The 'just do it' program manager
- By Richard W. Walker
- Nov 01, 2007
Andrew Anderson gave a presentation in Boston a few years ago in which he described program managers as politicians. The program managers in his audience were aghast.
“I was almost thrown out on my head,” said Anderson, program manager for the El Paso, Texas, sector of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Secure Border Initiative. “They said, ‘Why would you want to say that?’ I told them because, in reality, that’s what you really are. In a way, you are politicking for your programs. You are doing the things that politicians do: make promises and deliver on the promises, set expectations, and meet the expectations.”
Anderson’s notion that being an effective program manager requires more than knowing the technical nuts and bolts of a program or set of projects underscores a new reality in government: the rising stature of program managers.
In a results-focused governing culture that increasingly involves cross-government initiatives, the role of program managers and the qualifications they need to run programs are undergoing a transformation. The collective goal of a program’s multiple projects is often to achieve long-term governmentwide objectives. To be effective in that culture, program managers must develop a business mind-set and hone their soft skills, especially the ability to communicate and collaborate.
“This is a significant position in the government, and it requires a real set of skills that combines good management and interpersonal skills as well as good technical skills,” said Kevin Mahoney, associate director of human capital leadership and merit systems accountability at the Office of Personnel Management. “It really is a special kind of job that takes a particular kind of individual,” someone who has developed good communications skills.
Mahoney’s belief in the value of communications skills is shared by many program management experts who gathered in Washington at a recent Program Management Summit sponsored by 1105 Government Information Group, the parent company of Federal Computer Week.
“The foundation of being a leader is communicating,” said Thomas Hughes, chief information officer at the Social Security Administration. Hughes said program managers must collaborate more and take advantage of new technologies, such as high-speed online videoconferencing. “We have collaborative capabilities that we never imagined before,” he said.Call them problem managers
As government programs become larger and more complex, program managers must be able to act decisively when problems arise. Program managers “really ought to be called problem managers,” said Michael Lisagor, president at Celerity Works, a Seattle-based management consulting firm. “That’s what a program manager really is.”
As problem managers, program managers are expected to identify and solve problems. “Being an effective problem-solver is moving the ball forward rather than dwelling on the problems themselves,” said David McClure, research director at Gartner’s Government Group and former director of information technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office. Today’s program management culture demands more up and down management in the executive structure, he said.
“In the past, programs were much more isolated and stovepiped within a single unit,” McClure said. Although that is still the case with some government programs, more programs today involve complex, interagency activities and require managers who are good at resolving problems, negotiating, building consensus and communicating with senior executives, he said. “You’re managing up and down.”
Among management experts, there is a consensus that program managers who don’t work effectively with senior executive
s risk failure. “The No. 1 reason for failure is poor communication [with] your senior executives,” Hughes said.
Communicating up through the organization is a duty of program managers, Lisagor said. “Knock on your boss’ door. As program managers, we have an ethical responsibility to let our bosses know what the situation is” regarding programs. In addition to having good communications skills, experts say, successful program managers must be able to manage acquisitions because almost every federal program has an acquisition component. “These two fields go together hand in hand,” said Lesley Field, policy analyst at the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy.New certification requirements
In April 2006, OFPP administrator Paul Denett mandated that program managers assigned to major projects achieve certification in core acquisition competencies through the Federal Acquisition Institute. “Well-trained and experienced program and project managers are critical to the acquisition process and the successful accomplishment of mission goals,” Denett wrote in his memo to chief acquisition officers.
Skilled program and project managers are needed to develop accurate program requirements, define measurable performance standards and manage contractor activities to ensure that the government achieves its intended outcomes, he said.
OFPP’s certification initiative will provide structure and consistency in the way major government programs are managed, Field said. “A lot of agencies are doing joint programs. They’re doing joint buying, and they’re doing joint implementation,” she said. “You want to make sure that when you’ve got acquisition professionals [and program managers] working in a joint capacity,” they speak the same language, use the same terminology and share a basic level of understanding.
The government has traditionally been an excellent proving and training ground for program managers, who are usually able to find courses that teach the basic skills and competencies they need to do their jobs. “There’s plenty of opportunity to build that kind of expertise in government,” McClure said.
The Project Management Institute, Defense Acquisition University and National Defense University each offer OMB-recognized certification programs. In addition, some agencies offer their own courses to inculcate the skills that program managers need. Some experts say it is often easier to develop program managers from within government than to recruit from outside, where agencies have to compete with private industry for top talent.
The Federal Acquisition Service’s Federal Systems Integration and Management Center, part of the General Services Administration, started its own leadership development program for program and project managers. “We built it internally,” said Karen Kopf, the center’s operations director. “It gets them ready for the next level in their careers.”
Kopf said officials seek candidates for the program throughout the organization. “We interview them just like we would for a position,” she said. Once accepted, the future leaders work on projects together, read and discuss books on leadership and listen to speakers. They are also assigned to mentors. “We just finished the inaugural program,” Kopf said. “It went really well. We’re getting ready for the next batch.”No scarcity of opportunities
Four years ago, former OPM director Kay Coles James instructed the agency’s Federal Executive Institute and its Management Development Centers to train and retain a cadre of program managers. “We will equip them with the skills to manage a relationship, not just the contract,” James said at the ti
Today, those organizations offer leadership development programs focused on program management skills to members of the Senior Executive Service and managers at the General Schedule 13 to 15 levels. “We continually try to tweak it so we keep this group of people as knowledgeable as we possibly can,” Mahoney said.
Many experts say that effective program managers are needed now more than ever. “You can think of government as whole bunch [of] programs,” said Emory Miller, senior vice president of government affairs at Robbins-Gioia, a program and project management consulting company.
“Program managers have responsibility for delivering those programs to citizens and businesses,” he said, “and for being the stewards of the government’s resources and capabilities. That’s a high calling.”