Managing Managers – From the Program Manager’s Perspective

Throughout a working program manager’s lifetime, the majority of time spent will be managing team members that would be considered ‘individual contributors’. These resources are generally on loan from functional managers within the corporate structure that are providing the resource for whatever reason. They may be part of a core deliverable that plays a role in the functional manager’s own product line or they may be working on some internal agenda such as a process initiative or a new design concept.

During one’s early tenure in the realm of project management, the project’s themselves will likely be smaller in nature, with perhaps only a handful of individuals assigned to the project at any given time. But as the project manager becomes more experienced and eventually transitions into the role of a program manager, the actual projects that are under their management will likely be part of a broader ‘program’, encompassing multiple delivers and simultaneous releases that require input and support from a large number of individuals. When this transition occurs, the newly minted ‘program manager’ will likely have not only individual contributors to contend with, but will almost invariably have other managers under their ‘control’. These could be functional managers that are part of the broader program, product managers or product marketing managers assigned to the program or even other project managers that may or may not be direct reports. In any sense, the reach and scope of the program manager’s influence is obviously much higher.

With that being said, how different is it for the program manager to actually manage ‘managers’? How different is it from managing individual contributors?

Key Factors:

Relying on Trust

While trust is one of the most paramount attributes of a project manager when dealing with a team, it becomes even more relevant when coordinating with other managers. While the project manager has more direct access to information from a given team member, the program manager is often relying on information provided by other managers, whether they be functional managers, product managers or other project managers. There will be many cogs to keep track of and its important to foster an environment where a good report exists between the program manager leading the effort and all the resident managers that are participating.

Discussions will Involve Strategy

While in a project management setting, many of the discussions with the team will be inherent to the deliverable itself, specific technical and design issues or various mentions of the schedule. Once you are moving up the ladder and interacting with other managers, the talk shifts towards more of a strategic type of discussion. Which projects are being worked on, what is aligning with mega trends, how do we want to position ourselves, and so forth. As the program manager, being cognizant of high level portfolio matters will become quite important. Risk assessment discussions and high level budget discussions will also be up for review.

Communication is Key

It is often said that project management is all about communication. This becomes even more apparent when moving into the program management space. Just maintaining good communication channels is not enough. The program manager needs to become skilled in the manner and methods of disseminating information in effective and cogent ways. As you are interacting with higher level managers and senior leaders, the discussions will become less technical and far more strategic, as noted earlier. As such, knowing what type of information to convey and how to convey it will become extremely important.

Management Techniques may Need to be ‘Tweaked’

While certain management styles may work with the individual contributors, those techniques don’t always translate well when dealing with other managers. For the most part, as you move up the management chain, the technical expertise of the individuals will become smaller. Additionally, what works to motivate the younger, more eager team members is not always a method that works well with a more experienced and older audience. Oftentimes, managers and more seasoned individuals will respond better to more strategic discussions that give them incentive from the standpoint of being beneficial to their particular areas.

Primary Responsibilities:

Set a Clear Vision

In any project, its important to set some type of primary goals or milestones. At the program level, the milestones and goals become more aligned with the overall vision or strategy being set at the corporate level. Often times, concepts like ‘Victory Plans’ become the primary frame of reference when attempting to align the overall program with the company’s main vision and portfolio set.

Use Effective Networking

As always, networking is a very important and staple attribute of the project manager’s primary duties. This becomes even more important when dealing with upper and senior leaders in an organization. Knowing who to talk to when it comes to getting resources and finding kindred spirits when fostering a new idea is imperative. Senior leaders will often have clout and can become important allies when it comes to getting assistance for various facets of the program as a whole.

Make Objectives Clear

In conjunction with a clear vision, clear objectives need to be obvious to those managers involved in the program. Often times, many managers will have pre-conceived notions of what they think will be yielded from the program. Which usually stems from a personal bias based on their area of expertise and responsibility. So making sure that the overall objectives and high level milestones for the program are accurately conveyed is important to the over-arching success of the program itself.

Lead by Example

This is by no means unique to program management. The project manager must also lead by example. The major difference in this case is that your leadership skills are being scrutinized by not just individual contributors, but other leaders as well. Afterall, they are not un-seasoned leaders themselves and will be able to spot character or leadership flaws more readily. So ensure that you foster a leadership style that is both positive and humble when dealing with other leaders. And even if you are the defacto ‘leader’ of the program, try to operate in a fashion where you consider the other managers as peers as opposed to subordinates.

Use Collaborative Problem Solving Techniques

When you are in a situation where you are dealing with other managers, one of the best techniques to utilize is collaborative problem solving. If issues arise, make sure they are discussed in a forum setting where everyone’s opinion carries equivalent weight. Try to avoid making unilateral decisions. If other managers feel as though they are part of the overall decision making process, they will be much more receptive to your leadership position.