7 Habits of Great Program Managers

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit” – Aristotle

The 7 habits below are based on my observations of the great program managers that I have had the pleasure of working with.    The analysis of each habit is based on ideas that I have come across in various books. I hope that you find each one insightful.

1)      Honesty

With honesty comes respect and trust. Great program managers need these two things to be effective; without respect and trust, it will be difficult to cultivate the relationships that you need to create great products.   People will trust and respect you more if you reveal your failings because they will see some of their own failings in you. Thus, allowing you to bond on your shared imperfections. Honesty takes bravery.

Lying not only pollutes our external thought processes, it also inhibits our ability to reason without bias.  We often lie to ourselves, to convince ourselves of fallacies that fill the gaps in our own reasoning.  This is dangerous because it allows us to establish confidence in convenient but false conclusions. To think clearly you must think honestly.

2)      Thick Skinned

Difficult questions and conversations have a purpose and are a natural part of developing great solutions. When these difficult questions and conversations arise, focus on the solution and look beyond your perceived feelings about the statement. Examine its intent. Try to discover the ways in which the person’s statement adds value to the conversation and helps you arrive at a better solution. Don’t let your pain cloud your judgment.

3)      Clarity

Working on new ideas is difficult. Great program managers bring clarity to confusing circumstances and help provide direction. Reducing confusion requires clear thinking.  To think clearly you must practice speaking clearly. Developing a rational external voice will help you develop a rational internal voice. Focus on speaking and thinking slowly. Choose your words carefully. How you frame a statement or question affects how you think about it.  Force yourself to replace abstract words with more concrete ones. Avoid acronyms and code names.   Listen and read proactively. Consider both the context and content of each statement. Look at the speaker and ask questions. The right question can sometimes bring clarity to the most confusing situations.  Force yourself to be present and mindful.

Additional Reading: Wherever you go there you are. – Jon Kabat-Zinn

4)      Ask Great Questions.

The right question can help bring clarity to the most confusing problems.  A great question has three distinct characteristics.  1) A great question can’t be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No” and usually starts with: “Who, When, How, What or Why”.  2) A great question encourages lateral thinking, by questioning assumptions. 3) A great question focuses the discussion because it is relevant to the content being discussed.  Great program managers ask great questions.

Additional Reading: Conversation Tactics (3-part series) – Patrick King

5)      Energy

Great program managers energize teams. One of the best ways to create energy is to smile. A smile is contagious, so energize your teams by wearing one.  Encourage your teammates. Teams need to know that they are working on something important. They need to know that their work matters and that they play an important and critical role in changing the world.  Learn the best way to encourage your teammates by learning everyone’s love language:

1)      Quality Time: Spend time with them (walks, lunches together);

2)      Touch: High fives, hugs, fist bumps;

3)      Words of appreciation: Say nice things;

4)      Acts of service: Do nice things;

5)      Gifts: Give nice things;

People show love in the ways they want to receive it. Look at how your teammates interact with each other and mirror their behavior. Energize your teammates by showing them that they are important to you and to the world. 

Additional Reading:  1) The five love languages – Gary D Chapman 2) How to win friends and influence people – Dale Carnegie

6)      Persistent  

“In life, there is always going to be resistance, that is why it requires persistence” – (A youtuber whom I forgot).  Great program managers relentlessly pursue solutions and tirelessly negotiate with partners to ensure their team’s success. This relentless effort is both mentally and emotionally exhausting. Because of this, failure is especially painful. So, be selective in your projects. Choose the ones that are worth the pain and then see them through, to the end.

7)      Searches for Secrets

Great program managers see the world differently and are constantly searching for its secrets.   Secrets are the solutions to important and difficult problems that are impossible to solve with conventional approaches. These industry secrets are valuable because people are willing to pay for solutions to important problems that they cannot solve themselves. So, work on hard problems that change the way other people see the world. Discover solutions that enlighten them.  “Tell me something that’s true but nobody agrees with” – Peter Thiel

Additional Reading: Zero to One – Peter Thiel


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