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Project Manager vs Program Manager: Which Role Does Your Business Need?

Project Manager vs Program Manager: Which Role Does Your Business Need?

Last Updated on November 17, 2022 by DMEditor

The project manager and program manager roles have become integral, yet many businesses are confused about them.

Here’s an example: years ago, I interviewed for a writing job — or what I thought was a writing job. When I entered the interview, I discovered the role was for a project manager position in their content department. The job posting made it seem like a writing job, so that confused me.

After that, I started working as a freelance writer and collaborated with project managers. From this experience, I developed a better sense of their roles. One colleague even told me about the program manager job — at the time, I never even heard of that before!

Are you in need of a management position for your project but aren’t sure who you should hire? Read my project manager vs. program manager guide to know the differences between these roles, which one is best for your business, and some alternative roles you may need instead.

Bottom Line Up Front

Project managers direct one project at a time, while program managers are in charge of every project in an organization. Project and program managers work together; when a project manager creates a timeline for a project with goals, the program manager will approve it and possibly change the plan.

Main Differences Between Project Manager vs Program Manager

The main difference between Project Manager vs Program Manager are:

  • Program managers oversee multiple projects, whereas a project manager oversees one project.
  • Program managers have more managerial duties, whereas project managers oversee the project.
  • Program managers have more responsibilities and a higher salary compared to project managers.
  • Project managers oversee a project from start to finish, whereas a program manager has more flexibility.
  • Project managers carry out more individual tasks, whereas program managers sit back and oversee the progress of a project.

Project Manager

project manager

Project managers direct one project at a time. When they begin a project, they will create a plan that outlines all of the tasks that need to be completed, which staff members will complete them, and will plan a general timeline and completion date.

While project managers usually delegate tasks to different team members, they may work on tasks themselves. This explains why I interviewed for what I thought was a writing job when the company needed a project manager and one with a writing background.

A good project manager will take every detail into consideration. This may include the skills of each individual team member, the resources needed to complete individual tasks, any potential problems and delays, costs, and schedules.

Once the project manager has all this information, they will pass it on to the program manager.

Pros of Working With a Project Manager

  • Defines the objects of a project
  • Outlines a project plan, keeping you more organized
  • Builds a team for each project
  • Schedule activities and tasks

Cons of Working With a Project Manager

  • This can create conflicts between them and program managers
  • Overlapping of authority, especially if they operate outside of the project
  • Poor planning and confusion among team members
  • Your project may suffer if you don’t hire a good project manager

Skills

project manager skills

Project managers should be able to plan projects while balancing budgets, manage risks, have leadership qualities, have knowledge and experience in different project management tools, and have great communication skills.

Here are common hard skills of a project manager:

  • Budgeting
  • Different methodologies, such as Waterfall, Agile, and Scrum
  • Using project management tools, such as Asana
  • Knowledge of different types of project management tools, such as burndown charts and GANTT charts
  • Risk management

During your interview, don’t hold back when gauging this information. While most professionals are familiar with programs like Asana, the average person isn’t familiar with Agile or Scrum methodologies.

I write a lot of business content and have dabbled in project management methodologies. I can tell you first-hand this is complex material that every project manager should know.

The soft skills your project manager should have include the following:

  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Organizational
  • Planning

Your project manager will be the leader of the project, so they should motivate your team to excel.

That’s also why it’s integral to hire a project manager with great communication skills; this will ensure they’re trusted by the other staff members. Excellent planning and organizational skills will keep the project rolling, and your team can hit every goal.

Demand

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the project management role will increase by 7% between 2021 and 2031. Project managers see the most demand in the information and computer industry.

Why is the project manager role growing? Better team communication is one of the key reasons why. Since the workplace moved to remote and digital work, technology companies need a project manager comfortable working in digital spaces.

This is a big change compared to when I interviewed for that project manager role years ago. The role was in-house, and I would have to commute to their office. The project manager role was also for a marketing company; I have many project manager colleagues in marketing, but most work for tech companies.

What to Look For in a Project Manager

First, you’ll want to look for certifications. While they’re not required, they prove an applicant’s expertise in project management. Some integral certifications to look for include:

  • Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)
  • Project Management Professional (PMP)
  • Scrum master certifications
  • Google Project Management: Professional Certificate

Relevant experience is also necessary. This is important because the project manager will have experienced common pain points and can find solutions.

During the interview process, you’ll want to look for some essential soft skills. These include:

  • Good communication
  • Visionary thinking
  • Leadership skills
  • Integrity
  • Task delegation
  • Decision-making
  • Communication
  • Organizational skills

Pay Requirements

Indeed states that the average project manager’s salary is over $77,000. However, the salary can be as low as $55,000.

I’ve also seen project manager salaries as low as $40,000, but that isn’t a common salary unless it’s an entry-level role. A project manager’s salary depends on experience, location, and industry. Businesses should also factor in benefits.

Program Manager

program manager

While project managers focus on one project, program managers look at the bigger picture. They will take a look at one or more projects and how they affect an organization as a whole.

When a project manager hands them their project plan, the program manager can make changes to the project and its objectives. These changes usually include the budget and schedule. When the project is executed, the program manager will continue overseeing it and its goals.

There are some duties the program manager may complete but aren’t integral to the role. For example, they may negotiate contracts with clients or implement new project management software.

How I like to look at it is the program manager is the project manager’s boss but still doesn’t directly manage the project. The project manager is still responsible for executing and tracking the project, ensuring it hits all required goals.

Pros of Working With a Program Manager

  • Strategizes project goals to benefit the entire company
  • Has a comprehensive view of different projects
  • Can save the company money
  • Ensures each project produces consistent results and accomplishes goals
  • Can think of innovative solutions and transitions

Cons of Working With a Program Manager

  • Have to put a lot of trust in this role
  • May hire someone who isn’t as detailed
  • Leadership issues

Skills

program manager skills

Since the program manager role thinks of your business as a whole, this role needs to have experience in business operations with strong managerial skills.

A program manager should be able to balance a budget, manage risk, be an excellent leader, have knowledge and experience using different project management tools, and have great communication skills.

Here are the hard skills that a program manager should have:

  • Operations and business knowledge
  • Past experience in project management or a similar role
  • Knowledge and experience using project management programs/tools
  • Resource management

These soft skills will also benefit the role:

  • Communication
  • Organization
  • Collaboration
  • Analytical
  • Negotiation

Demand

I can’t find any job growth statistics on the program manager role since most bureaus and organizations lump the two roles together.

But program management is definitely a growing field, especially since project management is in high demand. I notice this growth is happening more in technology fields, but program managers can get a job in nearly every industry.

What to Look For

There’s only one main program manager certification: Program Management Professional. It’s important to hire a professional with this certification since it proves they have the necessary training for the job.

Since the program manager is an advanced role, you’ll want to look for experience, knowledge, and skills that correlate with their position. Don’t just look for leadership skills — ensure that your program manager can recommend improved processes and technology to benefit the project management process.

I would also look for industry experience. For example, you wouldn’t want to hire a program manager with only construction experience for your digital marketing company.

Hiring a program manager with industry experience ensures they know the ins and outs of your industry and are able to make the best decisions regarding budgets and project goals.

Pay Requirements

Since program managers have a leadership role, they make more money than a project manager. Salary.com estimates the average program manager salary is $143k, though some companies may pay $100k.

As with the project manager role, the program manager’s salary may alter depending on experience, industry, and location.

Choosing the Best Role

choosing role

Both program and project managers will organize your processes to accomplish your goals and control your budget. But in order to know which role you need, it’s integral to look at the larger part of your business as well as your projects.

Does your business have multiple projects that need better management? If so, a program manager is what you need. Or do you often work on smaller projects? If so, you can get away with hiring a project manager.

You should also take experience requirements into consideration. If you need an experienced professional to manage your project managers, a program manager is who you should look for. Program managers often have industry experience, which can benefit industries in niches such as technology.

Remember that it’s common for project managers to become program managers. Your program manager was also a project manager at one point. Some businesses may prefer hiring a project manager and promoting them when they need more assistance.

Alternatives Roles to Consider

Did you read this guide and realize you don’t need a project manager or a program manager? Many businesses confuse these roles with other common ones. Here are some alternative roles that you may need instead.

Product Manager

If you own a commerce business, you’ll benefit the most from a product manager. This individual will identify customer needs to create the best products for your business. Like the project manager, the product manager also sets product creation goals and collaborates with other figures in your organization.

Operations Manager

The operations manager is a general role that benefits most companies that produce goods and services. This professional will create and control the production process. They will oversee all areas of the production process, such as purchasing, budgeting, training, hiring, and promotions.

Account Manager

An account manager is a sales professional who oversees specific customers, often called “accounts.” Their goal is to provide excellent customer service to these individuals, often overseeing multiple accounts.

Some account managers go to college for communications or business, while others work up to this role without an education.

FAQs

Question: Will my Project Manager Collaborate with other Team Members?

Answer: Absolutely! Project managers usually collaborate with IT, engineers, and design roles. The project manager can work with more teams, depending on your business.
Using the marketing company I interviewed for as an example, project managers collaborate with all marketing teams in this type of organization.

Question: I have a Program Manager and Want to Promote Them. What is the Next Role?

Answer: The next role is the Director of Project Management, which is the highest-ranking project manager role. This director role will oversee all aspects of project management in an organization and will have more insight into the bigger picture of a company’s budget and goals.

Question: My Business isn’t in Marketing or Technology. Should I Still have a Project Manager?

Answer: Absolutely! Every business can benefit from a project manager. The key is to find a project manager who has experience in your industry. This way, they can collaborate with everyone in your organization and recommend different project management tools related to your industry.

Bottom Line

I was once confused about the project management role until I interviewed for one! Since then, I have worked as a freelance writer for several years and worked with different project managers along the way. I understand that this role is confusing. The best thing to remember is project managers oversee one project while a program manager handles multiple projects from different managers.

The project manager will create the plan for a project and necessary goals, while a program manager will approve the project and ensure it’s completed. I suggest hiring a project manager first if you only work on a few projects. Once your business grows, you can hire a program manager or promote one from within.

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