Top 9 Program Manager Skills
September 29, 2022
Competent program managers must possess communication, management, leadership, critical thinking, decision making, interpersonal, organizational, risk management, and technical skills.
Sergei Brovkin, founder and principal of Canadian-based consulting firm Collectiver Inc., describes the skills needed for the program manager role as a comprehensive and value-creating set of tools and methodologies. He summarizes that, at its core, project management is about "making things happen." In essence, project management means creating roadmaps to success that anticipate—and avoid—potential hazards and roadblocks encountered along the way to realizing project goals.
Since program managers’ responsibilities are so vast, the list of program management skills is considerable. As the person in command of the lifecycle of large-scale and complex business objectives, program managers must design, staff, supply, troubleshoot, and produce successful business projects and deliverables. Since their projects entail a host of moving parts, program managers make numerous high-stakes decisions daily and contribute feedback and guidance to teams of people to realize a successful program.
Program managers work in a range of professional fields, including information technology (IT), healthcare, construction, and engineering. Their specific job responsibilities vary, but across industries program managers employ technical, leadership, team-building, critical thinking, and resource management skills to achieve program goals.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists a number of industries that employ program managers. Fields with the highest concentration of program manager job descriptions include architecture, engineering, and non-residential building and planning. All of these roles feature average annual incomes of around $100,000; the highest-paying positions are in oil and gas extraction ($152,000), investment pools and funds ($138,000), and securities and commodities or information services ($127,000 to $130,00).
This article explores the top 9 program manager skills required to be successful in this field, as well as the questions:
- Do I need a Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM) to be a program manager?
- What is a Master of Science in Information Management?
Top 9 program manager skills
Which soft skills and technical skills do program managers need to do their jobs well? Let's examine a list of program manager competencies required to be effective in this role.
Program managers need sharp communication skills, as so much of the work is about communicating clearly and effectively with project team managers. Much of a project manager’s work is collaborative, so they need to be reliable, consistent, and direct—and convey complex ideas to team members at every level. They must be fluent in the concepts and terminology used in different industries and by team members focusing on specialized tasks and individual projects.
As you have probably surmised, this job is all about management. Resource management, time management, human resources management, and stakeholder management are all critical project management skills. Program managers must excel at diplomacy and conflict resolution, provide and follow realistic and accurate time schedules, and oversee the rollout of interrelated, complex projects while staying focused on overarching organizational goals.
Teamwork is crucial to every successful project, so program managers must be able to implement smart and efficient leadership strategies to motivate their teams as they work toward shared goals. Program managers need to be both practical and inspirational leaders for project team members and help propel project plans from concept to completion.
Critical thinking skills
Critical thinking enables program managers to analyze processes, incorporate project manager feedback, respond to stakeholder concerns, and fine-tune company policies to create more efficient and profitable systems. Program managers must confront problems early and directly to make course corrections and effectively communicate a revised business case or project plan based on new developments and available information.
Smart and decisive decision-making is a critical aspect of strong leadership and a significant component of the program manager’s role. PMs must have a strong understanding of business logistics and battle-tested strategies and be comfortable with responsibility and accountability in ever-shifting circumstances to generate concrete results.
Program managers act as the liaison between project teams and upper management. They oversee negotiations between team members, align with stakeholders, and navigate the interdependencies of a program's host of projects (and all the details that go with them). Speaking to each group with knowledge and insight—and ease and conviction—helps build healthy teams with a common focus and purpose.
Program managers must be extremely organized to oversee an entire program and its full timeline. This includes managing the delivery of hard goods and services like materials and logistics as well as the activities of teams of employees and executives. Organizing large programs and groups of projects means being detail-oriented about early planning, tracking milestones, controlling progress and logistics, and minimizing risk—all with a focus on time management and budgets.
Staying level-headed and strategic while managing high-stakes, multimillion-dollar initiatives and projects is challenging and takes a good deal of training and experience. Risk management is critical for planning and implementing mitigation strategies for instances when things may go wrong. Program managers need strong business acumen and a laser focus on program goals. Both help guide one toward good risk management decision-making and optimal strategies.
Of course, a program manager's skill set includes proficiency in a wide array of technical skills. They must be experienced in Agile, Waterfall, and Lean methodologies, and this familiarity with project management software means they have the know-how and technical language to communicate with experts and development teams.
Do I need a Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM) to be a program manager?
Program and project manager jobs are challenging. To do them well requires many years of experience and training in the latest techniques and project management methodologies. One way to ensure that you’re utilizing and implementing the most effective industry methods and success metrics is to build on your bachelor's degree and pursue the targeted training found in Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM) degree programs.
What is a Master of Science in Information Management?
A Master of Science in Information Management degree teaches students how to organize and analyze information, recognize and resolve information issues, translate datasets into actionable information, and leverage data to forecast future trends. This master’s program also trains MSIM students in the essential analytic and interpersonal management skills necessary to effectively lead complex programs and meet desired goals.
Skills a Master of Science in Information Management program will teach you
The typical Master of Science in Information Management curriculum focuses on the skills and knowledge necessary for successful program management careers. MSIM programs like the one at the University of Washington offer foundational courses that cover six critical elements:
- Strategic leadership
- Information management
- Information technology
- Ethics and policy
- System thinking and problem solving
This coursework, combined with hands-on experience and practical learning, prepares students in early and mid-career for leadership roles in their industry.
What will I learn in a Master of Science in Information Management program?
The strength of MSIM programs is that many of them offer customizable program designs with specializations and electives that provide targeted training to fit your needs. Finding your right program fit can take some research, but most offer a similar core curriculum of data analytics, cybersecurity, analytic methods for IT professionals, and policy and ethics in information management.
For instance, at the University of Washington, MSIM students choose from three different areas of specialization:
- Business intelligence (BI)
- Data science (DS)
- Program/product management and consulting (PPMC)
The PPMC specialization includes coursework like Enterprise Systems Analysis and Design, Program Management and Consulting Practices, and Product and Project Management.
What are the Master of Science in Information Management program admissions criteria/prerequisites?
The admissions requirements for individual schools vary, so it's important to check their respective websites and contact the admissions teams with specific questions. At the University of Washington, requirements include a four-year bachelor's degree from an accredited US institution (or a foreign equivalent) with a GPA of at least 3.0, and proof of English language proficiency.
Applicants also must submit GRE or GMAT scores and mid-career candidates need to show proof of at least five years of relevant professional work experience. The school also emphasizes the importance of a 900-to-1200 word statement of purpose in which the applicant explains why they chose to pursue the MSIM degree and how Washington's degree program aligns with their values and personal mission.
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