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Compare and Contrast: A Study in Program Management vs Program Leadership | TayganPoint Consulting Group

Compare and Contrast: A Study in Program Management vs Program Leadership

Let’s start with the obvious – “Managing” and “Leading” are two very different capabilities, and capabilities not shared by all people.  So it’s important to remember, Program Managers must be selected based upon what you truly want them to do.  Individuals who practice program management are not necessarily the same ones who can be successful at the helm of a complex program, such as those in the life science industry. Unfortunately, many procurement and sourcing professionals continue to promote the view that mass-marketed, low-cost Program Managers can effectively serve the needs of their business partner customers.  However, this is rarely the case – especially given today’s rapid pace, and broad-scale transformation programs where the stakes are high and so are the risks.  It’s important to prompt your sourcing team with the skill-sets you are seeking: “I am looking for a Leader, not a Manager.”

As a reminder, from my lens, a program is a group of related projects managed in a coordinated manner to achieve large-scale change and deliver significant benefits across a range of functional areas.  These usually take many months, or in some cases even years.  In contrast, a project is a temporary effort established to deliver specific outputs within a specified time. While managing both programs and projects requires some of the same domain knowledge, tools and skills, a successful Project Manager is not synonymous with a successful Program Manager.  To take it a step further, textbook Program Managers are not always up to the task of managing today’s complex Biopharma / Life Science programs – THAT requires something truly next-level – that requires a Program Leader.

To effectively manage enterprise-wide programs, especially in an industry as dynamic as the Life Sciences, Program Leaders with very specific characteristics are essential to ensuring success:

Strategic Business Partners
An experienced Program Leader serves as a Strategic business partner, delivering value to the organization through both their insights and their actions.  This comes from actively listening to customers and stakeholders, demonstrating deep business acumen and being able and willing to think outside of the box.  Program Leaders go far beyond checklists, status updates and risk / issue logs.  They understand how to frame the value of a program in terms of the organization’s strategy and consistently quantify the value of the program both in economic terms as well as patient-impact terms that resonate with senior leadership.

Stakeholder Motivators
A skilled Program Leader will actively engage stakeholders.  This leads to broader organizational buy-in, enhanced clarity, and strategic alignment.  Most basic Project Managers have some type of matrix to identify stakeholders and develop a communication plan.  Program Leaders, on the other hand, focus on actively persuading stakeholders with personalized approaches that involve visual tools, best practice sharing and anecdotal learning to keep them engaged and motivated.  They have exceptional communication skills, are capable of reaching both the C-Suite executive as well as the front-line associate and will ensure that all communications are culturally-appropriate and impactful.

Ambiguity Navigators
Knowledgeable Program Leaders understand the information they have is never complete, but they are skilled at coping with the uncertainty and can nimbly adapt.  Clear, timely decision-making is an art, especially in large, consensus-driven corporate environments complicated by ambiguity. A true Program Leader can move past the confining structures of program management, matrix organizations and multiple channels to drive objective decision-making that takes into account the risks and consequences of each option, as well as the risk of not making a decision at all.

Avid Action Drivers
Many organizations use a Red-Yellow-Green approach to assess the progress of workstreams or projects within a program.  Yet how often have you seen executive status reports showing a “Red” item? The answer is rarely.  Is that because these programs are moving like clock-work with no risks or issues standing in the way of progress?  No, of course not. Program Leaders understand the criticality of escalating issues without drama, and with facts, while presenting options that will either eliminate or reduce the risk.  Program Leaders have the confidence to “promote the red” and tackle these status items because they are confident they can be fixed or accomplished with the right actions. It’s these Program Leaders who hold people accountable, without placing blame.

Room Commanders
According to the U.S. Army, presence consists of demonstrating a “military bearing, physical fitness, confidence and resilience”.  While the first attribute might not be embraced by very many organizational cultures in 2018, surely there is something to be said for having the physical and mental stamina, confidence, and resilience to lead a transformational program that impacts thousands of employees, customers and external stakeholders.  If you dig a bit deeper into the definition of military bearing, it is defined as “the ability to project a commanding presence and confidence, uphold standards, and do the hard-right over the easy-wrong, both in good and bad situations”.  From that perspective, this is indeed a critical trait of the Program Leader.

In summary, truly great Program Leaders are far more than good Program Managers.  Program Managers generally have good planning and organization skills, are capable of building and managing budgets, and do a good job tracking deliverables and timelines.  However, Program Leaders represent the next echelon of talent required to ensure broad, multi-phase, enterprise-wide initiatives are effectively executed – not just on-time and on-budget but also with highly effective education, training and communication processes that ensure broad stakeholder commitment.


Debbie Neuscheler-Fritsch | Managing Director | TayganPoint Consulting Group |


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