The six unspoken habits of highly effective program managers

For a long time now, the lines between technical skills and business skills have been growing blurry. What’s even blurrier, it seems, is the actual definition of the term “business skills.” Depending on who you’re talking to or what trade publication you’re reading, “business skills” could be called “soft skills,” “management skills” or even “business acumen.”

Well, whatever you want to call them, ESI has defined them as the skills, complementary to strong technical ability, that are required to be truly effective in business, such as skills in communication, critical thinking and personal management.

Currently, there’s no shortage of research pointing to the fact that these skills are very important—maybe even vital—to those of us who make a living in project and program management.

According to Carol Hildebrand (2006), the skill breakdown early in a project manager’s career is approximately 95 percent technical skills and five percent business skills—business skills being skills in communication, presenting and mentoring. However, as that manager’s career progresses, and as he or she gets promoted and gains more responsibility, that breakdown becomes more like fifty-fifty.

A study by the Stanford Research Institute and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation seems to agree. It determined that 75% of one’s long-term job success depends on people skills and only 25% on technical knowledge (Behm, 2005, p. 3). Forrester Research is even more specific. In their study of IT decision makers, 75% of those surveyed marked “communication skills” as a very important skill influencing their hiring decisions. “Teamwork” and “problem solving” skills were also among the top ten ([email protected], 2007).

Still though, despite their apparent importance, soft skills are often left out of organizations’ performance improvement programs. They’re deemed too instinctive or unteachable, as in “you either have these habits or you don’t.” To make matters worse, managers often simply assume that their employees already have business skills and, in turn, continue to promote project and program managers to important positions who are unable to communicate effectively, interpret basic financial statements, lead teams or think critically when faced with a difficult problem.

With so much research about business skills being discussed and written about, ESI became interested in the overall state of business acumen in the marketplace. So, in May 2006, ESI hired an independent research firm to conduct a study aimed at learning more about the need for business skills habits among today’s technical and specialized professionals. The objective of the research was clear: to ascertain exactly how ESI’s customers and non-customers define business skills and, perhaps more importantly, whether business decision makers feel their technical and specialized employees even need business skills in order to succeed.

ESI’s research was conducted using two methods: first, a comprehensive online survey taken by more than 1,200 business decision makers across 12 separate industries and the government; and, second, various focus groups made up primarily of current ESI customers.

The Results

Upon completion, the research led ESI to a number of important conclusions. First, we were able to validate that technical and specialized professionals do indeed require business skills to do their jobs well. According to the research, this applies to a variety of job titles, including project managers and team leaders, IT managers, program managers, business analysts and technical managers from numerous disciplines.

Second, the research indicated that many of the issues and challenges associated with today’s changing business environment have increased the need for strong business skills. Some of these issues and challenges include—

  • Technical staffs that are often unprepared for responsibilities when promoted to management
  • Inability to identify clear goals and track progress against them
  • Lack of interpersonal and communications skills
  • Problems often won’t go away or continually resurface
  • Lack of awareness about strategic goals and objectives
  • Expertise lies with only a few individuals
  • Inability to respond effectively to organizational change

More specifically, survey participants were able to identify specific skills and habits that they deemed essential for their performance. In rank order, these were communication skills, interpersonal skills, critical thinking skills and problem solving ability. In a related note, from the responses, ESI was able to devise a comprehensive list of specific actions that technical and specialized professionals, including program managers, “need to do better or differently.” These include, also in ranked order—

  • Make better decisions
  • Develop knowledge and skills in others more efficiently and effectively
  • Be a better team leader
  • Uncover business problems or opportunities to create appropriate solutions
  • Communicate effectively with internal stakeholders, customers and non-technical audiences

Business Skills for Program Management

Of all the job titles listed above that rely on business skills for success, one that definitely stands out in the crowd is program manager. As professionals around the world have found themselves faced with managing many complex projects simultaneously—projects that often tie directly back to organizational objectives—program management is a discipline that has received a great deal of attention in the last few years. In fact, the Project Management Institute (PMI®) recently launched an all-new credential in the profession: the Certified Program Management Professional (PgMPSM).

Simply put, in order to truly succeed as a program manager, one must possess a strong foundation of business skills. Unfortunately, studies from ESI and others have shown that many professionals in both the public and private sectors lack proficiency in the application of soft skills. In an effort to help today’s managers keep up with our constantly changing business environment and reach their desired career goals, I’ve put together this definitive list of the Six Unspoken Habits of Highly Effective Program Managers. This list can be used as guide for mapping out your career and your future professional development plans.

1. Tie Your Program to the Business…All the Time

The best business people in the world—and, in turn, the best program managers in the world—are those who, regardless of the situation, are able to tie their work directly to the business. Everyone gets mired down in overloaded in-boxes, day-to-day to-do lists and miniature crises; however, you must be able to link every task you do to specific organizational goals and objectives. Otherwise, you’re wasting valuable time and effort by devoting resources to things that ultimately won’t help your program move forward.

Is there a strategic angle here? An operational angle? Interpersonal? Personal?

As an effective program manager, you should be asking these questions constantly and analyzing your business from each of these different perspectives and ensuring that your program is aligned appropriately. Success will often rely upon your ability to prove to your colleagues and superiors that your program supports overall organizational objectives. Once you’ve made your case, your responsibility is to ensure flawless operational implementation. This can be achieved through strong connections with your stakeholders and team.

A key element to being able to tie your work back to the business is simple self awareness. You should constantly be seeking feedback and using that feedback in meaningful ways to ensure your place in the business. This includes knowing all of the rules, regulations, laws and cultural norms that may affect your projects, programs and ultimate success.

2. Know Your Audience

Knowing your stakeholders and communicating with them effectively is essential to success. This seems like an absurdly obvious statement, right? Well, apparently not. You’d be amazed how many problems—from the biggest to the smallest—begin when a stakeholder is left uninformed or when a simple case of bad communication occurs. On a basic level, you should always be as clear as you can with your colleagues, and you should never rely on assumptions. However, powerful, effective communication goes way beyond that.

Often times, communication fails because the communicator doesn’t fully understand his or her audience. Are you talking to executives or to your own team members? Are you talking to customers or to vendors? Believe it or not, for maximum impact, you should vary the way you communicate with each of these groups.

Also, understanding communication styles is particularly helpful in ensuring that your message is received. A direct communication style may have always served you well in the past; however, your words may be met with blank stares and confusion from a colleague with a considerate or systematic communication style. When you understand the way you communicate—and, more importantly, the way those around you communicate—you’ll be much more likely to avoid problems.

3. Use Situational Thinking

On any given day, you solve a startling number of problems. When faced with so many fires in need of putting out, sometimes it’s hard to take a step back and really see what’s there in terms of potential. By using different types of thinking for different situations, you and your team will get better results. Here are some examples:

  • Analytical thinking will help you identify the root cause of your problems, which will then help you solve the “real” problems, and, if you’re lucky, find the hidden opportunities that are buried deep below the surface.
  • Creative thinking techniques should be used when developing possible solutions to a problem or challenge. This will yield innovative responses that may land you in an even better position than you were in before your problem even occurred.
  • Implicative thinking will help you reason through “if this, then that” implications for generated responses, which will help you ensure appropriate solution selection.
  • Strategic thinking techniques will be important as you consider the bigger picture and where you are headed.
  • Tactical thinking will lay out the specific plan of action for implementation.

In addition, it’s essential to apply a standard process to your decision making. Sometimes following your instincts and gut reactions will work, but more often than not you’ll be better off with a structured approach to problem solving that includes problem/opportunity identification and analysis, an environmental scan, response exploration, response selection and implementation.

4. Take Time to Build Talent

Everyone knows someone who wants to do everything on his or her own. In fact, you may even be one of these people. Well, I’m here to tell you that you simply can’t do everything—nor should you. A truly successful leader is one who uses a deliberate and structured coaching approach—and, in the process, builds knowledge, skills and capability. The end result is an expanded resource pool and more motivated employees. Making time to develop others will serve you, your program and your organization well.

To delegate key tasks, and to delegate them well, you should begin by assessing what to delegate to whom based on skill and motivation. Then, you should be able to provide your team members with clear, complete instructions and expectations. What do you want done? When do you want it done by? How will you measure whether or not the work has been complete? You should be able to communicate all of this and more at the beginning of the hand-off process to ensure success, to avoid time-consuming back-and-forth communications and to prevent eventual fist fights at the water cooler.

Once a task is delegated, you need to be clear about what level of support you will provide—and make sure you provide it consistently. Be accountable to helping your colleagues succeed.

One key component to delegation—and to coaching and mentoring in general—is the giving and accepting of feedback. Whether you’re dealing with your peers, supervisors or even your stakeholders, you should always be assessing others performance and offering them clear, constructive comments. Without feedback, it is impossible to improve processes and develop new skills and practices within your organization.

5. Know the Numbers and What They Mean

Anyone can read a spreadsheet full of numbers. It’s being able to make sense of those numbers and being able to identify what may be lurking within those numbers that will make you a more effective program manager. Before you make any decision you should know the financial impact of that decision. To do this, put a detailed plan in place to track financial performance. This will ensure that all of those assumptions you made about the numbers were correct and that you’ve achieved the desired outcome.

In addition, an almost instinctive understanding of terms such as revenue, margin, operating profit and break-even analysis is crucial to be a successful program manager.

One staple of financial management that program managers can take advantage of is the use of metrics. By clearly outlining a project or program’s desired financial outcomes and applying meaningful metrics to those outcomes, you’ll be able to chart your progress toward achieving your goals.

6. Be the Catalyst

Change is constant. People have been saying this for as long as they’ve been saying anything in the business world. But what they’re really saying is: change is difficult. Whether it’s a whole new software system, a revamped accounting process or an alternate route out of the parking garage next to your office, few things create as much tension, anxiety and general strife throughout an organization as change. Being able to not only accept change, but to make it run smoothly while continuing to ensure that your business objectives are realized . . . well, that’s the mark of a true change hero.

Instigating and managing change successfully will hinge greatly on whether or not you have a vision for change. It sounds trite, but unless you are able to show people the light at the end of the tunnel—or the ends to the means—you’ll never be able to help your team—or your organization—fully embrace change or be able to weather the storms that so often come with it. To ensure that you have a vision, create a plan for change that includes all aspects of change, from business processes to technology to staffing. This plan should identify all of the stakeholders in your change initiative, as well as their influence in the process and how much they’ll be impacted throughout the process.

And, finally, once you’ve constructed your plan, don’t bury it in an obscure folder on your hard drive. Communicate your plan to everyone on your team. In the last twenty years, I’ve seen many change initiatives succeed and fail. Never once have I heard of someone being accused of communicating too much.


Whether we like it or not, the days of being an island in the business world are over. As a successful program manager, you’re expected to be part of a team. By applying these unspoken habits—and by turning them into spoken habits—you’ll be able to communicate with, support, develop and lead your team like never before and ensure success for you and your organization.


Behm, C.A. (2005) Realizing the Promise of Performance Improvement. Retrieved on August 30, 2007 from

Hildebrand, C. (2006, February) Executive Toolkit. PMI’s Career Track, 2(1), 14-18.

[email protected] (2007, April 16). Filling the PM Skill Gap. Retrieved on August 30, 2007 from

© 2007, ESI International
Originally published as part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings — Atlanta, Georgia



Related Content