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At a quick glance, it’s easy to think that project managers and program managers are one and the same. After all, what separates them is just a few key letters, right?

As any project or program manager would tell you, the difference is actually quite significant. What does a person in each role do? What skills are needed for each? Who has more responsibilities? 

Project managers and program managers are both responsible for overseeing and delivering initiatives within an organization, but there are some differences between the two roles. 

In this article, we’ll dig into the similarities, differences, and what it takes to be successful in either role. 

What Do Project Managers Do?

Project managers execute the day-to-day activities of managing a project. Project managers live in the details. They are the keepers of deadlines and the masters of processes. These organized enigmas are the people in charge of guiding a project from start to finish and keeping tabs on everything in between. 

They define the goals and scope of a project in the project plan, and then ensure the project objectives are met with the finished product. PMs are typically known for chasing deliverables and checking in with stakeholders to stay on top of the project schedule. They keep the project on track and on budget. Project managers are the keepers of deadlines.

As the lead role in each individual project they manage, project managers are also tasked with reporting on the status of projects to their teams and superiors according to the project’s success metrics, and are often credited with the project success or failure overall. 

One example of a project manager is a PM for a marketing agency that has been given the task of creating a website for a client.

The project manager assigns separate tasks and deliverables to each team member involved, (including perhaps a graphic designer, copywriter, and photographer) and sets deadlines for each component. 

The PM then follows the progress throughout each milestone and step to see that the website is completed on time and within the client’s budget. 

If you’ve ever worked on a project without a PM leading the way, you know how quickly things can go off track. Thanks to deft project management skills, teams are more likely to stay on task and within the forecasted budget. 

What Do Program Managers Do?

A program manager is responsible for overseeing a group of projects that are part of a broader program. They are the big-picture people, ensuring all projects flow together to meet the company goals or larger program goals.

For example, a program manager for the YMCA oversees the many projects and program offerings of the organization and makes sure that everything is in line with the mission, values, and goals of the YMCA. They analyze the offerings of the program to see if each is contributing to the mission of the organization over time. 

Program managers are responsible for managing the program budget, allocating resources, conducting change management, and coordinating the efforts of project teams to ensure that the program is completed successfully. Program managers may also be responsible for developing and implementing program strategies and policies.

Program managers work with project managers to ensure that each project is aligned with the overall program goals and business objectives. While they may oversee project teams as a whole, they don’t necessarily manage the individual roles on each team.

Without program managers overseeing things, organizations have the potential to lose plenty of time and money, meaning it falls to program managers to prioritize and track the right projects, one of many pain points of managers in this role.

For more, check out this list of program management books.

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Program Managers Vs Project Managers: How Do The Roles Differ?

Program managers usually have a higher level of responsibility than project managers, as they are responsible for managing multiple projects with different stakeholders, budgets, timelines, and goals.

Think of the program manager job as the conductor of an orchestra, while the project manager role is the lead chair for each different instrument. 

Both project managers and program managers are responsible for delivering initiatives within an organization, but the key differences between the two roles are the scope, timeframe, complexity, leadership, stakeholder management, and resource management and allocation involved.

Find out more about the differences between program management and project management here.

Required Skills & Qualifications

Though the roles are different, PMs and program managers share several of the same required skills to execute their jobs efficiently. Both must possess strong problem-solving skills to tackle problems as they arise and before they have a chance to snowball. 

Project managers are master problem solvers because it’s not uncommon for a project to get behind schedule or move closer to the budget limit. Program managers are well versed in managing complex portfolios and layered programming, so they must be focused decision-makers—ready to solve problems as they arise. 

Professionals in both roles must be excellent communicators. Clear, concise communication is at the heart of what they do, whether it’s describing the requirements of a project to a creative team or painting a picture of why a program is so important to high-level stakeholders. The ability to lead is also an essential trait to master.

Depending on the industry, project managers may seek a project management certification like PMP (Project Management Professional or PRINCE 2; program managers may obtain a Program Management Professional-PgMP certification), which is offered by the Project Management Institute (PMI). 

These demonstrate their dedication to the role and the appropriate training to effectively manage projects, programs, and teams. Certifications can also signal training and expertise in specific methodologies for running projects, such as Scrum or agile.

In general, both program managers and project managers require a combination of technical knowledge, leadership skills, communication skills, and organizational abilities to be successful in their roles. It's also crucial for them to stay up-to-date with the latest trends, tools, and techniques in their field.

Salary & Career Path

The salaries of project managers and program managers can vary widely depending on factors such as location, industry, years of experience, and the size and complexity of the projects or programs they manage. 

According to Glassdoor, the average American salary of a project manager is $85,000 per year, while the average American salary of a program manager is $92,000 per year. Both of these figures may range widely depending on the factors listed above.

With both professions, employers typically seek those who have a Bachelor’s degree or higher and relevant work experience, especially for a high level or more technical project management position or program management position.

Those who hold certifications in project management or program management are also highly sought after. 

Some employers may be willing to support a newer project or program manager in their certification process, and who are willing to learn on the go. 

Find out more about project manager salaries in our guide here.

FAQs About Project and Program Managers

Whether you’re working closely with a project or program manager or aspire to become either, you may still have some questions about how they interface and what their roles look like in the workplace. Here are a few of your top questions, answered.

Are Program Managers More Senior Than Project Managers?

The level of seniority of a program manager and a project manager can vary depending on the organization and the specific project or program. In some organizations, program managers may be more senior than project managers, while in others, the two roles may be at the same level.

Program managers tend to have more responsibility and oversight than project managers, as they are responsible for managing multiple projects and ensuring that they are all aligned with the overall program objectives.

The seniority of a program manager or project manager is often based on their level of experience, skill set, and the complexity of the different projects or programs they are managing, rather than their job title alone. 

In some cases, a highly experienced project manager may be considered more senior than a less experienced program manager, depending on their specific roles and responsibilities within their organization.

How Do Program Managers & Project Managers Work Together?

Project managers and program managers often work together closely in organizations that have multiple projects and programs running simultaneously. Some collaborations may include:

  • Program managers may oversee the work of multiple project managers
  • Project managers may report progress to program managers
  • Program managers may provide strategic guidance to project managers
  • Project managers may coordinate with other project managers in the program
  • Program managers and project managers may work together to resolve issues

Project managers and program managers share an understanding of the pacing, project scope, budget, and troubleshooting of projects large and small. They are often able to lean on each other to get the job done right.

The Big Difference 

The main difference between project managers and program managers can be summed up in one word: details.

Project managers are dedicated to the details of a very specific project, while program managers tend to be big-picture thinkers—capable of seeing how several smaller pieces fit together in a larger puzzle. 

Where do you excel? Are you a master of details or a wizard with high-level concepts and planning? Share your expertise in the comments below. We’d love to hear about your experiences in the worlds of project management and program management

For more information on related roles, check these out:

If you’re new to the PM world, find out about project management software, or subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter for more.

Ben Aston
By Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of thedpm.com. I've been in the industry for more than 20 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony. I'm a Certified Scrum Master, PRINCE2 Practitioner and productivity nut!