Main image of article Program Manager Career Path: Skills You Need to Succeed

Program managers must oversee programs composed of individual projects, which means guiding large and diverse teams with multiple deliverables and challenges. It’s a complex role, in other words, and vital to an organization’s overall strategy and success. 

Rather than delve into the minutiae of each project (that’s what a project manager is for), the program manager needs to ascertain the risks and benefits of each project in their purview and how it affects overall strategy. A good program manager has a direct impact on the bottom line and long-term health of a company.

Sounds daunting? Of course. But for those with the right skills, the program manager role is a perfect fit. We spoke to several experts in the field to better understand what it takes to be a successful program manager, who is best suited to the role, and what skills are necessary.

Breaking Down Top-Level Program Management Skills

“As businesses get more strategic with project management and start aligning projects together into programs of work, the need for skilled program managers grows,” says Elizabeth Harrin, Senior Project Manager at Nuttfield Health and former program manager at Spire Healthcare Group. “A program manager needs to be comfortable not knowing the detail, something I found difficult when moving into a program leadership role. You have to trust that your colleagues are doing their jobs and provide a level of challenge [to those employees] that gives everyone confidence that you are uncovering the truth about status.”

Program managers must become very good at synthesizing information and having a grasp of the big picture. Without that, the entire program risks falling apart. “You need to be able to join the dots between an issue happening on one project and a resource problem that’s happening on a different project—and see how work could deliver benefits more quickly and effectively if the overall scheduling was approached differently,” Harrin adds.

Soft skills are also a crucial component, as program managers must interact frequently with senior leadership, stakeholders, and even their professional colleagues at other organizations.

Mandatory Skills for Program Managers

Joshua Hart of Joshua Hart Consulting gives us his full list of ideal program manager skills:

  • Technical expertise: A deep understanding of the industry, technology, and development process is essential for a program manager to lead projects effectively. 
  • Strategic thinking: The ability to think long-term and develop a comprehensive vision for the program while balancing short-term goals. 
  • Be a leader, not a manager: The ability to lead cross-functional teams, motivate and manage people, and make difficult decisions.
  • Great communication: Excellent verbal and written communication skills, and the ability to communicate complex information to stakeholders of different technical backgrounds and levels of seniority. Additionally, strong relationship-building skills and the ability to effectively collaborate and negotiate with stakeholders and team members.
  • Problem-solving: The ability to identify and solve problems effectively, making use of data and other relevant information to inform decisions. 
  • Project management skills: Knowledge of project management methodologies, risk management, and experience in planning, executing, and delivering complex projects on time and within budget. 
  • Adaptability: The ability to handle ambiguity, pivot when necessary, and make quick decisions in fast-paced environments. 

“Executives nowadays prefer to hire people who can think critically and base their decisions on evidence,” adds Jeff Mains, CEO of growth accelerator Champions Leadership Group. “Program managers need to be able to swiftly and effectively collect and process the information and explain program conclusions, because most programs create significant amounts of financial, statistical, metric, and other types of data.”

Mains says solving disagreements is also key for program managers: “[The ability to] resolve conflicts calmly and fairly. Program Managers can put this talent to use while negotiating with experts from ‘the other side,’ mediating disagreements among their teams, and resolving conflicts that they themselves have sown.”

Sugandha Sahay, Program Manager of AWS at Amazon, also gave Dice her list of must-have program manager skills:

  • Program planning: Identifying key requirements of the program and breaking them down into important milestones with the right owner, planned date and dependencies.
  • Risk mitigation planning: Monitoring the program milestones at regular intervals and identifying the risk. Working out a risk mitigation plan with the owners of the milestones.
  • KPI definition and tracking: Identifying agreed-upon Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to track the success of the program at a regular cadence.
  • Stakeholder management: Keeping the program stakeholders aligned at regular intervals about the milestones achieved, key risks, risk mitigation plan and upcoming milestones. Also sharing the KPIs with the stakeholders at a regular cadence.
  • Force multiplication: Identifying opportunities to automate themselves out of the mundane repeatable program tasks.

Being a great program manager boils down to one thing: leadership. If you can effectively lead people—and balance the goals of each project with company objectives to satisfy all parties involved—you’re on a great path. Focus on leadership and structure first, and the rest typically falls into place.


Related Program Manager Jobs Resources:

How To Become a Program Manager

Program Manager Interview Questions

Program Manager Resume Template

Program Manager Salary

Program Manager Skills