Program Management and Leadership
By Mark Bojeun
Program Management is rapidly becoming a driving force in the successful delivery of solutions. Standards such as the Project Management Institute’s Program Management Standard and Prince2 Program Manager Certification outline the tasks and responsibilities, inputs and outputs, and knowledge areas. Though these processes can definitely contribute to the successful delivery of services there is much more to being an effective Program Manager. Certification, education and experience are all beneficial, but what does a truly successful Program Manager look like?
A program is defined by PMI as:
“A group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually. Programs may include elements of related work outside of the scope of the discrete projects in the program. “ (The Standard for Program Management, Second Edition)
The primary responsibilities for a Program Manager are defined by PMI as 1) Benefit Management, 2) Stakeholder Management, and 3) Program Governance. These three key areas permeate everything that a Program Manager does. Although process and knowledge areas go into great depth and detail, everything these process areas contribute to a program can be directly aligned with the three key tenets.
Yet the approach taken by the Program Manager in leading the team, Project Managers, and stakeholders is crucial to the overall success of the effort. It is the Program Manager that sets the tone and creates the environment through which the teams will operate. The PM will create a formal or informal environment, establish communication patterns, autonomy and reporting levels and will set the standards that all team members are held to. As such the Program Manager will create an environment that appears somewhere on the spectrum from hostile and toxic to rewarding and high performing.
A team that operates in an open and honest environment will tend to be more creative and innovative, working towards a common goal, while the same team in a more hostile situation will become risk intolerant and communication channels will begin to close down. The positive side of the spectrum enables open communication, personal commitment, tolerance and innovation while the hostile environment will create finger-pointing, hidden concerns, and unvoiced risks.
The environmental setting is so crucial to the success of the effort that it is a key factor in achieving success and sets the standards for everything from communication to technical effectiveness. Mello (1999) states that leadership studies have taken place for over a thousand years, dating from the ancient Chinese, Greek and Latin classics, as well as both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Fulmer and Conger (2004) point out that in the first few years of the 21st Century, over 15,000 books and articles have been published on leadership alone. As such, it is curious that when taking on managing a large and complex effort such as a program, that the standards so effectively miss this crucial critical success factor. However, I have yet to find a standard dealing with the management of complex efforts that outlines the role that effective leadership plays. Process and policy, tasks, roles and responsibilities are crucial, but to be truly effective a Program Manager must be an effective leader. The standards provide the steps but as Peter Drucker (2003) cautions “no book will ever make a wise man out a donkey or a genius out of an incompetent” (p. 7).
This article will attempt to identify some key leadership traits that contribute to successful Program Managers as related to the process and standards of the Project Management Institute.
Benefit management is the identification, realization, and communication of tangible benefits that the program will deliver to the stakeholder community. The benefits of a program are most likely to be lost or forgotten with time and general impact of delivery. The Program Manager is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the benefits are useful and aligned with the organizational objectives, communicated throughout the organization, and when realized, validated to ensure that the benefits intended were those that were realized.
Therefore, the Program Manager must be capable of envisioning the future state, providing a gap analysis between the current and future, and ensuring that stakeholders and program team members all recognize and see the value of the future state. A program that is undertaken with no tangible benefits has little support from the organization and will often be challenged on the basis of cost, organizational impact and resource consumption. While a program with great benefit will receive the vast amount of support and resources to ensure that it is able to achieve established goals. At the same time, the greater the benefits the more pressure to deliver in a timely manner.
For any and all efforts the PM must be able to align pain points with benefits so that stakeholders can recognize that the future state will be a better one and are prepared to deal with any temporary pain points while waiting for the new set of benefits that will be an outcome of the effort.
A successful program will also leverage the program team to work together in the development of a solution. The environment created by the Program Manager will determine the level of personal contribution, investment and innovation that the team delivers as a whole. Each participant is a key player in achieving success. The PM must ensure that every team member clearly understands the benefits of the program, the future state and is on the same page working towards the same vision. Without this, teams will head in disparate and sometimes opposite directions burning time, resources, and dollars without tangible benefits. Thus, as the responsible party for Benefit Management not only must the PM define the environment but they also must be someone who can envision the future and must be an exceptional communicator to ensure that everyone involved with the program whether a contributor or user is operating to the same vision and expectations.
Stakeholders need to have clarity in what will be forthcoming, when things will occur, and when they will receive information. Without this, the program soon becomes a “black box” which is often resented by those waiting for benefits. Regardless of the technical or managerial knowledge of the stakeholder community, there is an expectation that they will be capable of observing some level of progress. Often this progress can be demonstrated through tangible achievements but there are times, especially early on in a program, where the progress is more intangible. The PM must be able to effectively communicate progress and schedule throughout each stage of the effort. Stakeholders need to know not only what the status is, but when they will hear additional status updates and the form that communication will take. In the PMI Standard, this is accomplished through the communication plan but it also is anticipated that the PM will be able to respond to questions, deliver status on a moment’s notice and recognize when the communication schedule needs to be adjusted to better meet the needs of the community.
Stakeholders must also clearly understand what the program will and will not deliver. Expectations that are not directly aligned with the program deliverables will create a level of frustration and cause a loss of support for the effort. Communicating the program expectations in terms of features, functionality, schedule, cost and quality must be an ongoing dialogue validating that stakeholders clearly understand what is proposed and how the program will meet needs.
In working with various stakeholder communities I find that not only must the PM be able to communicate they must also be beyond reproach in the information they communicate. A PM cannot be inconsistent, illogical, or demonstrate a lack of knowledge. They must be aware at all times of the many statuses of projects, efforts, and tasks. They must be able to discuss, at any level, the progress of the effort, technical challenges, financial issues, and resource concerns. When this pattern is found, the general outcome is one of honesty, reliability and trust. Honesty and reliability work together to build trust and it is the trust of the stakeholder community that is crucial to success. A PM communicating progress who is not trusted is not believable and therefore the progress, program status, financial estimates and risk identification all become questionable.
The reality is that all programs have good days and bad days. There are times when risks are realized, issues encountered, and the unexpected hits causing tremendous concern for the program outcome. Yet a Program Manager will need to communicate openly and honestly the good and bad of the program regardless of the potential outcry from the stakeholder community. The news must be put into context and balanced between the fears of failure and the realities of issues encountered. A PM full of all bad news, or all good, soon loses credibility with the community. Therefore the PM must be courageous in communicating issues and avoid cheerleading when the effort appears to be firing on all cylinders.
At the same time, the Program Manager is responsible for the work performed by the teams that they manage. In the event that an issue or problem occurs, the PM must defend the team and maintain control of the effort. It can often be painful to stand up to executive managers, but a PM who takes responsibility for failure and passes success on to the team creates an environment of internal trust, confidence, innovation, and success. I have always believed that “Failure is mine, success is the teams, and failure is not an option”. This quick motto helps to create an environment where the team can operate with best efforts and not fear. It also fosters the overall level of communication and ensures that the Program Manager is aware of the facts, good or bad, and has the ammunition to clearly brief stakeholders. The team that is protected by management becomes more willing to innovate and create knowing full well that they will not be “punished” for attempting to solve challenges. This creates a safe environment regardless of the organizational culture and encourages greater internal communication and contributions eliminating hostile or toxic traits such as finger pointing, sabotaging, withholding information and focusing on personal success over organizational.
The trait of courage and expertise leads to a level of confidence that a Program Manager should demonstrate. Stakeholders who are concerned about program success will look to the Program Manager to instill confidence in the objectives. In addition, team members will be more successful in following someone who is confident in the approach and where they are leading the team. Uncertainty, fear, and anxiety will come across as a lack of belief in the program and potential benefits. This negative will feed the communities concerns and when issues are encountered the stakeholder community will immediately interpret their concerns as valid.
On the other hand, a leader who demonstrates confidence in the team, program objectives, potential benefits, technical approach, and evangelizes the solution will generate a following of stakeholders who begin to believe that success is achievable. It is only through this confidence, communication, and trust that a Program Manager can ever hope to develop a true high performing team. And it is the high-performing team that can achieve the impossible.
High performing teams are achieved through a shared vision, communication, trust, confidence and also motivation. Individuals need to be motivated to move beyond the 8-5 work day and begin to take pride in the work they are producing. When motivated team members come together to deliver a solution every aspect of the effort becomes important. A high performing team blurs the boundaries between responsibilities as team members begin to assist each other and work towards the common goal setting aside their personal ambitions for a short time and focusing on success. Internal communication increases as the team shares knowledge and issues among themselves, and therefore lessons learned becomes a dynamic process that takes place throughout program development.
While much of this article has focused on the delivery and motivation of teams, one aspect that is critical is the assurance that information required is available and the process is complied with. Although a transformational leader motivates a team to greater levels of communication, creativity and innovation they must also make sure that the effort does not stray from the required processes. Skipping over critical areas because of momentum in others is a sure way of creating program failure.
An effective leader will need to ensure that the team complies with all aspects of governance implemented so that individual efforts, projects, or tasks do not go astray. A program is a combination of smaller component efforts (projects) that when combined offer a greater benefit than managing each project alone. Therefore, Project Managers and team members must comply with processes such as schedule management, financial management, performance measurement, and project reporting to provide the foundation on which the effort eliminates redundancy, disparate efforts, and disconnects between projects.
Although the PM is focused on many positive leadership traits, the compliance with process is one that may require some level of transactional or authoritative traits to constrain non-conformity. Obviously, it is better to communicate the end-state, vision, and challenges that a program will encounter encouraging team members to willingly comply, an effective PM will also have the authority to require conformance where necessary. Often this is more a demonstration of courage than standing up to stakeholders as many Project Managers can be quite skilled leaders in their own right.
I am a big fan of learning and leveraging the process of PMI and other methodologies. I hold PgMP, PMP, and PMI-RMP, but while the knowledge of process is a definite contributor to success, effective leadership traits are also necessary to be able to consistently achieve success. Teams respond to quality leaders and to positive working environments. Authoritative managers forcing an unnecessarily formalized environment will create a more uncomfortable working environment and may inadvertently decrease communication, innovation, creativity, and personal investment.
Although certifications are quite useful in ensuring that a manager has the tools to lead a team, there is much more to program management. To be successful as a Program Manager an individual must be:
- Transformational / Charismatic
- A visionary
- An effective communicator
- A trustworthy colleague
- A motivational leader
Mark Bojeun brings years of international strategic management experience in the commercial and governmental marketplace. He also has extensive experience in providing strategic support and mentoring to management professionals in the development and implementation of organizational vision, mission, objectives, and goals. Mr. Bojeun also has more than 20 years experience in software development, project and program management, developing and managing Program Management Offices (PMOs), Performance Measurement Analysis (PMA), and Earned Value Management Systems (EVMS). He has been responsible for teams of over 100 individuals and has managed contracts in excess of $50-million. He has also taught hundreds of students in program, project and risk management as both a professional instructor and adjunct professor at George Mason University.
Mr. Bojeun holds a BS in business administration from Strayer University, an MBA from George Mason University, and is currently a PhD candidate in strategic management. He is one of a handful of people in the world to hold certifications as a Program Management Professional (PgMP), Project Management Professional (PMP), and Risk Management Professional (PMI-RMP) from the Project Management Institute (PMI). In addition, he holds a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD) in .NET.
You can read more from Mark on his blog.
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