What Is a Program Manager?

Program managers are vital to the success of any organization, but what exactly do they do? This guide breaks down their role and how they contribute to the success of a team.

Updated July 24, 2020

If a company is like a train, a program manager is the soot-covered person at the front shoveling coal into the flames to keep it rolling.

A train has many parts that are necessary for its operation, but the fireman is there to set it all in motion and monitor it so that the locomotive and all the cars behind keep moving toward their destination.

Program managers oversee the complex operations of a business and make sure all of the interconnected parts work together.

Without a program manager at the helm, an organization's workforce is left without leadership and vision, and you can't accomplish much in a situation like that — no matter how hard everyone works.

But what exactly does a program manager do, and how are they different from project managers? This guide will help you understand their similarities and differences, why program managers are vital to the success of an organization, and what it takes to be a successful program manager.

What is a program manager?

A program manager is an individual who is responsible for running a permanent, long-running operation that may involve multiple interconnected projects within a company or organization.

Program management involves making sure all aspects of an operation are running smoothly, and it’s essentially a permanent position with no start or end date, contrary to projects (although project managers may also have permanent positions and frequently move one project to the other).

Program manager responsibilities include laying out a strategy, setting objectives, overseeing projects, managing people, and analyzing the data.

Program manager vs. project manager: What’s the difference?

Program manager and project manager roles are very different because of the differences in scope between the two. Projects are temporary, one-off operations with a beginning and end, and they achieve a narrowly defined goal. A program is a permanent operation that may involve many projects at one time.

For example, "produce 20 widgets by Oct. 1" would be a project goal, while "produce widgets to meet projected demand while constantly developing new products" might be a program goal. Once the project manager produces the 20 widgets on Oct. 1, that project is over and the project manager moves on to the next project.

But the program manager is constantly reviewing production, creating new projects, setting new goals, and developing new projects in an effort to keep the company profitable — a never-ending battle that involves a broader focus than the project manager.

What role does a program manager play within a team?

A team needs someone to manage everything, and that's where the program manager duties begin. Without a program manager, the team would have no defined purpose or organization.

A program manager gives the team a clear purpose, lays out who is responsible for what, and helps everyone collaborate in a way that maximizes the efficiency of the organization.

3 skills and attributes a program manager should have

The job of program manager requires a special kind of person. In particular, the program manager will need the following three qualities to be successful.

1. Leadership

When you are in charge of plotting out strategy, managing a team of people, and motivating everyone to execute, leadership is essential. A good leader has integrity, knows how to delegate, holds himself as well as his workers to a high standard, listens to his employees, and acts decisively.

A person who does not possess these attributes should not be in this role, because it will lead to projects going off track due to a lack of faith in the direction of the company.

2. Organization

Programs are complex, often involving lots of people, multiple projects, financial considerations, legal concerns, and all sorts of things that are difficult to manage. A program manager should excel at organization so that nothing gets left by the wayside, and everyone knows who is accountable for what.

3. Communication

All the leadership and organization in the world won't save a company if the program manager is a poor communicator.

An essential part of a program manager's job is to clearly and articulately express to all employees and stakeholders what their responsibilities are, and provide a vision for what they are working to accomplish that everyone can understand and get behind.

5 ways a program manager helps the success of the members of their team

Program managers do a lot to help teams get the most out of their work, even though it isn’t always obvious. Here are five program manager activities that directly contribute to the success of a team.

1. Streamlining

A team without a program manager will not operate efficiently, often duplicating efforts or focusing on the wrong activities. A program manager can organize and streamline an operation so that everyone is working on the right things at the right time, rather than simply working for the sake of working.

2. Holding people accountable

We've all probably heard a coworker or employee say, "Oh, I didn't know I was supposed to do that." It's a problem because it means an essential task didn't get done, and it's avoidable. A program manager assigns specific roles and responsibilities to each worker so everyone knows what end result they are responsible for.

3. Strategizing

Without a vision, a team is like a rudderless ship, aimlessly floating in the sea that is the business world. And when that is the case, the team won't be motivated, won't accomplish the right tasks, or both.

A program manager helps a team by creating an overarching strategy with clearly defined goals that help everyone understand what the purpose of each task is.

4. Managing risk

All projects run into problems, and the job of the program manager is to minimize those problems and mitigate them when they crop up.

A good program manager will identify possible risks within each project and find a way to either avoid them before the project starts or come up with a plan to handle those issues if and when they arise.

5. Improving processes

A program manager gathers data and analyzes the performance of past projects in the hopes of finding new ways to become more efficient and further streamline future projects.

The program manager helps individual team members become even more productive by finding better ways to accomplish the tasks they already do, freeing them to spend time on other important but less urgent tasks that were getting swallowed up by more pressing tasks.

Looking to become a better program manager? Try software

If you’re trying to come to a better understanding of the role of program managers in order to further your own career, don’t forget that having good tools is an important part of your success.

Lots of project management software options exist that can help you improve how you operate on a daily basis, and ensure you are on top of the entirety of a program.

Software offers tools that will help you in all aspects of your job, such as coming up with a project management plan, defining the project scope, and managing a cross-functional team.

When you have tools like this at your disposal, you’ll have the confidence to do your job to the best of your ability. Check out some of The Blueprint’s reviews of program management software to see if there are any software options that appeal to you, then give two or three of them a trial run.

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