Q&A Project Management Careers – Senior PM Crossroads

I’m currently working as a senior project manager, and I have an opportunity to move into a programme manager position or head up a new portfolio management office. I’m unsure which opportunity is right for me.

A good position to be in! Having choices in your career like this don’t tend to come along very often which is why making a decision like this can feel quite daunting. The obvious first step to take would be a good old-fashioned ‘pros and cons’ list for both options. Before that however there will be a number of questions you need answer to before making an informed decision.

There will be basic conditions that each of these potential promotions have to offer you before considering them, for e.g., the rewards on offer (the salary, bonuses and other perks), work/life balance (additional travel or hours) and so on. Once these are understood there are specific questions that will help you assess that this is the right move for you.

For the programme manager position, ask yourself:

  • Why is a program manager needed? Is it a new role or a replacement? The answers you receive will give you a better insight into the current state or situation of the program
  • What does the organization understand a program manager to be? What are the differences between a program manager and a senior project manager? Gain a better insight into how your superiors see the role of a program manager and the expectations they will have.
  • What programs immediately are in the pipeline that I will likely manage? What about in the future? Are these challenging enough? Is there a long-term opportunity within the organisation as a program manager or is it just a short-term fix. Understanding what you are likely to be working on will help your decision-making.
  • What level of authority and empowerment does this position have? To whom would I report? Knowing the level of authority you will have and where this role sits within the hierarchy of the organisation are key to you making a success of the role if you decide to take it
  • What is the span of control for this position? Understand how many direct reports you will have which will need day-to-day management in addition to the resources managed typically from a matrix environment.
  • How will my success in this position be measured? It’s always important to understand what others see as success. Make sure you are happy with these measures and objectives.

For the portfolio office promotion, consider similar questions:

  • What is the objective of the portfolio office, and why does the business need it? What links to organizational strategy planning already exist? Senior management sponsorship and backing are one of the most important keys to successful portfolio offices, make sure there is a strong foundation for you to build on and the basic objectives are understood
  • Who is the champion and sponsor for the portfolio office? What will be our working relationship? This key relationship needs to work to allow you to be successful, make sure you do the groundwork before jumping in
  • What authority do I have in setting up the portfolio office, choosing resources and influencing board decisions? Understanding exactly what you can and can’t do from the beginning will ensure there are no nasty surprises further down the line
  • What are the critical success factors for the portfolio office? Understand the CSF from everyone’s point of view; board, senior management, project practitioners and other departments. Then consider your own thoughts to bring a balanced view.
  • What level of investment is the organization putting into the portfolio office? What backing the portfolio office will have in terms of financial commitments from the organisation will help you do a little risk analysis upfront to understand what the threats and opportunities might be for you in this role.

Ultimately the two positions are distinctly different from each other. The Programme Manager role is still predominantly a delivery focused position whilst the Portfolio Office is moving into the domain of strategy and business planning,

Once you have a better understanding of what the organisation is looking for in these two positions and working through the ‘pros and cons’ list,  making the final decision will feel a little more comfortable and straightforward. Remember that this is just one of the many crossroads you are likely to come across in your career and choosing one option over another at this stage does not necessarily mean you rule out choices forever.


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