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Program Manager Career Guide

How to Become a Program Manager

Are you a natural-born leader? Do you possess excellent communication skills and love to problem-solve? Then you could have a bright future as a program manager! Program management is a rewarding, in-demand career where you’ll help drive long-term value for your organization’s vision, direction, and outcomes.

What are the other qualities of a successful program manager? Read this guide for a complete program manager job description—including salary expectations, strategic roles and manager responsibilities, education requirements (such as earning a business degree), and more. You’ll learn everything you need to know about how to become a program manager and why it’s such a fulfilling, high-paying profession.

 

What Is a Program Manager?

Program managers oversee the fulfillment of larger organizational goals. They coordinate activities between multiple projects without directly managing them. Instead, they manage the main program, giving detailed attention to program strategy, project delegation, and program implementation. This manager has a large responsibility to ensure that all the team members understand how to work together and coordinate their efforts on the way to a larger goal.

Program managers help organizations stay on schedule, on budget, and ultimately on an upward trajectory of growth and success.

In many organizations, completing one large, overarching goal requires the execution of multiple individual projects. And when these projects are all interconnected, it can be challenging to keep them organized. This is where a program manager steps in.

Business manager typing on computer in cafe

What Does a Program Manager Do?

A program manager focuses on implementing strategic tasks that align new programs with an organization’s business strategy and goals. Their job description centers around high levels of coordination, delegation, and more.

Just what exactly is a program? A program typically refers to a group of related projects, or projects and programs, that together support an overarching business initiative, such as a:

  • Sales process
  • Product launch
  • Facility or store opening
  • Marketing plan
  • Customer or employee training

As a program manager, you’ll analyze your programs with a broad, high-level view—leaving day-to-day project activities to your project managers. Your primary job description and responsibility is to ensure that all of your project managers are efficiently and effectively working toward program goals. You’re also responsible for making sure that your programs deliver the best return on investment (ROI).

Basically, you can think of yourself as a “meta-project manager,” strategically and simultaneously orchestrating all of a program’s intertwined projects. If you love to multitask, this is the job for you!

Typical day-to-day program management activities include:

  • Planning and monitoring program execution
  • Project coordination and managing project interdependencies
  • Creating and managing a budget
  • Cross-project resource management
  • Identifying and addressing problems and risks
  • Program documentation
  • Stakeholder communications, negotiations, and problem-solving
  • Aligning or realigning deliverables with program outcomes

What’s the Difference Between a Program Manager and a Project Manager?

A program manager's job description emphasized developing a program's objectives and strategy and assessing how it will impact their department, business, or organization. For each program, a program manager defines and oversees the projects needed to reach the targeted goals. That’s what differentiates program management from project management.

Program managers guide all of the projects—and project managers—housed within one program. Alternatively, project manager job descriptions are centered around guiding the individual projects within a program. You can think of a program manager as an architect that creates the blueprint for a program and then delegates the project execution to one or various project managers.

How Do I Become a Program Manager?

Many program managers have a bachelor’s degree in business administration, communications, computer science (if they’re interested in working in technology), or other related fields such as marketing.

Depending on what industry you prefer and the size of the company you intend to work for, you may need to get an advanced degree such as a master’s in management and leadership or a master’s in business administration. Having an MBA or other high-level management degree makes you a more desirable candidate.

If you’ve already earned your degree or you’re currently working as a program manager, you should still consider:

  • Earning program management certifications
  • Joining related professional organizations
  • Regularly attending industry seminars, conferences, and events

This continued education will keep you abreast of new skills and best practices for improved job performance and upward mobility.

What Degrees are Best for a Program Manager?

Business Management – B.S. Business Administration

Hone your business acumen and garner added respect:...

Hone your business acumen and garner added...

Hone your business acumen and garner added respect:

  • Time: 68% of graduates finish within 36 months.
  • Tuition: $3,575 per 6-month term.

Sample careers and jobs this business degree will prepare you for:

  • Account executive
  • Business analyst
  • Program manager
  • Director or senior director
  • Vice president

This online degree program is an excellent choice for kick-starting your organizational management career.

Marketing – B.S. Business Administration

For those who want to lead brands and steer consumer markets:...

For those who want to lead brands and steer...

For those who want to lead brands and steer consumer markets:

  • Time: 67% of graduates finish within 36 months.
  • Tuition: $3,575 per 6-month term.

Some careers and jobs this business degree will prepare you for:

  • Marketing and PR manager
  • Director of marketing and communications
  • Director of publications
  • Customer intelligence manager
  • Marketing sales manager

Marketing is a creative and exciting field—and one where an undergraduate degree will open better opportunities.

Master of Business Administration

The flexible MBA program you need, focused on business...

The flexible MBA program you need, focused on...

The flexible MBA program you need, focused on business management, strategy, and leading teams:

  • Time: Graduates can finish in 12 months.
  • Tuition: $4,530 per 6-month term.

Sample careers and jobs this business degree will prepare you for:

  • President and CEO
  • Vice president
  • Executive director
  • Chief strategic officer

Our competency-based model gives you an innovative learning experience you won't find anywhere else—and our MBA grads tell us they loved accelerating their program to see a faster ROI.

Management and Leadership – M.S.

An online master's degree focused on change management,...

An online master's degree focused on change...

An online master's degree focused on change management, innovation, and leading teams:

  • Time: 62% of graduates finish within 18 months.
  • Tuition: $4,530 per 6-month term.

Sample careers and jobs this business degree will prepare you for:

  • President
  • Vice president
  • Director of operations
  • Executive director

Develop a comprehensive suite of leadership skills and your confidence to navigate changing business structures.


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What Skills Does a Program Manager Need?

Since program managers work with a variety of stakeholders, exceptional leadership and communication skills are part of the job description. If you want to know how to become a program manager, here are their other most common attributes:

  • Highly analytical and organized
  • Excellent teambuilders
  • Great negotiators and influencers
  • Adept at conflict resolution
  • Creative problem solvers
  • Outstanding planning, resource, and stakeholder manager
  • Able to see the bigger picture and sell their vision

How Much Does a Program Manager Make?

$138,000

According to salary.com, a program manager makes an average annual salary of $138,866 in 2021. The top 10% make more than $178,000, and even the bottom 10% of earners bring in just under $100,000. A career as a program manager can be financially rewarding.

What Is the Projected Job Growth?

9%

The job outlook for a program manager is great. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, management occupations are expected to grow by 9% from 2020 to 2030. This translates to more than 906,000 new jobs.

Where Do Program Managers Work?

Varies

Program managers can work in any number of different industries. Some program managers work in technology and healthcare, while others work in the education or nonprofit space.

 

 

Interested in Becoming a Program Manager?

Learn more about degree programs that can prepare you for this exciting career.

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