Crafting Your Own Program Manager Role

Unlike other positions, there are different paths to becoming a Program Manager. I personally have observed many of my friends become a PgM from a variety of backgrounds and roles. However, aside from straight-up applying for the job posting, there's another, the more subtle, and nuanced path to becoming a Program Manager--crafting it yourself.

Craft it Yourself

Surprisingly, a majority of Program Managers I know acquired their roles as PgMs by “crafting” it themselves. As companies are quickly adopting more Agile practices, methodologies, and cultures, the conventional style of using Project Managers is slowly taking a backseat. Larger tech companies are instead adopting “initiatives” and consist of multiple projects. Having individuals that can handle multiple focal points and projects at once is now mandatory. Hence the increase of program manager roles.

So what exactly does it mean to craft their role? It means they, themselves, gathered the skill, purview, and responsibility of being a PgM. Through the natural progression, growth, and scaling of their company, they simply get “promoted” into the role. They do this in multiple ways. They did this in multiple ways: building relationships, taking on new projects, and brand identity.

Building Relationships

Like any good PgM, they will focus on build relationships with their colleagues. These relationships are built over time through continuous alignment and partnerships. Interpersonal rapport with your colleagues allows PgMs to drive progress in intangible ways that go beyond your typical project tracker.

I regularly set up 1 on 1’s with colleagues that I don’t even know to explore what they do. Most people like talking about their work and how they function so these are great opportunities to let them do just that. This allows your colleague to have a good first impression of you. Ideally, they will understand that you are naturally inquisitive and curious. By developing this rapport, you end up inadvertently revealing new opportunities and projects. Your colleagues may refer to you for guidance, sanity checks, or perhaps ask you to join on new projects. If you want to tactfully join their projects are initiative, simply ask, “So where can I help you?” This question puts the ball in their court and also by asking “where” instead of “how,” you suggest you can already help them. Now it’s just a matter of what part of their initiative/project you fit in. Speaking of new projects…

Taking on New Projects

By building new relationships, projects naturally get pushed on to your plate. Projects represent new, tangible opportunities. These opportunities push the boundaries of your skill and scope and allow you to operate outside of not just your comfort zone, but also your job description. There’s nothing wrong with operating within the confines of your job description, but remember, Unblockers continuously seek to solve new problems and hurdle over new obstacles.

One of the best ways to naturally acquire new knowledge and bridge skill-gaps is to try new things. The easiest way to do that? Take on new projects! Take a look at some of the example projects I myself have taken on:

  • Identify and forge a new partnership with another team and to reduce rework and duplicate processes/knowledge

  • Identity an opportunity to bridge a process gap with a new process or tool

  • Implement a new process requiring change management and executive sponsorship

  • Design and implement a full product lifecycle feedback loop

  • Write case studies for future reference

All of these projects help not just build skills, but also your brand identity.

Brand Identity

At first glance, you might think brand identity is just some unrelated marketing concept and probably wondering, what does that have to do with my career as a PgM? A lot, a whole lot actually. Let me explain.

Your personal brand identity is an intangible perspective that people have of you. It’s a concept, idea, or image of you that evokes an emotion of reaction. From your perspective, it is who you are and what you do. From everyone else and more specifically, your colleagues’ viewpoint, it’s how they view you, what you do, and why you do it. An example of personal brand identity could be when your coworkers first think of you as the first person to talk to when a problem or project comes up. Their first inclination to reference you was because you had some level of rapport and trust with them. Perhaps on previous occasions, you successfully delivered projects or programs for your colleagues and that built a level of trust and impression. With that same trust, your colleagues knew instinctively that for future projects and tasks, success could be ensured by involving you.

Bringing it All Together

These points together forge the recipe for crafting a Program Manager role. Once these three points are confidently completely or actively in progress, then you’re effectively functioning in the role of a PgM. In the same vein as the faithful “duck test,” if it unblocks like a PgM, acts like a PgM, and talks like a PgM, then it’s a PgM. The next time you’re in a career discussion with your manager bring up the topic of being recognized with a new title. Or if not, then simply call yourself a PgM on your resume and professional profiles. Remember, as an Unblocker and PgM, you don’t have to officially be titled as a “Program Manager” to be a program manager.

Interested in becoming a Program Manager but prefer a structured approach? Check out our new Program Manager interview course.