Advice for Program Managers: 2-Program Management Career Path

Summary: Describes career path thinking for Program Managers including sourcing, progression, advancement, and connection with organizational management.

This Series, “Advice for Program Managers”: Modern Program Management requires skills and methods specialized to characteristics of its industry; to technologies of its produced products and services; and to management of its organization. In execution, Program Management envisions, creates, organizes, and rationalizes information and leadership across all these domains. The leadership and information created make Program Management an integral part of management of a majority of work flowing through an organization.

BACK to Series Start — Advice for Program Managers: 1-Program Management Opportunity

The Series also solicits contributions to this Blog site, to extend coverage of PM Best Practices and Core Program Structure to a broadening set of industries and technologies.

This post: describes a PM career path including behaviors and skills that a PM can adopt for effectiveness of program execution. Then possible aspirations are covered that can utilize Program Manager acquired skills and interests for continued advancement. Relationships are explored among PM, PMO, and senior management.

Organization and Career Path

In this post we discuss career paths available to Program Managers. Subsequent posts will dive into how a PM can prepare and qualify for those paths. This Series explores the outer edge of professional aspirations for Program Management as a profession for individuals and for organizations. Of course, there’s a lot of room between having a job working as a Program Manager, compared to this outer edge. Each individual and organization chooses how to position themselves in that space.

PM Organizational Structure

Program Management structure within any organization can be confusing. Program Managers may report to directly to Line Managers of functional organization throughout a Business Unit (BU), or they may report to a Program Management Office (PMO). There could be a single PMO for an overall BU, or there may be multiple PMOs distributed through functional groups such as Development and Manufacturing. Furthermore, reporting may be mixed: multiple PMOs, some PMs reporting to each and some PMs reporting directly to Line Management.

Career development of Program Managers is most clearly defined if they report to a PMO, especially if the PMO scope covers a breadth of functional areas in a BU. Then the PMO can provide focus and direction to operation of the BU, to the relationship of Program Management with the functional organizations and their management, and to capability and career progression of PMs both as a group and individually. PMOs will be discussed later in this series.

We’re going to describe this as if Program Managers report to a PMO responsible for development of technology products. Then you can map that to your business and to your PM reporting structure.


In the best situation, Program Managers would be sourced by a PMO looking for specific characteristics and types of skills.

Experienced PM candidates would have mastered some hard skills, examples in the next Post in this Series, in addition to management skill level relevant to scope of the intended work. PM candidates would have gained exposure to technologies similar to the intended work. You need people who can do PM work. So often a good candidate is a promising first-line manager of tech development related specifically or by class of work, or an experienced second-line manager similarly positioned. Either is accustomed to getting work done through other people and has experience with similar efforts in similar technology.

Program Management is typically hired as an experienced position for the skill set, with breadth and leadership required. Entry jobs may exist to support tasks with more experienced Program Managers, and to provide exposure to the technology and management skills. They may handle focused projects. Promising entry hires may use such exposure to practical program management to develop skills for planning and leading subsequent broader and more complex efforts.

I suggest that PMO should “Hire Toward the Technology”, a practice observed at TSMC throughout the company. That means hire people that have hard skills, for all positions, whether from industry or academia, where their hard skills are related to the technology underlying the company’s business. This could include trainable service specializations in professional roles. There’s discussion of hard skills in a following post.

It would be the responsibility of the PMO to source PM staff capable of leading and executing the work to translate the program requirements to work plans, and to execute them, adapt them, to mitigate issues and ultimately to achieve successful development and New Product Introduction (NPI) or provision of service. Note that I’m using the product development metaphor to describe the responsibility. Whatever the business of the host organization, it’s the responsibility of the PMO to staff Program operational leadership.


Program Management has the usual job level structure: Program Coordinator > Project Manager as entry-level, project-focused > Senior Project Manager as a fully functional position > Program Manager capable of multiple projects and programs > higher levels providing leadership to broader and deeper programs which can include leadership of other project managers and program managers of sub-elements of a complex program > and ultimately to PMO leader managing PMs. There’s lots of available information on this career, such as this overview.

It is in this phase of the PM career that the next Post, Advice for Program Managers: 3-Program Management Career Skills, applies together with Post Advice for Program Managers: 5-PMO Role. PMs should develop and demonstrate professional behaviors described, to the same degree as for Line Managers, in leadership, skills, expertise, and successful execution as they progress to management of programs key to the business of the organization. The PM will be planning, leading, and executing Programs during this career phase, requiring acquisition of knowledge and skills specialized to the areas of business, and processes within host organizations. An example of such specialization is described in Post Advice for Program Managers: 4-Program Management Specialization: System Programs Phased Methodology, which also solicits contributions to this blog site on further specializations and best practices for more program types.

The PMO manages Program Manager personnel progression through these levels. Program work exposes PMs to new technologies, for which they likely develop hard skills as needed. Breadth of programs develops PM management breadth, along with exposure of the PM as an individual and as a leader throughout the organization. IBM is an example of a company with a well-defined PM skill development and certification program. Over the course of assigned Programs, the PM gains intimate knowledge of the corporation and its products and, depending on the Programs, maybe also of customers. Program success of course affects the reputation of each PM, as well as of the PMO as a whole.

I see an analogue between reporting and progression of Program Managers, with practices I’ve seen in corporate Finance organizations. Finance Controllers are distributed throughout the corporation, typically focusing on its internal business entities. Each Controller reports to the centralized Financial Office but specializes in a particular BU for the duration of an assignment, typically two or three years. The Financial Office regularly rotates each Controller through its BUs, which rounds out their experience and skills and provides visibility by them and of them throughout the organization. And that skill development and visibility are what lead to advancement in the organization. I think a PMO may exercise an analogue opportunity to develop its PMs in similar fashion by rotating their assignment through a progression of Programs. Through these program assignments, PMs will necessarily develop and demonstrate hard skills, functional breadth, and visibility by and of themselves.


Many will be satisfied to stay within the progression ladder, following technology advances, use cases and customers through new developments. Some may choose to move to another career path. A few may exceed available PM opportunities in the company. How do you move on from Program Management? What can you aspire to?

The least-well defined progression is that of well-experienced Program Managers to areas beyond scope of the PMO. In other professions, progression is more contained within a specialized set of functional organizations. Program Managers however are specialized in cross-functional work, gaining breadth in operation across the corporation, and have also developed management skills and a degree of technical expertise by progression through a series of Programs. Ideally, the PM has taken initiative to develop some hard skills and specialization useful to further progression. BUT – since corporations are generally organized around management of functional organizations, there is less of a default progression for senior Program Managers beyond PMO. The most likely route is to some form of corporate management.

The PMO has most influence on PM progression within the corporation, via Program assignments and visibility of and by individual PMs. Demonstrated skills help the PM to find each opportunity and even more so, to help the next opportunity to find them.

A PM who has developed specialization and hard skills, likely moves ultimately to higher-level management related to those skills. That might include positions with Chief Operating Officer (COO), or Director of a functional organization, or into Product Management with more business focus. Obtaining such a position is highly dependent on PM observed management skill, on hard skills gained, and on visibility of leadership in these skills.

A senior PM might ultimately aim at senior management of a Business Unit as a General Manager or Vice President, or even higher position. Most often people in those positions come from Product Management or Sales organizations, not technical. Focus of senior positions is on running a competitive and profitable business of the corporation more than it is on technical expertise. The breadth obtained by a PM, if you can combine it with gained business and customer experience, could lead to the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs! Pick a role model you respect most. But the PM must develop and demonstrate business focus as a priority.

To go a little farther on this… when you’ve reached the point where you should be taken seriously, your PMO leader or an ally in your management chain might help you to have a discussion with a senior manager so you can discuss your intention to pursue this path. If possible, be prepared to discuss ideas from your PM experience that could extend product or business direction. As an example, a product I know added new tech not just to keep up, but also to simultaneously lower product cost and to add function extending the product to new use cases and markets. Senior management may tell you to “prove it” which you’d have to do anyway, but it helps to be noticed. They may give advice on important skill development, and career direction toward advancement. A question of particular interest you might discuss: With your knowledge of organization operation and of specific Programs, how could you participate more directly in the business of the Organization? They might keep an eye on you, throw you special projects from time to time to test you, and maybe even a boost if you’re close. Ask for the job, and dress for it – and I mean by your business actions, not your suit. Depending on your company environment, maybe the suit too! PM background will most likely lead to Operations or BU leadership. Time spent in sales, marketing, or product management to develop business experience can broaden opportunities. Some PM creativity plus business sense plus polite chutzpah could well demonstrate your suitability for high-level jobs.

Another possibility for the PM would be to take a position in a business acquired by the corporation. Skills gained, breadth of experience, and company knowledge all are useful to gaining such a position.

The complementary path is out of the corporation. The PMO has less influence on this and in fact probably makes effort at retention of the PM’s expertise and company knowledge. Each PM must take responsibility for themself to prepare, to find these positions and to succeed at them.

The PM may find a bigger PM job at a another or bigger company providing more possible paths within that company. There could be higher levels of progression of Programs and PM levels, new technologies, more cashflow, internal re-organization opportunities, or broader organizational management possibilities. Net, Bigger Pond with more promotion potential.

The PM could also take on a Startup operation, either joining one or directly starting one. Such positions are Bigger Fish in Smaller Pond, with potential for new technology, growth, or for being acquired – possible greatest reward, but at higher risk. The PM’s hard skills, visibility and breadth of experience are all essential to finding and succeeding at such positions.

Finally, the PM could go solo and set up a consulting business. This is harder than you may think – suddenly your skill at marketing yourself is more important than your knowledge and skills that you’ve spent decades on. Before you can apply your skills, first you have to find and close on those engagements. Your reputation, and presence you’ve created via social media, public speaking, and group participation, are key to this. Your contacts from prior employment are the most important thing you take away from those jobs! There are contact tools available to you, but live recommendations are by far the best way to get engagements.

PM Responsibility

The Program Manager can work with the PMO and other corporate structures, who can provide major influence for development and advancement especially for internal progression within scope of the PMO. But ultimately, each Program Manager is responsible for developing hard skills, functional breadth, management skills, and visibility by and of themselves. These are what ultimately determine career path of a Program Manager.

The next post looks at important PM capabilities, and at examples of hard skills to gain that are part of directing a career path.

NEXT POST — Advice for Program Managers: 3-Program Management Career Skills
BACK to Series Start — Advice for Program Managers: 1-Program Management Opportunity

Further Reading: Core Program Quantitative Structure for System Programs

Advice for Program Managers: The Blog Series

1-Program Management Opportunity
Introduces a vision and framework for development of Program Managers and PMO, for Program Management specialization to its environment, and for improved effectiveness and integration of PM with organization operational management.

2-Program Management Career Path
Describes career path thinking for Program Managers including sourcing, progression, advancement, and connection with organizational management.

3-Program Management Career Skills
Career path thinking for Program Managers including skills and behaviors that develop Program Manager capabilities and leadership and pave the way toward advancement.

4-Program Management Specialization: System Programs Phased Methodology
PM Best Practices and Core Program Structure for Hybrid integrated system programs using Phased HW – Agile SW, mixed-technologies. Full-Program agility via automated plan tools with continuous plan update.

The Series also solicits contributions to this Blog site, to extend coverage of PM Best Practices and Core Program Structure to a broadening set of Specializations.

5-PMO Role
PMO behavior to achieve Program Management effectiveness specialized to its environment managing PM practices in the organization, including PM development and advancement and connection with organizational management.

6-Quantified Agile for Hardware
Program Quantification applied to Phased and Agile methodologies to deal with organizational quantitative requirements.

More Articles by this Author

Three Levels of Program Management
Guiding Principles for Program Management Action, Program Quantification, and Leverage Through Tooling.

Organizing Program Communication
Program Management depends on effective communication. Design Program communication paths for everyone throughout the Program.

Database Platforms for Program Management Logistics
Logistics Tool extended, using SQL Server and MS Access with MS Excel and PowerQuery.

PowerQuery Tool
Logistics Tool using MS Excel Power Query.

Quantitative Management
Tool methodology for agility with continuous plan update: Program BOM, Tie to Dates, Builds, Element data.

Complex Programs: Structure
Structure Program with Parallel Phasing. Describes coordination of EE/ME, FW, Test, Supply/CM, Driver/Kernel, Transport, Management. Scheduling, Integration points, scaffolding, and starting work. Hybrid Program Cross-Domain Coordination of dev frameworks, including Phased and Agile/Scrum where appropriate, via integration points and scaffolding. Software Integration Sequence and Dependency Planning.

Managing Complex Projects
Problem Statement. PM responsibility for Program Management drive throughout an organization, also includes schedule, budget, integration, critical path, logistics.

Link To Free Tools To Manage Schedule, Logistics, And Finance

Author’s website with articles on Program Management and Program quantification tooling using Excel, MS Project, and MS Visio with SQL databases PowerQuery, SQL Server, and MS Access. Articles describe how you can use tools available from the website, or develop these capabilities yourself using commonly available tools.

Tools available from this website are free. They can handle small to large programs, limited only by your imagination. Using the included Program Template to envision, organize, plan, and run a large program puts me in mind of unleashing a Roman Legion to a sure outcome. Veni, Vidi, Vici! – Julius Caesar.


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2 thoughts on “Advice for Program Managers: 2-Program Management Career Path”

  1. User Avatar

    I appreciate the level of detail provided in this article. The focus on a PM in a PMO office is to me a more typical view of a project manager. I have worked with PMO offices in my career and find that they provide guidelines and oversight to protect the companies interests. This was necessary when I worked in financial services.

    I am still exploring how Scrum and Agile methodology can be applied in a marketing capacity. I do see value in relation to Product Marketing, however other areas within this discipline tend to be more fluid and creative…perhaps more structure is a benefit. Food for thought.

    I completely agree with this statement, “ultimately, each Program Manager is responsible for developing hard skills, functional breadth, management skills, and visibility by and of themselves. These are what ultimately determine career path of a Program Manager.

    1. User Avatar

      Hi Suzanne – Thank you for your comment!

      It’s been my intent in these articles to present tangible actions and directions that PMs and PMOs can directly adopt. I see a lot of writing on high-level PM constructs. I see much less writing on actions individuals can take that help our own effectiveness, or actively influence trajectory of our careers as PMs, or how we can improve PM connection to management and success of organizations. I see achieving these by defining and adopting a high standard of professionalism, accomplished through focus and specialized expertise in day-to-day PM and PMO jobs.

      Some of this is achieved by PM effort, some by PMOs guiding that. Certainly, PMs must work within the company’s interests, in fact PMs are at the core of achieving them. But more broadly, PM knowledge gained, and direction set is not just current data points, it includes evaluation of organizational and process effectiveness.

      I describe these efforts through my own experience in system projects, which are broad within my industry. But certainly, there are whole industries, and classes of projects within each, that require specialized and differentiated approaches outside of my visibility. Much of this is un-written, passed on by intra-company osmosis. It’s hard for any PM to switch to a new area of specialization without taking some career reset, that’s one of the challenges of PM as a profession, I think. So, throughout these articles I’m soliciting people with specialized knowledge to make that tangible, specific, and available via comments here, or even better, by linking or posting articles. My own approach is to focus on tangible skills, structure, quantification, and best practices!

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