Select Page


Are Program Managers on the Career Path to the C-Level?
By Gary Hamilton, Gareth Byatt, and Jeff Hodgkinson

The debate on whether Program Managers would make effective senior executives is one that has gained attention in recent years. However, for this article we thought we would pose this question and contrast it with the muses of a well respected Management Guru, Peter Drucker. Drucker, who is often referred to the as the “father of modern management”, signaled out eight characteristics of effective executives1:

  1. They ask, “What needs to be done?”
  2. They ask, “What is right for the enterprise?”
  3. They develop action plans.
  4. They take responsibility for decisions.
  5. They take responsibility for communicating.
  6. They are focused on opportunities rather than problems.
  7. They run productive meetings.
  8. They think and say “we”, rather than “I”.

How different are these eight characteristics from the day to day responsibilities and behaviors of an effective program manager?

One of the first responsibilities of a program manager is to shape their program. This involves working with the program sponsors to map out the core reasons for the program, management expectations and the overall program scope, timeline, plus the implementation and communication plans. Once the “base details” of the program are established, the program manager is accountable for ensuring the structure of the program is set up to be effective and that it will meet the key program goals. During the course of a program, the program manager will spend a significant portion of his or her time on communication – both the formal program communication to stakeholders (often “reporting up the line”), the informal communication to project managers, and “reporting down the line” for the constituent program and project-level resources. When we compare these program activities and behaviors to those singled out by Drucker for effective executives, three are already evidenced in the core competencies of program managers; (1) asking “What needs to be done”, (2) Development of Action plans, and (3) Responsibility for communicating.

To be an effective program manager (or indeed an effective project manager) you need to be skilled at team motivation. Central to team motivation is the ability to instill a sense of “team over self”. This entails various actions, including referring to “we” rather than “I” at all times, and fostering team cohesion continuously. The most effective program managers understand the risks to being individualistic, and will most certainly refer to the greater good of “we” as the team instead of “I” on all occasions, and give credit where credit is due. This aligns with Drucker’s eighth point of think and say “we”, rather than “I”.

It is likely (perhaps probable) that during the course of program execution, two things will occur. Problems and challenges will arise, and a program manager will have to make many pro-active decisions to respond to them. These decisions range from day to day program decisions to major decisions concerning issues that have been escalated up to the program level by project managers of projects under the program. An effective program manager will resolve problems using the best interest of the enterprise at all times. Programs should of course always be aligned to enterprise strategic goals and therefore the best interest of the program is also the best interest of the enterprise. An effective program manager will also look for the “positives” in any situation; even when problems arise. This is also important for team morale. This aligns with Drucker’s second and third points of taking responsibility for decisions, asking “What is right for the enterprise?”, and his sixth point of focusing on opportunities rather than problems.

Program managers are most likely (though this is not always the case) to have spent several years of their careers as project managers in their respective industry. This does not mean that good project management should be considered a prerequisite for program management. The two disciplines, while inter-related, require different competencies. However, effective program managers will ensure resources are balanced, and will work closely with project managers at all times. Ensuring they are on the same “wavelength” as their project managers is key. Similar to the seventh trait noted by Drucker, part of this is to run productive meetings, thus ensuring that meeting time is utilized in the most effective manner.

In conclusion, according to the eight characteristics suggested by Drucker, a truly effective program manager may have good foundations to make an effective executive. That said, the responsibilities of executive management demand skills that all people who graduate to it need to learn and apply in order to be effective.

1What Makes an Effective Executive?, Peter F Drucker, Harvard Business Review, June 2004.

Gareth, Gary, and Jeff are experienced PMO, program and project managers who, starting in February 2010, agreed to collaborate on a three (3) year goal to write 50 articles (pro bono) for publication in any/all PM subject websites, newsletters, and professional magazines / journals. Their Mission is to help proliferate good program and project management practice, add value to the profession, and in earnest hope readers gain benefit from their 60 years of combined experience.

To date, they have completed 12 articles and have an output of 1-3 per month.
Along with writing articles, each also champions a role in the overall process:

  • Gareth manages all additional guest collaboration
  • Gary manages the article development tracking and team metrics
  • Jeff manages the article distribution and new readership demographics

Each can be contacted for coaching, collaboration, and speaking individually or as a team.

Gareth Byatt is Head of the IT Global Program Management Office for Lend Lease Corporation. Gareth has worked in several countries and lives in Sydney, Australia. Gareth has 14 years of project and program management experience in IT and construction and he can be contacted through LinkedIn.

Gareth holds numerous degrees, certifications, and credentials in program and project management as follows: an MBA from one of the world’s leading education establishments, a 1st-class undergraduate management degree, and the PMP®, PgMP & PRINCE2 professional certifications. Gareth is also the APAC Region Director for the PMI’s PMOSIG and chairs several peer networking groups.

He has presented on PMO, program and project management at international conferences in the UK, Australia and Asia. Email Gareth:

Gary Hamilton is the Manager of the PMO and Governance within Bank of America’s Learning and Leadership Development Products organization. Gary resides in Tennessee, and works out of Charlotte, North Carolina. He has 14 years of project and program management experience in IT, finance, and human resources. Gary has won several internal awards for results achieved from projects and programs he managed as well as being named one of the Business Journal’s Top 40 Professionals in 2007. He can be contacted through LinkedIn.

Gary holds numerous degrees and certifications in IT, management, and project management and they include: an advanced MBA degree in finance, PgMP®, PMP®, PMI-RMP®, ITIL-F, and SSGB.

Gary also is a 2009 Presidents’ Volunteer Award recipient for his charitable work with local fire services and professional groups. Email Gary:

Jeff Hodgkinson is the IT Cloud Program Manager for Intel Corporation. He is a 30-year veteran of Intel Corporation, where he as had a progressive career as a program/project manager. He lives in Chandler, Arizona, and was a past volunteer in various support positions for the Phoenix PMI Chapter. Jeff was also the 2nd place finalist for the 2009 Kerzner International Project Manager of the Year AwardTM. Because of his contributions to helping people achieve their goals, Jeff is in the Top 100 most networked and the third most recommended person on LinkedIn.

Jeff holds numerous certifications and credentials in program and project management, which are as follows: CCS, CDT, CPC™, CIPM™, CPPM–L10, CDRP, CSQE, IPMA-B®, ITIL-F, MPM™, PME™, PMOC, PMP®, PgMP®, PMI-RMP®, PMW, and SSGB.

Email Jeff:

Recommended PM App

Recommended PM App