What makes a good Program Manager?

They come in all types: the rock star program manager. The cerebral yet reserved program manager. The process focussed program manager. The more easy-going and aloof program manager. And of course, the completely ineffectual and downright worthless program manager!

So how does one quantify the distinction? What are the factors that make a project or program manager ‘good’? What factors make them ‘bad’? And what factors make them, frankly, ‘ugly’?

In many cases, rating one’s effectiveness is often subjective. How can you actually quantify certain traits, whether they be personal or professional? What baseline does one use as reference and what factors of measure can one leverage to quantify this in a decent yet reasonable way?

To start, I think it is important to try to catalog some of the key things that make a project/program manager good at their job. I recall once in a job interview being asked: “what would you say are the top three things that make a really good program manager?”

This was a fantastic question and as I thought about it, I came up with the following success criteria based on my own experience in the field:

  1. Communication Skills – Without a shadow of a doubt, the most important factor in the good program manager’s arsenal. Being able to convey oneself in an articulate and effective manner is an attribute without which a program manager cannot function. From my perspective, if I was interviewing a candidate, this area to me would be the biggest deal breaker should I notice lack of effective communication skills in our dialog.
  2. Organizational Skills – This may seem like a no brainer, but many might be surprised just how often this quality is lacking in those within the program management space. But being that program managers are responsible for so many factors and various disparately and often geographically dispersed projects and team members, being able to get all entities to function cohesively and staying on top of progress as the project or program moves forward is absolutely paramount to the success of those initiatives.
  3. Technical Skills – Now often, I get a lot of pushback when I mention this skill set. The general argument is that program managers are not supposed to be experts in their field since being a PgM is supposed to be agnostic to the project type. But honestly, does anyone give credence to this argument? Technical skills span more than just the various aspects of the project; they can also be part and parcel of the tools and techniques a PgM might use to accomplish their job. Whether that be having knowledge of some particular tool, like MS Project or Excel, some programming skills to be able to automate aspects of their work, or even a background in the technology of the projects they manage. Knowledge, in any guise, is still power.

With the above criteria in mind (and there are, of course, other factors that people might mention in similar lists), what factors might make a program manager ‘bad’? Frankly, from my perspective, it would be the exact OPPOSITE of the criteria listed above. Poor communication skills lead to bad interaction with team members and inability to effectively disseminate information. Poor organizational skills will lead to things being missed, thereby jeopardizing the success of the overall project or program. And poor technical skills may lead to inefficiencies, such as the PgM taking far more time to accomplish a task than would otherwise have been necessary had they possessed more working knowledge of the tools and techniques in a good PgM’s arsenal.

So that’s the good and the bad. Now what about the ‘ugly’? This is a little bit more difficult to quantify. Like before, many of the aforementioned success criteria of a ‘good’ PgM that is lacking in another can also be part of the ‘ugly’. But from my perspective, the difference between ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ also begins to cross the threshold into other factors, such as genuine personality traits that are caustic to the environment. Some examples of that might be:

  • Bad Tempered – Easily emotional individuals who cannot maintain a level head can be catastrophic to a program’s success. Especially if they display frustration on a regular basis.
  • General Apathy – Indifference in individuals with regards to their work or just a poor work ethic in general can be very damaging to the project and the team. If the PgM is not pulling their weight or is approaching their job with a certain ambivalence, that doesn’t do anyone any favors.
  • Back Door Shenanigans – Office politics are not new. And they can be damaging in all areas within any business. But for a PgM, trust is one of the most important aspects of their job. Without the trust of their team, the project is likely not to succeed. Especially if the program manager is far more concerned with the games they feel the need to play in order to stay employed as opposed to the actual progress of their programs.

So there you have it. The ‘good’, the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’. Many other factors of course also exist when it comes to the genuine success of the program manager. And arguably, some may think the success criteria listed above needs to be either re-ordered or adjusted. Good program manager’s exist. And so do bad ones. The demarcation between them may not be that easy to quantify. But more often than not, at least based on my experience, the success factors listed above will often be cited in many cases where that evaluation is being performed.