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what makes a great Program Manager (PgM)?

March 25th, 2008 No comments

Over the years I have been asked for my opinion on what makes it takes to be a great PgM? For some or other reason, I have been asked this again three times over the last two weeks. Considering that I have also been asked to start a blog, I am going to try and butter my bread on both sides. So here goes – what does it take to be a great PgM? – My perspective is forged 100% in the high-tech industry.

A high-level definition of a PgM is someone that can turn a challenge into an opportunity. They must be able to break down the challenge into bite size chunks and deliver it on time and on budget while communicating their intent and progress the whole journey. And they get to do this with no authority.

So, here are some key traits that I look for in a Pgm candidate.

values / beliefs

honesty & integrity – the basis of everything! No honesty & integrity – go home!

passion – you gotta care. If you don’t care about what you are doing, I would say that is a sure sign of either the wrong role / job or burn-out. I look at passion as a seesaw with too much on one side and too little on the other side. The key is the balancing act because when you lean too much towards one side or the other, you credibility tends to suffer.

leadership – this is the tough because the rougher the road the thicker your skin needs to be. I have the philosophy that most people will follow a leader when they believe in and trust that leader. So, lead and they will follow, one small step at a time.

work ethic – when at work; Work! Otherwise enjoy life and expand your horizons. I am going to quote Stephen King: “ Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” To me, this is a perfect summary because it takes a boatload of work and dedication to get things done and it takes even more work to get things done properly. I must point out this item is NOT work 100% of your life, just work hard when at work.

thirst – the pursuit of personal growth demonstrates your awareness that life is a journey. During one of my first promotions, I was told something that has stuck with me. “What got you this promotion will not get you the next promotion. The bar has moved higher and you need to jump higher!”

empathy – you must be able to relate to the issue/problem/challenge and understand fully the implications of the issue that customer/partner is experiencing. Being able to understand what the challenge / opportunity is one of the key elements of the PgM role. No matter type of PgM role you are providing, having a very good and accurate understanding of the problem is critical to leading the team to deliver a solution that not only meets but exceeds the need.

sharp – I am combining the ability not only to have the mental muscle but also how to use it. i.e. think on your feet. PM’s are parachuted into many, sometimes conflict ridden, situations and therefore they need to read the situation and respond appropriately.

discipline – engineering orgs are highly disciplined organizations 9OK(OK, so some of them aren’t so disciplined). Agile does not equal undisciplined, in fact I have found that doing agile well requires a much higher level of discipline than waterfall development. Fitting into a disciplined org takes a level of self-discipline, both to understand the disciplined environment. When dealing with a undisciplined individual, it requires an even higher level discipline because you will have to bring it to party when the other person does not.

accountability – I look for “the buck stops with me” attitude and mindset. Without this mindset, it becomes a spaghetti junction of someone else’s problem which is frustrating for all parties involved.

mandatory skills

communication – the ability to communicate successfully with all parties is critical and is the basis to be successful in the PgM role. Misinformation or incorrect information is far more damaging than little or no information! Getting things wrong means that efforts are misdirected, money is misspent, time is wasted and you lose credibility. Therefore the ability to ask pertinent questions in a clear and concise manner is imperative in keeping conversations focused on the topic and ensuring good information interchange.

technology base – it is impossible to know everything, but not understanding the basics of computers, computer & networking HW and networking is simply unacceptable. An hour a day of reading some key sources for a month or two is a good start. If you have the base, you are not off the hook. It takes a constant effort to be up-to-date with what is going on in the industry.

flexibility/agility – no I do not need you to touch your toes or do the splits. What I am referring to is the ability to adapt to the situation and to have the open mindset to listen. If you are talking, you aren’t listening! I admit that this item is mostly empathy to be able to listen to the user’s issue / feedback.

herding cats – getting a group of smart people to do something together is pretty much like herding cats. Sometimes it is going to be easy and other times you are going to bleed! Either way, it takes a lot of preparation and leadership for them to follow.

tools of the trade – duh, but I had to add this one after seeing it today. Gotta know how to use office productivity tools but also the various project management tools. Portfolio and financial management tools are a definite bonus.

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