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Natalia Rossingol

What Does a Program Manager Do?

Program managers are experts at negotiating complexity and driving success. Let's explore what program managers do and why this crucial role is so exciting.

In business, both tactical and strategic planning are equally important. While working on short-term goals leads to actual results, it does not guarantee stability and success in the future – to achieve that, there must be a vision that outlines the company’s ambitions and explains how the actions employees take today contribute to something bigger.      

This is why in a larger organization where teams are involved in different projects, it's important to keep all stakeholders aligned and focused on a common purpose.

This is the job of a program manager – a specialist who develops a strategy and oversees the whole work process, ensuring collaboration and team cohesion.

Read on to learn the responsibilities of a program manager, necessary skills needed, the education requirements, and how this role differs from project management. And who knows - maybe it'll sound like the ideal next step for your career.

What is a program manager and what do they do?

A program manager is a specialist who is in charge of coordinating several projects at the same time, as well as the employees involved in them. By “program,” we mean either multiple interdependent projects (like starting a business from scratch or creating a new product) or an ongoing, long-term project (like continuously improving customer service or any grant-funded program).

The role of a program manager involves performing all 4 management functions – planning, organizing, leading, and controlling. Roughly speaking, this means that as with any other managers, program managers:

  1. Analyze the current situation and predict a possible future.
  2. Make schedules and allocate resources.
  3. Provide coaching and support.
  4. Set standards and measure performance.

However, a characteristic feature of program managers is the strategic value of their role.

They work in a broader context, developing a vision and building a strategy of how to make that vision a reality. Their task is to synchronize the efforts company-wide: they manage teams across the whole organization, aligning all the projects so that they all share the same ultimate goal.

 Naturally, such a job requires exceptional communication skills, the ability to organize a huge number of employees, and lots of resilience and patience.

Responsibilities of a program manager

A program manager is a link that unites all the project teams by managing multiple projects. A list of responsibilities includes the following:

  • Developing an organizational strategy for growth and benefits
  • Creating a program management plan and daily monitoring various activities
  • Identifying and explaining the correlation and interdependence among the projects that constitute the program
  • Identifying the goals and objectives, communicating and over-communicating them to the rest of the stakeholders
  • Managing all the stakeholders, ensuring their collaboration
  • Maintaining close communication with project managers (in particular, to help resolve issues)
  • Managing the program budget, identifying and monitoring it
  • Managing all the resources across the projects
  • Identifying and mitigating the risks
  • Tracking project progress and conducting performance assessments, making sure the results meet the standards
  • Reporting the results to the company leadership

What's the difference between project manager and program manager?

Project and program management are not the same things.

While project and program managers share some of the responsibilities, these are two different jobs that should not be confused. People in both of these roles are expected to make plans, delegate tasks, and ensure a smooth work process – however, each of them does it differently. 

Project managers are responsible for a particular project, focusing on providing deliverables (products or services.) They work on a single project, restrained by a specified deadline and resources. This means the goals they strive to achieve are short-term, and they work on a tactical level, caring for the content rather than the context.

In contrast, program managers are in charge of multiple projects at the same time, which they coordinate to achieve a broader, long-term business goal. In other words, their role is strategic, as they focus not on a specific deliverable but rather on organizational growth. They can also oversee a program that unfolds for years.

Project manager vs. program manager

In terms of hierarchy, a project manager typically reports to a program manager. Program managers are often former project managers. 

However, for their collaboration to be more effective, program and project managers should be close partners, supporting each other and exchanging insights.    

What skills make an excellent program manager?

To reach their goals successfully, program managers need to have a set of certain skills that would help them coordinate the work of multiple stakeholders.

Since they are involved in strategic company development, program managers should not be just managers who make sure work is done well and on time – they need to be leaders. They need to inspire and motivate a large number of stakeholders throughout their work.

So let’s see what management and leadership skills are needed to make a great program manager:

Management skills:

  • Organizational skill: establishing connections among different departments; synchronizing company resources (human, financial, informational etc.) and allocating them appropriately;  ensuring efficiency and results while managing multiple projects.
  • Planning skills: analyzing the current situation and coordinating the efforts; scheduling projects.
  • Communication skills: creating conditions for an uninterrupted flow of communication among teams; communicating and over-communicating the strategic goals; establishing a culture of feedback and transparency
  • Conflict resolution skills: focusing on the issue rather than on the personality; resolving conflicts with empathy and respect; developing the environment of psychological safety.
  • Supervision skills: having enough competency, subject-matter knowledge, and technical skills; being open enough to assist when needed.
  • Delegation skills: identifying tasks that can be delegated and identifying people who have enough knowledge or expertise to do the task.
  • Assessment skills: knowing performance measuring tools; the ability to measure performance objectively.

Leadership skills

  • Analytical and strategic thinking: identifying the role of the organization in the market, as well as the opportunities and challenges; picturing a perfect future for the company and developing a strategy to reach it.
  • Creative thinking: developing different scenarios that might lead the organization to success.
  • Change management: the ability to notice the first signs of a possible change; being adaptable and ready to react to change quickly by developing new initiatives and schedules.  
  • Risk analysis: continuously being on the lookout and analyzing possible risks.
  • Building a community: motivating people by communicating the purpose and making it desirable.

In addition to this, we should also say that a program manager’s job is high-pressure and fast-paced. A person who would like to work in this role must be resilient and good at time management – the job would require lots of communication, decisiveness, and quick reactions. This might be draining for some people.  

How to become a program manager

There are different ways of becoming a program manager – through education, training, and experience. Of course, the most perfect method is a combination of the three, which would give you a competitive advantage. 

Let's shortly discuss each of the methods.


  • A bachelor’s degree. A degree in disciplines like business management, business administration, communication and media, finances, and marketing will give you a great theoretical background.
  • A master’s degree. After getting a bachelor's degree, you could deepen your expertise even more.

Program management certifications

Online courses and certifications will provide you with the knowledge necessary to start a new career. You could consider the following options: 

  • Program Management Professional (PgMP) – a program by the Project Management Institute (PMI);
  • Managing Successful Programs – a program by Axelos, a venture company that prepares professionals in project management and IT service management;
  • Program Management – a course offered by American Management Association, focused on strategic management;
  • Certificate in Program Management – a course offered by University of Washington.

Work experience

This is the most practical method that consists in gradually building your expertise and gaining knowledge:

  1. Get project management experience. As we mentioned above, programs are basically sets of projects. This way, to be a program manager, you could start by getting project manager experience, by looking for opportunities to try something new .
  2. Find a program management mentor. Ask someone who has experience to share it with you, help you to understand the role, evaluate your skills, and show the ways of becoming a program manager.
  3. As an alternative, you could ask to be allowed to attend program management meetings, to gain an idea of how they’re held.
  4. Take on more responsibility. Offer initiatives and volunteer to manage projects.
  5. Create your own small project (not necessarily work-related – could be something like a yoga class for your colleagues) and manage it.
  6. Educate yourself. Study available materials about program management – watch videos, listen to podcasts, or read articles. If possible, regularly attend off-line seminars, events, or conferences.
  7. Work on developing program management skills like task prioritization, team leading, resource allocation, and others. Learn more about project management software that would considerably facilitate the management process.  

The job of a program manager would be a great fit for natural-born leaders, not scared of responsibility and ready to respond to everyday challenges.

Overseeing all work processes from a bird’s eye view is demanding but rewarding – because if you succeed, you will create long-term value for your company.

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