Program Management: Learning to Manage Up, Outward, Sideways and Down

“Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them towards a certain goal.”

Walt Disney (December 5, 1901 – December 15, 1966), American business entrepreneur, animator, producer, director, screenwriter, and philanthropist.

Program Management 2014-07-22

As a Director of Program Management, my teams and I were under intense pressure to maintain timelines. Visibility of the projects was high with weekly (and sometimes daily) Executive-level reviews. On occasion, one of my peers or their staff members, who were presenting project status to the Executives, would share news of a significant late-breaking problem, and then make the mistake of pausing with a “deer in the headlights” stare. Immediately, they were swamped with “help” from the V.P.s that only added more work and misdirection to their already troublesome predicament.

The takeaway from the experience stated above is that Program/Project Managers (P.M.) should be ever vigilant in “managing up” (with their boss and executives). But it doesn’t stop there. An effective P.M. must also manage “outward” (with their customers), “sideways” (with the managers of their team members), and “down” (with their team members).

Here are some battle-tested tactics I acquired during my years as a P.M. that can help you avoid program delays, disruptions and unwanted surprises:


There are two aspects to Managing Up: 1) Your boss, and 2) The Executives who are keenly interested in the success of the program. You’ll want to establish and maintain your boss’ confidence in you. Doing so helps limit concerns over your plans, and enables your boss to readily ‘stand up for you’ if you’re challenged by outside groups. Critically important is to establish credibility with the Executives. Actively managing my frequent program review meetings with the senior management of my division was essential to keeping my programs on track. Here are some keys.

  • Don’t just treat the management meetings as a show-and-tell. Use the opportunity to your advantage by asking clearly for any help or resources you need.
  • When reporting bad news (e.g. A slip to the timeline being the worst), ALWAYS have an action plan for recovery ready to immediately share. You never want to be viewed as an obstacle between a V.P. and his quarterly bonus.
  • Be honest and provide all relevant information the senior managers need (they, too, report progress to their superiors). It’s NOT necessary, though, to report issues that have no bearing on the progress of the program. I’ve seen too many of my peers stir up a hornet’s nest unnecessarily and get assigned non-value-add work.


Relationship building and active communication are essential, especially when timelines are tight, whether your customer (who receives your output) is external or internal to your company.

  • Face to face meetings between the customer and you (with your team), go a long way to develop healthy relationships that offer many benefits, especially when a crisis hits.
  • Communicate frequently, even if it’s just to reassure the customer that your team is focused on resolving issues. Not hearing from you can be misinterpreted as uncaring or nothing being done.
  • If possible, spend time with as many of the customer’s team members as possible to gain their confidence and respect.
  • Understand and embrace the metrics to which your customer is measured, as well as the ones used by the customer to measure your team.


It’s typical that some or all of the members on a project team formally report to other departments and not directly to the P.M. Therefore, do not overlook the role of your team members’ managers or your relationships with them.

  • Work to get each manager’s full “buy-in” on your program so that they will not divert your team member’s agreed-to efforts to other projects.
  • Provide feedback about the team members so that their managers have input for performance appraisals and training needs.


For a program to stay on track, it’s essential for each team member to clearly understand their role and the level of commitment required.

  • Work with the entire team to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of each member. This will prevent gaps and conflicts from occurring.
  • Understand any additional demands on each team member’s time. I’ve seen instances where a team member, not recognizing they were overloaded, caused a timeline slip.
  • Discuss with each team member what skills/development they would like to get from their time on the team, and help them reach their learning goals.
  • Show appreciation to your team members throughout the course of the project.

Lastly, celebrate the success of the completed program with all of your team members. Ensure their delight by being the one who pays the bill!

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Brian D Strayer

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