Power up your program management skills: gaining key proficiencies


One of the newest “official” disciplines in the project management arena is program management. What are the inherent differences between project managers and program managers? Although the titles are similar, there are actually several distinct differences drawn from more than 216 unique capabilities. While project managers focus on one specific project, program managers are responsible for an entire campaign or strategic initiative. Program managers organize multiple projects and prepare for how they influence one another. This requires an array of knowledge and skills related to project management, business, and organizational leadership.

Certified Program Management Professionals (PgMP®) will be infiltrating the landscape in 2009. What makes a PgMP successful and where does the discipline obtain its muscle? Program management power is derived from knowledge and skills, and in order for the next class of PgMPs to earn their certification and permeate organizational structure, clarity, and possession of the right skill set is crucial.

This paper and presentation will detail the nine skills budding PgMPs need to flawlessly execute in order to be successful: big-picture thinking, superior analytical skills, leadership, communication, influence, conflict resolution, stakeholder management, planning/resource management, and the mastery of program/project tools and techniques. This session will provide specific customer examples within the description of each skill set and better educate project managers striving to earn the PgMP designation.

Sources of Program Management Power

Power is an interesting topic. Its source or sources have varied over time depending on what area, industry, or environment in which one finds oneself. For example, Samson, of Samson and Delilah biblical fame, found power in his hair! Popeye, one of the West's most beloved cartoon characters, found power in gulping down an entire can of spinach. Many athletes, sadly, find power in anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, and if discovered, are banned from their sport for years and suffer incredible public humiliation. The average recreational athlete, on the other hand, often finds power marketed in various sports drinks such as Poweraid®. Everyone, it seems, wants to be powerful. And program managers are no different. But where does that power come from? And, how can we tap into those sources?

My interpretation of Project Management Institute's (PMI®) Program Management Professional (PgMP) Examination Specification (PMI, 2008) reveals that program management power is derived from two sources: knowledge and skills. I am going to concentrate on skills in this paper because skills are what people apply to make things happen. Let me ask a question. If you needed someone to come to your home and weld two pieces of metal together would you want someone to come who has knowledge of welding or welding skills? Enough said.

In developing the new PgMP credential, PMI conducted a task analysis to identify what a competent program manager did on the job, the knowledge needed to do the job, and the skills required to apply that knowledge. And, they did this on a global level. Through an in-depth analysis that was conducted with program managers in San Francisco, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, and Buenos Aires, followed by a “reality check” session in Los Angeles, PMI identified 36 tasks, 218 knowledge areas, and 216 skills that program managers regularly apply on the job that makes them successful (PMI, 2008).

If we focus our attention at the 216 skills identified in the document we immediately see that these are not 216 separate and distinct skills; rather, there is a substantial amount of overlap, redundancy, and similarity between skills required to “develop program scope definition using a Work Breakdown Structure in order to determine the program deliverables and tasks” (PMI, 2008, p. 28) and those needed to “establish the program management plan and baseline…” (PMI, 2008, p. 29). My challenge, therefore, was to attempt to “reduce” the 216 skills to their essence, to the handful of key skills that any program manager would be wise to acquire or refine. And, one of the best ways to reduce a rather large volume of information into broad categories for synthesis and analysis is using the affinity diagramming technique. An affinity diagram is—

A tool used to gather a large amount of ideas, opinions, or issues from a group of participants in a short period of time. Participants then organize the information according to the natural relationships that exist within the information. For example, when identifying project risks, each team member will write individual risk events on sticky notes (one risk per sticky note). The team members will then place the risk events into groupings of like items until there is consensus. This process takes place in complete silence. After final groupings are established, the participants name each grouping of risk events. (Ward, 2008, p. 12)

So, this is exactly what I did. I wrote each skill on a separate sticky note and then proceeded, alone, to place them into groupings of like items. This process took me about two hours and when it was completed I had identified the following nine major skill areas, or sources of power, for program managers. They are included in Exhibit 1, in no particular priority order.

Nine Key Skills for Program Managers

Exhibit 1: Nine Key Skills for Program Managers

Nine Key Skills to Power up Your Program Management—A Closer Look

I will now provide a brief description, and some specific examples, of each of the key skills. By the way, I coined the names given to each of the nine areas; however, the specific examples given are taken from the Program Management Professional (PgMP) Examination Specification.

Big Picture Thinking and Selling the Vision

Most project and program managers recoil in horror at the thought of themselves selling anything! However, PMI observed that successful program managers do need this important skill. After all, not everyone will agree that the program is important, or as important as the program manager believes it to be. Therefore, the program manager needs to be constantly and consistently selling the program and must develop the vision and mission statement and be adept at selling the program vision and benefits to the various stakeholders. In order to do these important things, the program manager must have skills in conceptual selling and influencing (the other side of the power/influence coin!) (Cohen & Bradford, 2005).

Superior Analytical Skills

Because most programs generate large volumes of financial, statistical, metric, and other forms of data, the program manager must be able to—quickly and thoroughly—gather and integrate information; distill and synthesize requirements; and, summarize program conclusions. Although one does not need the formidable analytical skills of, let's say, a Warren Buffet, any program manager responsible for a major initiative needs to be extremely competent in this area. Today, executives are looking for professionals who make “fact-based” decisions as opposed to those who always “shoot from the hip.” As the great management guru Peter Drucker quipped in a video I once saw (and I am paraphrasing here) “the manager who shoots from the hip, rarely hits his target.”

Leadership and Teambuilding

Certainly no list of key skills would be complete without this important skill. Although we may tire of repeatedly listening and reading about the need for such skills, the truth of the matter is that these skills are more important now than ever. Every one of our clients remarks that competent program managers are extremely difficult to find; their programs are becoming more complex; and, the virtual nature of work requires experienced program managers who can work across cultures. Thus have such skills as the ability to build relationships, delegate and empower team members, and being able to collaborate with different functions in the organization are increasingly important to overall success.


Like leadership and teambuilding, communication is a constant on lists such as this; however, we're not just talking about being able to give a cogent, coherent presentation. Program managers in today's ever-connected world, need to be a lot like Ronald Reagan, former President of the United States, and a man who knew how to connect with people. Known as the “Great Communicator,” President Reagan had the uncanny ability to communicate with people from all walks of life and get his point across in a straightforward manner. Regardless of one's opinions of him as a political leader, people on both sides of the aisle regarded him as a master of communication. Such skills as being able to communicate with stakeholders, communicating priorities and constraints, and communicating effectively using all methods, are vital to the effectiveness of any program manager.

Influencing and Negotiating

Influencing and negotiating is about getting what you want and need for the program. It's all about getting people to say “yes.” Influencing peoples' behavior requires negotiation and tradeoffs. It is an art that is developed over many years of practice. Programs operate in a political environment, and so the program manager who is politically savvy, and knows how to do internal politicking, will ultimately be more successful than one who abhors the notion of politics and “playing the game.” One of the best books ever written on the subject of influence is a book by the same name written by Robert B. Cialdini, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University. It is used in university courses throughout the United States. I picked up my copy at the Yale Coop in New Haven, Connecticut, the official bookstore for Yale University where it was being used in a course at the Yale School of Management (Cialdini, 1987).

Conflict Resolution

In program management it is a given that we will have to deal with conflict. There will be conflicts regarding personnel, the program's priority, the component projects' priorities, and stakeholder requirements and issues. The program manager who confronts conflict, who addresses it head on, who doesn't run from it, will be rewarded because it will accelerate decision-making thus causing the program to move forward. Those who do not address conflict, who let it foment, will also be rewarded, but in a different way. There will be a constant and debilitating undercurrent of dissatisfaction, which ultimately can lead to alienation among team members. In program management we must not simply resolve issues through force of will (although sometimes that is required), we must resolve issues in such a way that leaves our team members and stakeholders dedicated and committed to moving forward and not angry and feeling as if they lost in a zero-sum game of egos.

Stakeholder Management

When less than successful program managers think of their stakeholders, the famous Hatfield and McCoy family feud is the kind of image that comes to mind: a group of ornery, irascible, demanding people who seem to exist just to make their lives miserable. In other words, stakeholders and program managers tend to “feud” with one another in much the same way that the Hatfield and McCoy clans feuded with each other for years in the backwoods of West Virginia along the Kentucky border. Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. Program managers with sophisticated diplomatic skills will work to manage expectations; understand stakeholder desires, needs, and requirements; and seek to collaborate with them to get the job done. After all, programs exist because there are stakeholders. Without stakeholders, the program manager and his or her team have no role to play in the organization. So long as one has to deal with stakeholders, one should have the skills necessary to do so in only the most professional way.

Planning and Resource Management

When all is said and done, one of the most crucial roles the program manager plays is resource management; and, without a comprehensive plan identifying what needs to be done and when (and for what cost), it is virtually impossible to do a good job identifying, assigning, and allocating resources. Succinctly put, every program needs the proverbial “game plan.” Complementing the strategic outlook a program manager needs to have, he or she must also be the consummate tactician. The program manager must be able to develop a variety of plans (risk, cost, contingency) and then assess, match, and manage resources to execute those plans. Additionally, the program manager must ensure that program artifacts are collected, documented, and stored in a “brick and mortar” or electronic repository for audit and lessons learned purposes.

Mastery of Program/Project Tools and Techniques

Finally, every program manager needs to have a “tool belt” or “kit bag” of tools and techniques that they have mastered that they will use throughout the program life cycle for any number of applications. Tools and techniques mentioned in the Program Management Professional (PgMP) Examination Specification include the following:

  • Milestone planning
  • Process mapping
  • Planning and facilitating meetings
  • Change management
  • Statistical quality control
  • Root cause analysis
  • Scenario analysis
  • Brainstorming
  • Scheduling tools
  • Lessons learned (PMI, 2008)

If an individual finds him or herself managing a program but has not had prior project management experience, it is advised to find team members who has knowledge of, and experience in, using these kinds of tools. They are invaluable, and quite necessary, to solve problems, gather and analyze information, and generally increase the productivity of the program team.

Gaining Proficiency

The first step in gaining proficiency in any area is to do an assessment of current knowledge and skills. There are many instruments available today that can help with this. ESI has several, and so do other organizations. Once an assessment is conducted you will have a baseline understanding of what areas you need to work on; however, don't forget to also reinforce your strengths. Too often we spend time working on our weaknesses, when in reality we would be better off concentrating on improving our strengths.

Once you have gained a solid understanding of where you stand relative to your baseline, you can then formulate a personal improvement plan. Such a plan is more than a “training plan,” although formal training will certainly be part of it. Other areas may include working as a deputy program manager under the tutelage of a more experienced person who can coach and mentor you. There's nothing like experience to ratchet up your skills, especially if you're working alongside professionals more experienced than yourself. Additionally, you can read journals and trade magazines in your field to supplement your knowledge base, and general knowledge of the industry and practice of program management. You can join various associations and special interest groups. PMI, for example, has a SIG (Special Interest Group) in program management. Immersion is the key.


Cialdini, R. B. (1987). Influence: Science and practice. New York: Allyn & Bacon, Inc.

Cohen, A. R., & Bradford, D. L. (2005). Influence without authority. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

PMI. (2008). Program management professional (PgMPSM) examination specification. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Ward, J. L. (2008). Dictionary of project management terms. Arlington, VA: ESI International.

© 2009, Ward
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia



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