Focused Program Leadership Drives Program and Company Success

Criterion | Leadership

Focused Program Leadership Drives Program and Company Success


By Charlie Doyle, SVP, Civilian Operations

I believe the success or failure of any program hinges on the program manager leader. Certainly, work environments can be tough and customers demanding, but, honestly, that is the norm. How someone manages and reacts to a tough environment separates truly outstanding leaders from the rest of the management pack. Leaders don’t complain, but work with their teams and customers to find the right solution and then communicate appropriately. Excellent program leadership drives program, customer, and ultimately company success.

Do you have what it takes to be a successful program leader? The number one quality is a strong work ethic: ensure the right thing is being done ALL of the time:

  • Manage the program as if it’s your own company
  • Take care of YOUR employee needs, as an unhappy employee can be deadly to meeting your performance goals and customer expectations (follow the value-add cycle my colleague John Pross wrote about).
  • Encourage a team environment and lead by example every single day….no one person can ensure success
  • Manage customer priorities and continually communicate them to your team and with your customer
  • Meet your corporate commitments timely while managing customer expectations
  • Ensure your program is profitable….as if it’s your own company!

Here are some more attributes to cultivate:

  • Be flexible; juggle everything that’s thrown at you, at any time of the day: In the Technology and Federal Government world, expect change and adapt to it with a cool head.
  • Make decisions in a timely fashion: Listen and be open to the options your team presents; then make a decision and move forward.
  • Be responsive to everyone (employees, customers, support teams, bosses, etc.), even if that means checking your email when you thought your day was done.
  • React to emergency situations IMMEDIATELY…. show your team and your customer that you understand the sense of urgency and you are on it and will do whatever it takes.
  • Understand that your customer is always right! Work with them so they understand all elements of the decisions, but when a direction is arrived or dictated, say thank you and work with your team to figure out how to get it done.
  • Reward, praise and pay your folks what they deserve. Outstanding performance is very hard to find, and extremely expensive to replace from a technology, domain knowledge, and dedication perspective; keep those people VERY happy.
  • Don’t sacrifice the right people to make that extra buck. You can always get your financials to the right place when customers are happy and successful: they’ll provide outstanding past performance references to help the company grow and treat you like a true partner and team member. This will make you and your team a valuable contributor to your customer’s mission instead of feeling like a staff augmentation vendor.
  • Over-communicate to EVERYONE including customers, employees, corporate leadership, and back office teams. Whether it’s just an FYI, upcoming plans, action status, potential risks, and even just a thank you…. It goes a long way to establishing a positive and proactive relationship.
  • Be proactive, not reactive: Anticipate customer needs or issues, watch for employee-related problems or concerns, and identify improvement areas. Work closely with your team and customers on a plan forward and always get in front of things before they become issues.
  • “Bad News Doesn’t Get Better with Time” (a quote from an excellent leader I learned from… Valecia Maclin). Bad news happens, it’s inevitable, and it’s how you handle the issue that will be remembered……Be transparent and escalate any potential (or actual) problem immediately to your customers and leaders, and work the solution and communications together.
  • When your customer tells you something is broken, acknowledge that and commit yourself and the team to rapidly correcting the issue, and put into place the strategies to prevent recurrence. DON’T try to explain it away or defend your team’s actions – you can always do that later. The customer wants problems fixed quickly, not excuses, rationale or reasons why.
  • Be honest with your team members……Good or bad performance needs to be addressed in a timely fashion!
  • Always give the credit to your team and customers. It’s never you, it’s them that make your program successful.
  • Support corporate initiatives: Be involved in corporate events, ensure your team knows how the company is doing, how they are helping the company grow and be successful, and always encourage participation. Ensure they know they are contributing to something bigger than themselves; they are advancing customer missions, teammates careers, and building opportunities.
  • Celebrate successes as a team!
  • As a leader, set the example and support proposals, even though you may have to work extra hours or weekends. Growth brings new opportunities for leadership and employees.

Project managers who don’t truly understand their role and these attributes/activities to execute effectively are like an idling engine, their programs come up short of goals and receive low performance scores, customers are unhappy more often than they should be, and employees underperform. Strong project leaders either instinctively perform as described or work at it by being extremely organized and deliberate, but either way they are very successful throughout their careers. They understand all aspects of the program — including customers wants and needs — and they know how to motivate employees, hire the right people to support the mission, provide vision, and lead by example. Happily, Criterion has many outstanding program and project leaders. If you want to improve your skills, reach out to them for mentoring opportunities, as they will surely be happy to help!