What Is a Program Manager, and How to Become One?

8 min read

The role of a program manager has emerged as crucial to the success of organizations both large and small. 

But what exactly does it mean to be a program manager, and how can aspiring professionals embark on a journey to become one? 

This comprehensive guide will explore the world of program management, from its fundamental principles to the essential skills and pathways to entry. 

Let’s start with the fundamentals and define what a program manager is.

What is a program manager?

At their core, program managers are strategic thinkers and masterful orchestrators.

They are responsible for ensuring that every project works harmoniously to achieve an organization’s strategic goals. Essentially, a program manager’s primary role is to align a set of projects under their purview with an organization’s strategic objectives (manage programs). 

Think of them as architects, designing and overseeing the construction of a complex skyscraper (the program), with each project as an integral part of the building’s structure.

Pro tip: If you don’t know the difference between a program and a project, we’ve created an article about their commonalities and differences.

Program managers are known for their ability to see “the big picture”. They possess a holistic understanding of how different projects intersect, influence one another, and ultimately impact the organization’s success. 

Having explored the role of a program manager, let’s dive into their specific responsibilities and functions.

What does a program manager do?

While program managers’ roles can vary depending on the industry and specific organizational needs, several vital functions are commonly associated with the responsibilities of a program manager:

Pro tip: To clearly define responsibilities and duties within a team or company, you could use the RACI framework. We’ve prepared a complete guide for you to discover.

Now that we’ve covered the core responsibilities of program managers, let’s turn our attention to the essential skills that enable them to excel in their roles.

What skills do program managers need?

Becoming a proficient program manager demands a diverse skill set. 

These skills enable program managers to navigate the complexities of overseeing multiple projects and aligning them with an organization’s strategic goals:

  • Leadership: Inspire and guide teams, set vision, and make informed decisions.
  • Communication: Convey complex information, listen actively, and negotiate effectively.
  • Strategic thinking: See the big picture, plan long-term, and align projects with strategy.
  • Problem-solving: Identify and analyze issues, and devise effective solutions.
  • Stakeholder management: Build relationships, understand needs, collect feedback, and manage expectations.
  • Adaptability: Stay open to change and continuously learn.
  • Technical knowledge: Industry-specific understanding enhances decision-making.

Now that we’ve explored the key program management skills, let’s differentiate their role from that of a project manager.

What’s the difference between a program vs. a project manager?

Program and project managers are both essential roles in project management, but they serve distinct organizational functions. 

Understanding the differences between these roles is crucial for effective project and program management. 

Below is a comparison table highlighting key distinctions between the program manager vs. project manager:

AspectProgram managerProject manager
ScopeManages a portfolio of related projects and initiatives, often with strategic significance.Focuses on the planning, execution, and completion of individual projects.
ObjectiveAligns projects with an organization’s strategic goals and long-term vision.Ensures that a specific project’s objectives are met on time, and within scope and budget.
ResponsibilityOversees interdependencies between projects, mitigates risks, and maximizes synergies.Manages project-specific tasks, resources, schedules, and deliverables.
TimeframeFocuses on the long term, with programs often spanning several years or indefinitely.Concentrates on the short to medium term, with projects having defined start and end dates.
MetricsMeasures success based on strategic impact, overall program performance, and benefits realization.Evaluates success against project-specific criteria such as scope, schedule, and budget.
Team managementCollaborates with project managers but typically doesn’t directly manage project teams.Directly supervises project team members, assigning tasks and responsibilities.
Budget controlManages program budgets, which may encompass multiple project budgets.Controls the budget allocated to a specific project.
Change managementOften involved in change management at an organizational level due to the program’s strategic nature.Focuses on change management within the scope of the project.
ReportingProvides high-level reports to senior leadership, stakeholders, and executives.Offers detailed reports on the progress, risks, and issues specific to the project.
Risk managementFocuses on program-level risks and the impact on strategic objectives.Identifies and manages risks specific to the project’s scope and objectives.

Pro tip: It’s also common to confuse the roles of a project manager and a business analyst. That’s why we’ve prepared an article about the distinctions and similarities between these roles.

Now that we’ve clarified the difference between a project manager and a program manager, let’s explore the path to becoming a program manager.

How do you become a program manager?

If you aspire to excel in the pivotal role of program manager, taking the following steps will help pave the way:

  • Educational foundation: Many program managers hold bachelor’s degrees in business management, project management, engineering, or related disciplines. Some may pursue master’s degrees, such as a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or a Master of Project Management, to enhance their qualifications.
  • Gain project management experience: Work as a project manager to develop a deep understanding of project lifecycles, stakeholder management, risk assessment, and project execution. You can use Glassdoor or Indeed to find relevant program manager jobs.
  • Obtain relevant certifications: Consider pursuing program management, depending on your career goals and industry. We’ll share a recommended list of certifications in the next section.
  • Develop leadership skills: Improve your leadership skills, including decision-making, conflict resolution, team building, and communication. Leadership training and workshops can be beneficial.
  • Networking: Attend industry events, join professional organizations like the Project Management Institute, and connect with professionals in your field. Building a solid professional network can open doors to opportunities and mentorship.
  • Seek mentoring and guidance: Find a mentor who is an experienced program manager or executive in your field. They can provide valuable insights and career advice, and help you navigate the complexities of program management.
  • Continuous learning: Stay updated with industry trends, best practices, and emerging technologies through continuous learning, program management courses. and professional development to become a senior program manager.

Now that we’ve discussed getting a program manager job, let’s explore the certifications that can enhance your qualifications in this role.

What program management certification do you need to have?

Certifications in program management not only enhance your knowledge and skills but also validate your expertise in overseeing complex initiatives. 

Here are some of the most recognized program management certifications:

  • Program Management Professional (PgMP): Offered by the Project Management Institute (PMI), the PgMP certification is designed for experienced program managers. It demonstrates your ability to manage multiple related projects and align them with organizational goals.
  • Project Management Professional (PMP): Also offered by the PMI, the PMP certification is ideal for project managers. It covers a wide range of project management principles and practices, demonstrating your proficiency in project management. 
  • Managing Successful Programmes (MSP): Developed by Axelos, the MSP certification is a globally recognized framework for program management. It provides guidance and best practices for program managers, emphasizing strategic alignment and benefits realization. MSP program manager certification includes Foundation and Practitioner levels.
  • Certified ScrumMaster (CSM): While not specific to program management, the CSM certification is valuable for program managers working in agile environments. It focuses on Scrum practices, teamwork, and project delivery within iterative and incremental frameworks as Agile provides.
  • Six Sigma: Six Sigma certifications, such as Green Belt and Black Belt, focus on process improvement and reducing defects in various industries. These certifications demonstrate your expertise in data-driven problem-solving and process optimization. The Green Belt level of certification is free to obtain.
  • Certification in the Governance of Enterprise IT (CGEIT): Offered by the ISACA (Information Systems Audit and Control Association), CGEIT is suitable for program managers responsible for IT governance within organizations. It covers IT strategy, risk management, and value delivery, all of which are critical for program success in IT-related fields.
  • SAFe Agilist: SAFe certification is designed for professionals involved in scaling agile frameworks across large organizations. It focuses on Lean-Agile principles, practices, and leadership, which are essential for successful agile transformations.
  • Portfolio Management Professional (PfMP): The PMI offers the PfMP certification for experienced program managers considering expanding their professional boundaries as portfolio managers. It signifies your expertise in aligning portfolios with organizational strategies and achieving desired outcomes.

Pro tip: Interested in learning about project and program manager certifications? We’ve compiled a comprehensive list of certifications in our guide. Take a look!

Having covered program manager certifications, let’s focus on program managers’ compensation and earning potential.

What is a program manager’s salary?

As a result of their significant responsibilities and expertise, program managers are typically well compensated. 

However, program manager salaries can vary.

In the United States, the average annual salary for program managers ranges from approximately $96,000 to $158,000 or more. This wide salary range reflects the diversity of program management roles, with entry-level positions at the lower end and experienced program managers at the higher end.

Additional factors can significantly impact an average program manager’s salary:

  • Location: Salaries vary by region and city due to cost of living and demand.
  • Industry: Different industries offer varying salary levels.
  • Experience: Seasoned program managers earn more.
  • Education/certifications: Advanced degrees and certifications boost earnings.
  • Company size: Large organizations may offer higher salaries.
  • Benefits: Additional incentives contribute to total compensation.

Now that we’ve explored program manager salaries, let’s dive into the essential software tools that support their roles.

What program management software do they use?

Effective program management requires robust tools and software to streamline processes, enhance collaboration, and ensure successful program execution. 

At first, program managers can rely on project management software, which forms the foundation of program management by helping program managers plan, execute, and track individual projects. Popular project management tools include:

  • Microsoft Project: A comprehensive project management software suite that allows program managers to create project schedules, allocate resources, and track progress.
  • Monday.com: A versatile work operating system that simplifies work processes, making it easier for program managers to plan, track, and manage projects and programs.
  • Smartsheet: A dynamic work execution platform that combines collaboration and automation, providing program managers with tools to plan, track, and report on program progress effectively.
  • Microsoft Planner: A simple and visual way for program managers to create plans, organize tasks, and collaborate with teams to manage program-related activities efficiently.

Pro tip: Today’s project and program management is unimaginable without AI. That’s why we’ve prepared a comprehensive list of AI work management tools for you to consider.

Portfolio management software provides program managers with an overview of all projects and initiatives within a program. It helps them to prioritize projects, optimize resource allocation and, increase productivity, and align projects with strategic goals. 

For instance, program managers can utilize PPM Express

This comprehensive project portfolio management software empowers program managers to effectively plan, execute, and oversee complex initiatives. 

It offers a centralized platform for strategic planning, portfolio management, resource allocation, and real-time project reporting, enabling program managers to align projects with organizational goals and drive successful outcomes. 

Pro tip: It’s important to mention that PPM Express can integrate with all the project management platforms we’ve mentioned to build a portfolio management ecosystem.

Collaboration and communication tools are essential for program success.

These tools facilitate communication among project teams, stakeholders, and program managers. Popular options include:

  • Microsoft Teams: A collaboration platform that integrates chat, video conferencing, file sharing, and project management features. It also integrates with PPM Express.
  • Slack: A messaging app for teams that allows program managers to create channels, share files, and integrate with other software.

Analytics and reporting tools help program managers visualize data and create meaningful project and portfolio reports. Notable options include:

  • Power BI: Part of the Microsoft suite, Power BI offers robust data analytics and visualization capabilities. It also integrates with PPM Express.
  • Tableau: A data visualization tool that enables program managers to create interactive and shareable dashboards.

Pro tip: We’ve prepared over 200 Power BI project and portfolio management reports for you in PPM Express to streamline the performance control process.

Now that we’ve discussed the program management software of the trade, let’s shift our focus to strategies for success as a program manager.

From vision to execution: how to succeed as a program manager?

As a program manager, your role is instrumental in turning an organization’s vision into reality. 

Success in this position requires a strategic mindset, effective leadership, and the right tools to navigate the complex landscape of program management. 

Here are some key steps to help you excel in your role:

  • Understand the vision: Grasp the organization’s vision for program alignment.
  • Build a strong team: Assemble a capable, diverse team for collaboration.
  • Plan strategically: Develop a clear program plan for goal alignment.
  • Effective communication: Establish open, regular communication.
  • Change management: Facilitate adaptation to achieve outcomes.
  • Leverage technology: Use software like PPM Express for efficient program management.
  • Monitor and adapt: Continuously track program performance and adjust as needed.
  • Measure success: Define KPIs and metrics for data-driven decisions.
  • Celebrate achievements: Recognize milestones for team motivation.
  • Learn and evolve: Invest in ongoing professional development.

In your journey from vision to execution as a program manager, remember that success is not just about delivering projects on time and within budget; it’s about making a meaningful impact on your organization’s strategic objectives. 

By following these steps and utilizing PPM Express today, you can navigate the complexities of program management and drive your programs toward successful outcomes, ensuring your organization’s vision becomes a reality.

What Is a Program Manager, and How to Become One?
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