rather, it's about strategic planning, shaping the direction of the program, working with stakeholders and determining how to prioritize projects within the program, says Shailesh Thakkar, PMP, PgMP, an independent senior program management consultant based in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.

“Whereas a project manager must be competent in various technical skills— managing and coordinating resources to achieve a product or service—a program manager must go further to understand how the outcome of the program will benefit the organizational strategy, and manage it from that very perspective,” Mr. Zein says.

For example, if a large organization decided to close all of its brick-and-mortar shops and switch to e-commerce, one project manager might be responsible for managing the activity and resources involved with developing the new e-commerce system. Another might be responsible for the training initiative to get everyone up to speed on the new system.

The program manager, on the other hand, is responsible for all the necessary changes to ensure the final outcome benefits the organization. “The program manager is very involved in the business end of the initiative,” Mr. Zein explains.


When looking at internal candidates, think about their potential. They may lack some of the skills necessary to perform the program management role that external candidates bring to the table, such as thorough market and customer knowledge, and business and financial skills, says Ajaibir Singh, PMP, PgMP, IBM India Pvt. Ltd., Noida, India. “But internal project managers may have talent and potential to grow into the program management role.”

img Many organizations believe that program management is mainly about managing a group of projects or one massive project.

—Omar Zein, Projectize, Turin, Italy


The pros and cons of recruiting program managers from outside your organization:

PRC: Candidates could have more specific expertise and diverse experience as it relates to program management, whereas internal project manager candidates have more focused, tactical expertise, says Shailesh Thakkar, PMP, PgMP, senior project management consultant, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.

CON: While program managers have experience allocating large budgets, they must become accustomed to the organization's specific budget processes and inner workings. This may take a while, Mr. Thakkar says.

PRO: Often, hiring external program managers is the quickest approach for gaining the necessary talent and capabilities for the role, says Ajaibir Singh, PMP, PgMP, IBM India Pvt. Ltd., Noida, India.

CON: By always hiring from the outside, organizations fail to motivate internal project managers and encourage a “promote from within” philosophy, Mr. Singh says.

PRO: An organization may be doing things that aren't optimal or are archaic, says Michael Berendt, PMI-RMP, PMP, Serco Inc., Columbia, Maryland, USA. External program managers can bring in new best practices.

CON: External program managers have to take the time to become acquainted with the politics and goals of the new organization, says Omar Zein, Projectize, Turin, Italy.

PRO: When an organization feels stagnant and wants to initiate change, an external candidate can offer a fresh set of ideas, Mr. Berendt says. Job seekers from outside are not encumbered by relationships or a “this is the way we've always done it” mentality.

CON: External candidates are not familiar with the framework created and passed down by the organization—the way of thinking, the set of processes and procedures, etc.—Mr. Berendt says.

To assess which employees are cut out for the role, organizations must look for certain traits that cross over from project to program management.

As part of a recent committee to fill a program management position,

Mr. Thakkar and his colleagues chose to look internally. They identified four traits all internal candidates would have to possess:

1. Influence with internal stakeholders.

“We looked at how this person could reach various departments, build a consensus and make things happen in short order,” he says.

The best project managers-turned-program managers garner respect throughout the organization while leading project teams.

img TIP Aspiring program managers should get to know their organization's internal stakeholders. Because program management involves coordinating across organizational departments, those seeking a promotion from project manager must build trust and get to know all aspects of the business.

“Meet these stakeholders informally,” suggests Shailesh Thakkar, PMP, PgMP, senior program management consultant, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. “Invite them to an informal lunch or dinner, and try to get to know where these people are coming from. Ask them, ‘What are your pain points, and how can I help resolve those?'”


“In order to promote a project manager, others have to agree that this person deserves to be promoted,” he says. “It's also essential that the project manager have a good working relationship with human resources, the CIO and the CFO, as they'll be doing resource allocation across all projects and working to meet the strategic needs of the organization.”

2. Credentials and education. The committee looked for project managers who held the Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential, as well as those who had either obtained or were working toward the Program Management Professional (PgMP)® credential.

3. Leadership. The new role would mean a significant amount of responsibility and little oversight from others, so candidates needed leadership skills to own the particular program.

4. Financial skills. “Because the program manager would have to deal with budgeting and financing, he or she would have to have solid financial skills and perhaps would have completed some coursework in finance and/or accounting. A master of business administration would definitely be helpful,” Mr. Thakkar says.

Project managers who can show the business case of the projects they lead will likely make effective program managers, Mr. Berendt adds. “At the program level, if a project runs out of funding, the program manager must find reasons to justify it,” he says. “Program managers are the advocates for new projects or new ventures to corporate leadership.”

If no internal candidate met all those requirements, the committee decided it would search elsewhere. In the end, though, a senior project manager fit the bill and was offered the promotion.


It's a mistake to assume all project managers are cut out for the job. “You may have a super project manager with great skills, but that doesn't mean he or she is a program manager,” Mr. Zein says. “And it's not about seniority. Many people think a program manager is just about being a senior project manager.”

In actuality, it involves a major shift in thinking for the candidates involved.

“Moving from project to program management is a move from the technical to the strategic,” Mr. Thakkar says. “Unless a project manager has the mindset and commitment to make that move, he or she might not be a good fit for the program manager role.”

Program managers make sure the organization's priorities are met while project managers are primarily focused on a project's life cycle, Mr. Berendt explains.

There are some red flags that indicate a project manager isn't ready to make the switch. If he or she can't stay composed in high-pressure environments, or has difficulties reaching out to different departments and stakeholders, the program management role could magnify those problems.

In other instances, an organization might not be set up to promote its project managers. “If you find a lot of project managers aren't completing projects successfully, or they are completing projects and then moving on to a new job in another company, then you haven't created the career path for project managers to move up, or at least advertised that there is something beyond this level,” Mr. Berendt says.

Organizations with relatively new project management offices (PMOs) and inexperienced project managers might not be equipped to promote from within, either.

“Candidates may not be ready to jump into a program management role if they've only been a full-time project manager for less than two years and are used to managing smaller projects,” Mr. Thakkar says.

Sometimes project managers themselves simply aren't willing to transition to program management. One of Mr. Thakkar's colleagues is a particularly experienced project manager who successfully and consistently delivers results. But the man says he truly enjoys being in the trenches, and as a result, upper management won't consider him as someone who could potentially be promoted to program manager.

“He tells me, ‘I am who I am, and this is what I do,’” Mr. Thakkar says.


Even the candidates most eager for the job must still be trained and mentored to be successful in a new position.

“Don't expect naturally born program managers,” Mr. Singh advises. “Program managers are made, and they are trained on the job and in the classroom.”

Organizations should identify project managers’ knowledge gaps and create a customized training plan from there, Mr. Thakkar says. “The key is to make sure the person gets a competency assessment first and the training plan is designed accordingly, rather than sending him or her on an unnecessary training with 20 other people,” he says. For example, if the candidate lacks financial savvy, he or she can attend a few online or in-person finance classes and be appointed a suitable mentor.

To help project managers get up to speed on the more technical aspects of program management, organizations can include them in a key budgetary session, Mr. Thakkar suggests. “Involve them heavily on the business side,” he says. “They have already demonstrated the tactical side.”

In addition, hiring managers don't have to focus on the corporate culture and knowledge of organizational hierarchy, as they would have to with external candidates.

The evolution from project to program manager often makes the most sense as an internal process. To find contenders, let your most promising candidates handle more than one project at a time, Mr. Berendt suggests.

“Project managers have to see upward mobility,” he says. “Otherwise they'll find another place where they can be given an opportunity to make a difference.” PM


img Do you have what it takes to be a program manager?
Head to Career Central on to see what advice established veterans have for up-and-coming project managers looking to make the jump to program manager.

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