5 Keys to Successful Program Management

Published: Jan 02, 2015
Modified: May 29, 2020


Back in the mid-1980s, I landed my first job out of college, which was to provide technical support for a NASA contractor in Washington, DC.  Just about all the people I supported there had the word “Program” in their job title, whether it was Program Director, Program Manager, Program Admin Support, etc.  Program is a word that I’m sure has multiple definitions and connotations in people’s minds, and having earned an IT degree, I even wondered at first if it had to do with computer programming. I quickly learned that program management is a skill that applies to any business, from computer programming to business to healthcare; it plays a crucial role in all organizations.

In the project management world, the term program refers to a set of multiple projects that are related in some way to achieve an overall strategic objective.  In my particular case at the time, the NASA program I supported was a space initiative to launch the Advanced Communications Technology Satellite (ACTS), which was ultimately launched by Space Shuttle Discovery in 1993. Just as well-managed projects are broken down into a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), made up of multi-level work packages, huge complex initiatives that may take many years or even decades to accomplish with multiple million plus dollar budgets are better categorized as programs, with multiple projects running in succession or parallel to support them. 

Just like a NASA space program, a program could also be the research, development, and launch of a new drug by a pharmaceutical company, or the development of a radically new product line by a food manufacturer.

As successful project managers start moving into longer term, higher cost initiatives that require the coordination of multiple projects, here are five key benefits of moving up into that program management role:

  • Practicing cohesive leadership and vision for the program deliverable: When a program is entrusted to you to manage or direct, you become a leader of multiple projects, each with its own or shared set of team members.  Each project team will most likely have its own manager, so that not all team members report to you directly.  In addition, each project would have its own set of timelines, risks, issues, budgets, contractors, possible subcontractors, etc., that you would not be able to keep on top of yourself, and it will be critical to display leadership qualities to all your project heads and contributors.  The more complex and numerous projects you have to support the program, the more important your role becomes in terms of making sure your project teams are aware of how they “fit” in the big picture goal(s) of the program.  Values such as inspiring trust and confidence, being authentic and credible, communicating goals and direction clearly and consistently are important to model for your direct reports, as well as to all individual contributors and stakeholders to your projects and overall program.
  • Sharing and collaboration among common resources: For similar projects within your program that may be running in parallel, it will be common to have team members or resources with skills that can be leveraged for greater efficiency of your program.  In the NASA program I supported, certainly administrative support, technical expertise, and non-human resources, such as equipment and facilities, were shared in order to optimize utilization rates and potentially reduce downtime of projects.  In my technical support role, I had to shuttle between the contractor office, NASA Headquarters, and the Goddard Space Center in order to provide help desk services on similar computer equipment that was used. A program management role assists in facilitating all of these various factors.
  • Leveraging lessons learned: All good project managers, if they follow the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge, or PMBOK®, should ideally go through a Project Closure process, even if the project ends before completion.  One of the biggest benefits of closing a project, and running multiple projects under a program structure, is to build a knowledge bank of lessons learned.  Program management teaches you that the projects need to run smoothly even after you are gone. If you have multiple projects running in sequence and utilizing the same contractor, for example, there could be rules of engagement or ways of “getting things done” that could be useful for the next project manager or new team member to be aware of.  Again, it’s all about efficiency and productivity for the good of your program’s success overall.
  • Mastering “soft skills” challenges and opportunities on a prominent stage: A frequent statistic cited on the percentage of time that a project manager spends on communication is 90%. I would argue that the percentage of time that a program manager spends on communication (and other non-technical skills) is even higher, maybe even 100%.  Skills such as delegation and instilling trust in your project teams, motivating individual team members as needed, influencing and negotiating with stakeholders when needed, and being able to communicate and present with confidence to all levels within the organization are those skills which helped you get to a program management position in the first place.  Practicing and refining those skills will be even more important on the program level, and you will find your team leaders will look to emulate those skills if done in a consistent and exemplary way.
  • Achieving further individual recognition and visibility: Given the nature of a program (as compared to a project) -- usually longer range, larger budget, and greater impact on your organization’s success -- the ultimate goal is to meet or exceed the initiative’s overall goals and deliverables. The program’s impact on the organization’s viability in the marketplace or support of its key strategic objective(s) should always be foremost in mind as you handle your role on a day-to-day basis.  However, as it is almost human nature, there’s nothing wrong with being aware of how the program’s success affects your individual status in the organization, and your career overall, and that may well be as strong a motivating factor as the organizational impact of its success.  The ultimate success or failure of a high-visibility, high-stakes program rests on your shoulder;  on one hand, a positive outcome could be career-boosting, or on the other hand, a potentially career-threatening failure.

I had not recently thought much about my first job--coming up on almost 30 years ago--as I left it long before the NASA program was launched. The mission deliverable was successfully deployed and was a pioneer in satellite communications technology.  In writing this piece on program management, I did some research on the program director who -- at least from my perspective -- exhibited the skills outlined above, and in these many years since, looks to be enjoying a very high-profile, distinguished career.  While program management would be a higher stakes and potentially higher stress position, the rewards of successful execution can lead to long lasting benefits for you and your organization.