Becoming a program manager--moving your career to the next level


Serrador Project Management


You are an experienced Project Manager with a good track record and some successful projects under your belt. So how do you take your career to the next level, and become a program manager?

Becoming a program manager is the next obvious step, but is not necessarily an easy step. As you rise in seniority, fewer positions are available and they are harder to get. You need to be prepared and be ready to take that leap.

Program management is a discipline separate from project management; it is important to understand a program manager’s extra responsibilities. This paper will define program management vs. project management, discuss strategies for moving your career into program management and discuss how to start running your program once you have the job.

What is a Program?

The follow points have been used to describe programs.

- Focused on coordination of multiple related projects

- Longer view spanning all sub projects

- Has a defined value proposition

- There is defined value through coordination of subprojects

- Major concerns are with synchronized delivery of project results, resource sharing, issue and risk management, and budget control to achieve program success

This is a mechanical view of a program. However, from a higher level we can look at it in the following way:

- projects deliver outputs, discrete parcels of change; programs create outcomes.

Programs can be seen as more strategic, more focused on managing organizational growth and change. An experienced program manager will always think of his program in that broader context and new program managers should learn to think in the same way. (Exhibit 1)

The Standard for Program Management—Second edition (PMI, 2008), states that: “A program is a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually.” (p. 5)

Vincent J. Bilardo, Jr.(2008) identifies 7 key principles of program success.

Seven Key Principles of Program Success

  1. Establish a Clear and Compelling Vision
  2. Secure Sustained Support from the Top
  3. Exercise Strong Leadership and Management
  4. Facilitate Wide-Open Communication
  5. Develop a Strong Organization
  6. Manage Risk
  7. Implement Effective Systems Engineering and Integration

He also states, though not as one of his 7 points, but as part of his text the following statement: “Create Your Own Success” (p. 38). This points to another key aspect of program management. A program manager has to show the leadership required to find success in any program.

Projects vs Programs

Exhibit 1 – Projects vs Programs

Becoming a Program Manager

So how do you get the opportunity to be a Program Manager? Here are some key techniques:

-   Deliver the goods

-   Upgrade your education

-   Make sure you delegate and are seen to be delegating effectively

-   Mentor others

-   Promote yourself

-   Show leadership

-   Act the role

Of course to become a program manager, you need to have shown to be able to deliver consistently good project results. No-one is going to promote to program manager a project manager that has been struggling or has been delivering less than successful projects. Remember that there are less program management roles available than project manager roles. You need to be one of the top delivering project managers to move into the program management role. If you don’t feel your projects are as consistently delivering, that is a key area to focus on changing.

Upgrading education can also set you above the crowd for promotions. If you don’t have your Project Management Professional (PMP®) Certification, you should have it. Consider an Masters in Business Administration (MBA) or Masters in Project Management (MPM) degree. Training courses in program management are also highly beneficial. The Program Management Professional (PgMP®) credential is designed for experienced program managers and so is probably not an option for a project manager.

Program managers can’t be detail people; they need to think at a more strategic level. Someone who is not good at delegating probably shouldn’t be a program manager. Become good at delegating and let management know you are good a delegating. Make yourself promoteable by having juniors who can take your place.

Help to mentor other project managers. Sharing templates you have created, documenting best practices or offering to be a “buddy” to new employees shows you are ready to guide project managers in a program management situation.

Promote your successes to management. Quietly delivering successful projects should get you recognition, but sometimes it just doesn’t. Bosses are busy people who sometimes don’t recognize everything you’re doing. Make sure your bosses know what you’ve been doing and how you have made your projects successful.

Leadership is required to be a successful program manager. Show your leadership ability by pioneering new techniques and practices in your projects and then disseminating them more broadly across the organization. This is the type of leadership required in a program manager role. Cleland (2004, p. 220) states that a leader does the right things and a manager does things right. Doing the right things leads to effectiveness and doing things right leads to efficiency.

Age old advice about promotions says that if you want to move up a level, start acting the part now. If you are a project manager, manage your projects with company strategy in mind. Add program management features to your projects. If you are managing a large project with junior project managers or project coordinators (which you probably should if you’re ready to move into program management), then structure their work as subprojects. Let them run those subprojects, provide status reports, and do everything a standalone project would do. Management should notice and it is something you can promote when applying for program management roles.

Learn from the best – try to work with successful Program Managers

There is no better training for program management then to work closely with an experienced and successful program manager. To manage large programs, one should strive to work as a project manager on large programs first. A project manager should search out those opportunities and work to get assigned to that program.

Moving is a career strategy

Often the fastest way to get a more senior role is apply to an open position whether in different group or a different company. Most senior managers come from internal staff development.

However, according to a study, outside CEOs earn on average 13% more than internal candidates (Aguilar, 2007). Moving between companies can expose a manager to different environments, techniques and challenges. It can also be a faster way to get more senior roles and higher pay. There is a certainly a risk; the grass may not really be greener on the other side. Senior executives fail, in general, 34 percent of the time when hired from the outside and 24 percent when hired from the inside (Kelly-Radford, 2001).

Often the most certain way to advance a career is to grow within a company. If there aren’t advancement opportunities you want in your current department, other departments or divisions may be looking to fill the types of roles you’re looking for.

Managing Programs

You’re a junior Program Manager – now what? The follow are some key points to consider in running a program.

  • Structure sub-projects properly
  • Make your project managers run things as you would run them
  • Don't micromanage. You're the program manager not the project manager.
  • Focus should be at the executive level
  • Business focus is also critical

Note that these items are not required in most projects. Running projects and programs are different.

Components of a Structured Program

Here are the key components of a structured program

  • Steering meetings
  • Action items
  • Issues
  • Status reports
  • Cascading status meetings
  • Risk Registers
  • Project Plans
  • Change Management
  • Budgets


Pace Productivity Inc. has published detailed studies of time use. They report that 5% overall time in planning appears to be ideal for salesmen. (Ellwood, n.d., p 10) Less or more time spent planning results in less salesman success. Typical managers spend 1.7 hours per week on planning. The more senior, the manager the typically more they spend planning. Program managers need to ensure the planning and analysis work they do is adequate to the project. (Ellwood, 2005)

“Failures don’t plan to fail; they fail to plan” Harvey MacKay (n.d.)

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Dwight D. Eisenhower (n.d.)


Make sure you delegate and are seen to be delegating effectively. Delegate as much as you possibly can. Delegate until those to whom you delegate complain or start to falter. This is good for you and them. It helps employees grow. No-one reaches successful program management without good delegation skills

It is also important to challenge your project managers. People rise to a challenge: You should delegate until they tell you they have too much or start having problems delivering what you ask of them.

Excuses not to delegate

  • They’ll make lots of mistake?
  • “If you don't make mistakes, you're not working on hard enough problems”. F. Wikzek
  • I can do it myself in the time it takes to explain it
  • “You cannot do everything at once, so find people you trust to help you”. Jane Seymour (nd. ¶3)

Having Good Meetings

Program mangers will chair numerous meetings and must run good meetings. The program manager may spend most of his or her time in meetings. They need to remember these basic rules of running meetings.

  • Define an agenda
  • Stick to your agenda consistently
  • Discuss new findings and techniques
  • Focus on problem solving
  • Interrupt long winded team members
  • Cut off tangents – “Let’s park that item for a follow on meeting”
  • Document action items


Defining the stakeholders is a critical task. Who are a Program’s most critical stakeholders?

  • Not the team
  • Not absolutely everyone who could potentially be involved or be impacted by the project.
  • Not the management who has directed the completion of the project.

Stakeholders who can impact the success of the project could come from any of the groups below (Exhibit 2):

Stakeholders Who Impact a Project

Exhibit 2: Stakeholders Who Impact a Project

The key stakeholders are usually the business users, often senior management on the business side. They are, in effect, the clients who have purchased the product or service. They are the customers! It is similar to running a small business. These stakeholders can make or break the small business. These are the stakeholders a program manager should focus on.

As Freeman and McVea state (2001, p. 14)), the stakeholder approach is about concrete “names and faces” for stakeholders rather than merely analyzing particular stakeholder roles. Knowing that “business users” are impacted is not enough. It is necessary to communicate directly with the senior manager (“John Smith” or whoever) of the business team.

Presenting to Senior Managers

As a program manager, you will be regularly presenting to senior mangers and stakeholders. It is important to remember basic rules of presenting to senior managers.

Introduce yourself and explain your role/background. It is important to be concise and focused. Answer honestly: If you don’t have the answer, offer to get back to them. Always prepare your slides and distribute ahead of time. Ask if they want to go through the deck or just review the highlights. Read the body language of the group. If they look board, speed it up. If they look confused, slow down and ask for questions.

Also remember these presentation tips. Start by summarizing the reason for the presentation. 3-4 bullet points per slide is usually best. Expand with your verbal comments. Always give concise options: both pros and cons. Remember to summarize and outline next steps. Leave time for discussion at the end.

Consider having a 30 second summary ready just in case a key manager has to leave before you can get through your presentation. Know to stop at yes: If you’re looking for an approval on an item, don’t keep going after they agree. This can indicate you’re not confident in the recommendation and gives time to for them to reconsider.

This is not only good advice for program managers. Good presentations and well run key meetings by a project manager may get the notice of senior management. This may be an area that they will feel comfortable with you as program manager.

Balanced Scorecard

Balanced Scorecard is a tool developed by Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, as described in two successful books.

“The Balanced Scorecard translates an organization's mission and strategy into a comprehensive set of performance measures that provides the framework for a strategic measurement and management system.” Kaplan and Norton, (1996, p. 76)

The Balanced Scorecard balances the financial perspective with the organisational, customer and innovation perspectives which are crucial for the future of an organisation. It is a tool program managers should become familiar with.

Communication Styles

Program managers will spend more time dealing with very busy, senior managers and stakeholders. Getting their time and attention may be a challenge. A technique that can be used is to try to understand their preferred communication style.

  • Written – e-mail, Instant Messaging
  • Verbal – phone, voicemail
  • Visual – in-person

Once this style is understood, a program manager should use this method to communicate.

Steering meetings

Steering meetings are critical in ensuring that the senior stakeholders are aware of project progress and issues. For this reason, it is important tailor the materials for these senior stakeholders. The following are guidelines for these meetings:

  • Joint Issue list
  • Crisp presentations for the sponsor
  • Don’t gloss over challenges
  • Review issues and risks

Program managers should create simple, crisp presentations for the sponsors. Don’t gloss over problem areas, risks or issues. Sponsors want to know about potential problems, they don’t want to be surprised at the last minute. They want to know while there’s still time to act.

Program managers need to remember these are the people who can help overcome obstacles. They should let them help and give them the information they need to help.

Status Reports

  • Weekly
  • Crisp and to the point
  • High level issues and risk
  • Highlight the actions required to resolve issues
  • Document successes

A program manager must ensure each subproject creates a status report. These can then be rolled into the overall program status report. The program manager should define a subproject status format that lends itself to rolling into a program level status report.

Joint Action Items

A key challenge in program management is not only managing the team’s deliverables, but monitoring the deliverables of stakeholders and business partners. An action items list is a great way to do this.

  • Keep the deliverables in sight every week
  • Update them regularly

Don’t just include items for the project team here. Program managers should ensure they have the business action items and stakeholder action items as well. They should review every week. This will ensure that action items and task are not forgotten or lost (which can happen easily in a complex project.)

Some people like to use issue and action items interchangeably. A clear distinction is preferred. Issues are items for management attention, items they should be aware of and either monitor closely to take action on immediately. Action items are used to document items that may not appear in the project plans, but that need to be tracked and should not be forgotten (a to-do list as it were). The program manager should be most concerned with the issues list. Action lists should be closed by the program’s project managers.

Risk reviews

Risk management is important and involving stakeholders ensures a more thorough job.

  • Make sure the project risks have been considered
  • Don’t assume stakeholders understand their internal risks
  • Each subproject needs to have their own risk review

Risk reviews are critical. Just by talking about them, the team may even end up avoiding the very risks they document.

Of course, it’s not the program manager’s job to analyse stakeholder risks for them. However, the program manager can help them and may well help himself. And it is part of the role.

Ask Questions

Don’t assume everyone’s done their homework. For example, are the tools or vendors vetted? Is the project design optimum? Is the design built for future needs?

If you ask questions, you never know what you might find. Faulty assumptions early on can doom your program to slow inevitable failure. Who would like to be involved in that kind of project?

In fact some of the greatest project failures are due to bad assumptions. You usually don’t hear about projects where they had carefully reviewed and vetted their designs, vetted their suppliers, carefully checked their assumptions and then somehow messed it all up in the execution. Why? It doesn’t happen. If you have a good solid solution analyzed and planned, you can ride out and resolve the inevitable bumps in the road.

It is like a house: a house built on a good foundation will stand many years. But if you have foundation problems, you’re going to pay to fix it! Or worse yet, see your house condemned or collapse.


There are many pitfalls but using good practices, a new Program Manager can avoid becoming a short term Program Manager.

Aguilar M., (2007, May 1,) An Outside Job: External CEO Hires Paid More, Compliance Week

Bilardo V., (2008). Seven Key Principles of Program and Project Success, Ask Magazine, 25P. 37

Brown, C., (2007), An Introduction to Stakeholder Management,

Cleland, D.I., (2004). Field guide to project management (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Eisenhower, D.D. (n.d.) In Retrieved from

Ellwood, M.(n.d.) How sales reps plan their time. Retrieved from

Ellwood, M. (2005, November) Time priorities for top managers. Presented at International Association of Time Use Researchers (ATUR) Conference, Halifax, NS, Canada. Retrieved from

Freeman, R. E. and McVea, J.,(2001), A Stakeholder Approach to Strategic Management, Handbook of Strategic Management, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Gaston, B, (Jan. 2010), Communicating Effectively to Executives, The Journal of Policy Engagement 2(1) 15

Kaplan, R.S., Norton, D.P. (1996), Using the balanced scorecard as a strategic management system, Harvard Business Review 74 (1), pp.75-85.

Kelly-Radford, L. (2001, August/September). The revolving door of talent. CEO Magazine, 86-89.

Kozak-Holland, M. (2004, November), Measurements & Balanced Scorecard, Presentation to Toronto SPIN, Toronto, Ontario, Canada Retrieved from

Mackay, H. (n.d.) In Retrieved from

Nimax G, (2008), Balanced Scorecard, Presentation on Management Methodologies in Practice at UVa Retrieved from

Project Management Institute (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK Guide® guide) – Fourth edition, Newton Square, PA: Author

Project Management Institute. (2008). The standard for program management—2nd edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Rowe, S. F. (2009, October) Collaborative Project Leadership: Program Management From the Project Manager’s Perspective, 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings, Orlando, Florida, USA

Seymour, J. (n.d.) In Retrieved from

Wilszek, F. (n.d.) In The quotations page Retrieved from

Zhang, Y. & Rajagopalan, N, (in press). Once an outsider, always an outsider? CEO origin, strategic change, and firm performance, Strategic Management Journal

© 2010, Pedro Serrador
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington DC



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