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Irene Didinsky: Program Managers Should Be Business Leaders


Journalist: Yu Yanjuan  |  Source: PMR  |  Updated:2019.03.11
Journalist’s notes:
Irene Didinsky is the author of the PM bestseller "Practitioner's Guide to Program Management" published by PMI with 5-star reviews on Amazon. She’s now working as Principal Project Manager in FEI Systems. 

In colleagues’ eyes, she’s more like a coach or mentor in program management. Ankit Shah commented, “I was always in awe of Irene’s ability to command a room and get people on board with ideas – even people who were initially on a completely different page. No matter how tense a meeting, Irene made sure everyone left with a smile. As a team leader and a program manager, Irene earns my highest recommendation. Any employee would be lucky to have Irene as a manager.”

In top management’s eyes, she puts emphasis on delivery quality and she is able to build cohesive teams by caring about personal growth of team members. 

In her own eyes, what is her secret of climbing the career ladder? What are her observations and feelings about over 20 years’ PM career? What challenges will program management face and what’s the future of program management like? With these questions in mind, let’s talk with Irene Didinsky. 

PM Career Ladder 

Q1: You have been in this profession for over twenty years. What qualities help you climb the career ladder? What changes in program management have impressed you most?

Irene Didinsky: Program management has been a very rewarding career to me. However, as any job, it had its ups and downs. Looking back in the past 20 years, I would name the following qualities as the ones that helped me the most: adaptability to variation in program management definition, concepts and approaches; ability to pivot and change priorities not only throughout the project but sometimes multiple times a day; ability to cater messages, updates, deliverables to the needs of various stakeholders and team members; political savviness which I’m still learning; people skills and communication skills. After a certain point in your career, it is all about people skills. 

What impressed me the most in program management in particular and in the corporate world in general is the profound shift from the vertical hierarchy to flat matrix organization that evolved in the last 20 years. 

Q2: From the perspective as a female, what are the strengths and weaknesses of women program managers?
Irene Didinsky: Historically, program management as many other corporate leadership jobs, was male-dominant. The shift occurred gradually over the past 30+ years. And, even though nowadays, there are men and women program managers, I believe that women could bring unique qualities to the table. I believe that women have better attention to details, they are more adaptable and can more easily shift priorities, and they are sometimes better at reading body language and picking on saddle signs. However, in times women are more down in the daily execution tasks and are not always taking the time to check if the program continues to be aligned with the organizational goals throughout the program execution lifecycle.

However, no person is perfect and equally strong in all aspects of the program manager’s role. The best program managers capitalize on their strengths and work on improving their weaknesses.

Q3: Program managers are not simply senior project managers. So what are the major differences between program managers and project managers? For those who want to make the transition from project managers to program managers, would you please offer some suggestions?

Irene Didinsky: For many project managers, the next move in their careers is the step up to program manager. However, many practitioners lack a true understanding of the skills required to make the transition. Program managers are not simply senior project managers. We developed a program proficiency framework and defined proficiencies that allow a program manager to succeed in leading and executing a program: Program leadership; Program operational management; Interpersonal skills.

Even though many of the project managers’ experiences can be applied in the program manager’s role, program managers need to acquire many unique qualifications in order to succeed in the role. The qualifications could be broken down into 3 main groups or proficiencies: program leadership, program operational management and interpersonal skills. 

Each of the 3 groups has includes various skills and qualifications. 

Program Leadership Proficiency:
Gain in-depth program content knowledge;
Be aware of the organizational structure;
Know organizational strategy;
Manage stakeholders.

Program Operational Management Proficiency:
Knowing the program governance framework;
Ensuring the quality of benefits delivery;
Managing program risks;
Executing financial management.

Interpersonal Skills:
Developing strong leadership skills;
Developing strong communication skills;
Thinking broadly, horizontally, and top down;
Developing soft skills.

PM in VUCA Age

Q4: In the era of digital transformation, what do you believe are the top qualities of a program manager?

Irene Didinsky: To provide the greatest value to the organization, the program management function must be established as having a strong business focus.  A successful program manager is a business leader who understands the role, business environment, stakeholders, regulatory requirements, and more. A program manager is not an administrator or a facilitator who simply executes to the work plan.

Traditionally, to achieve this organizational structure of a program-oriented enterprise, a program manager role should have the following responsibilities:
Develop program plan and budget;
Be accountable for program execution, including program schedule, budget, and quality;
Review and approve project plans for conformance with program strategy, program plan, and schedule;
Act as the communications conduit with executive sponsors and program steering committee, and conduct periodic briefings and status updates;
Escalate decisions and risks to executive sponsors.

The world is becoming a digital place. Artificial intelligence and robots will be a part of the workplace in the near future. Fast advancing technology will not only accelerate the speed of work but also require new skills from the project and program managers. First and foremost, adopting to change and learning new tools and technologies quickly are critical more than ever. The key quality in the digital transformation age is to be a leader of your program and project and drive the change. Among other skills are: data science (data management, analytics, big data), innovative mindset, security and privacy knowledge, legal and regulatory compliance knowledge, ability to make data-driven decisions, collaborative leadership. 

Q5: In the globalized world, what are your tips on managing dispersed teams in a program?

Irene Didinsky: Our world is rapidly becoming fully virtual in all aspects of life including business. The majority of communication is electronic, meetings are more often than not virtual, and teams are frequently dispersed. Virtual team members are not only located in different geographical areas of the same country, but frequently are scattered across the globe. And, in ten years or so, once first settlement will arrive on Mars, the team may as well be scattered across the galaxy. 

Managing a dispersed team has its benefits and challenges. People from various geographical areas and countries likely have different perspectives, experiences and skills that they bring to the table. However, it is more difficult for project managers to guide their work. And, it is more challenging for the team members to work together as a team. 

There are many things a project manager can do to manage work of dispersed team members and to bring them together as a team including:
1. Conduct a kick-off to clearly communicate project goals and objectives, timeline, project structure, deliverables, schedule, and cadence. 
2. Facilitate team members meeting each other at the start of the project, even if virtually, and clearly understand each other’s roles and responsibilities.
3. Set up on-boarding process for the team members who join later in the project.
4. Facilitate new team members meeting the team and learning team members’roles.  
5. Set up project processes, develop project templates, and develop project cadence.
6. Schedule periodic one-on-one meetings with each team member to discuss progress and concerns.
7. Provide regular communication and updates throughout the course of the project.
8. Celebrate milestones of the project and success of those who contributed to meeting milestones deadlines.

Q6: You’ve made a keynote speech title “What Makes a Program CEO”. Would you like to offer us some insights into this topic?

Irene Didinsky: A program typically has a large and complex structure that includes multiple components. 
To operate as a program CEO, a program manager needs to have three main modules:
Organizational structure that empowers program managers to lead;
Program infrastructure that enables a program manager to lead; 
Program proficiency framework that allows a program manager to succeed.

Q7: Based on your experience in practice, what are the secrets of aligning program goals with organizational goals? 

Irene Didinsky: A program will only add value to the organization, if it is aligned with the organizational goals. At program initiation, it should be confirmed that it is aligned with the organizational goals. During the program execution phase, at major milestones, it should be confirmed that the deliverables and project outcomes are aligned with the organizational goals.

Program execution is a complex and multi-faceted process. So, it is easy to lose the sight of the big picture. What distinguishes a great program manager from good program manager is an ability to keep a big picture in mind throughout the entire program life cycle. That includes fully ensuring that the program is aligned with the organizational goals.

Q8: The world around us is ever changing. How do you deal with changes in program management?

Irene Didinsky: Heraclitus has said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. We live in the fast-paced ever changing world. The best way to deal with the change is to embrace it. To embrace the change in this context means to accept the change. Accept that there will be a new way, a new process and a new approach that will replace something that it is currently in place. A project or a program manager needs to become a champion of change promoting it to his team.

Program managers need to not only adapt to the changes that will allow the program management industry to overcome challenges, close current gaps and grow, but they also need to lead the changes. 

PM Future and Challenges

Q9: Based on our experience and observation, what will the future of program management be like?

Irene Didinsky: According to “2018 Jobs Report” by PMI: 
22 million new project-oriented jobs will be created between 2017 and 2027. 
Not all industries are looking for the same kinds of project talent. Healthcare organizations might demand different skills than telecom. 
Organizations are having trouble finding the right skills. 
All sectors are looking to transform, which means there's a need for innovative thinkers and talent.

Program management industry future will be shaped by closing current industry gaps:  

Program management industry will continue to grow more program-oriented.
Organizations will define the program manager role as business program manager.
The number of programs aligned with organizational strategy will increase. 
The industry will take significant steps toward standardization.
Industry growth will be influenced by changes in the global business environment:
Globalization will be taken to the next level with more teams operating virtually.
Technological advancement will provide a platform for geographically dispersed teams.

Q10: Having been a program manager, what do you think are the most challenging parts in this role?
Irene Didinsky: Program management is a rewording job. And as any jobs, it has its own challenges. Program management definition, concepts and approaches vary significantly not only from company to company but sometimes even between different departments within the company. Variations in program management result in variation in program management roles and responsibilities. These are the most challenging parts in this role. 
My goal is to help standardize program management and program manager’s role. This is one of the reasons I wrote my book. 

Views on PM in China

Q11: Having worked for a Chinese company, have you noticed any differences between Chinese and western program management?

Irene Didinsky: I am truly impressed with China rising to the second place among the world largest economies. The evolution continues and China will soon surpass the US becoming world largest economy. 

Chinese companies are seeking initiatives globally in oil, clean energy, construction, railway, and mining. Interaction with global companies drives higher standardization in project methodology and practice in China. Unprecedented economic growth drives massive urbanization in China, creating demand for houses, technology and services. Urbanization leads to myriad infrastructure and IT megaprojects. 

My book is a bridge between West and East. The book will explain western project management concepts, standardize project methodology and practice in China, and ensure mega programs and projects execution on time with high profits.

More than 100 universities in China offer master’s degree programs in engineering project management. China is emerging as a new leader in program and project management that soon will re-shape the world’s vision of mega programs and projects. 

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