Taming the Lions

Taming the Lions: 3 Musts for Every Program Manager

Agency life comes at you pretty fast. You’re living on the cutting edge of new advertising technology and creative thinking. It’s exciting. It’s passionate. And with that passion comes strong personalities. Personalities that strive to be the best, the most innovative and the smartest. Healthy conflicts and rowdy debates occur daily as teams push themselves to come up with brilliant ideas for our clients. And in the middle of these debates, standing proudly, always ready to command the team into actionable outcomes is the Program Manager.

Program Managers are the driving force of an agency. We are responsible for making sure the creative team doesn’t lose sight of the client’s main objectives and delivers on time and on budget. While all of this going on internally, we also respond to all of our client’s needs, questions and requests for even more work. It’s a lot of balls flying through the air all at once. It can make the role feel like an endless juggling act, day in and day out.

And that’s even before those boisterous personalities come back into play – we must be ready to field endless questions, requests for more time, more budget and loud exclamations that the perfect concept exists, and it’s only going to cost twice the budget the client has available. Therein lies the truth of the life of a Program Manager. The PM is not a juggler. The PM is a lion tamer. Now, are we offering large chunks of raw meat in exchange for meeting a tight deadline? Not exactly. But we have mastered the art of keeping our teams engaged and excited while setting boundaries that benefit both the client and the agency. And let’s face it, we know how to crack the whip when it’s really needed.

What’s the best way to handle it all? By following some very basic and simple rules:

  1. Listen to understand. Be part therapist, part mediator, part butt-kicker. Agency life can be stressful and demanding, so it’s imperative that we know how to read multiple personalities and understand some of the psychology behind each of those personalities. That means recognizing the difference between a wide variety of situations. When does someone just need to vent or express their frustration? When does someone need a cheerleader for a really great idea they are trying sell to the larger group? And when does someone need a kick in the pants to get back on track? It’s all about listening to understand the situation and then reacting accordingly. Sometimes the Program Manager’s job is to be the voice of reason amongst the eccentric, and you can’t do that without really hearing what is being said.
  2. Stay organized. All the time. What does a Program Manager daydream about? Having someone else organize their days for them. Wouldn’t it be nice for someone else to tell them what their priorities are? For a moment, that’s the dream, but it’s not the job. And honestly, we probably wouldn’t dig a creative interpretation of what we do. As Program Managers, we are the ones setting priorities and schedules and budgets for multiple internal team members and clients. And you can’t stay on top of that much detail without some serious organization. Never start your day without first checking agendas, calendars and project schedules to make sure they are fully aligned to the needs of the day. Then adjust accordingly. All. Day. Long. Don’t get married to your plans, stay flexible, because needs and priorities are constantly shifting. Every agency helps their Program Managers with organization in different ways. Sometimes it’s through spreadsheets, sometimes through a project management tool and sometimes it’s a combination. Whatever way the agency and Program Manager choose to get it done, one thing is for sure, a Program Manager can’t be effective without a high level of organization.
  3. Be positive. It’s easy to become overwhelmed when you have so many people depending on you day in and day out (and that’s just at work!). As stress builds and the pace continues to pick up, it can be easy to lose sight of why we do what we do. It can be easy to become worn out and frustrated. But a good Program Manager must always do their best to stay positive. When the going gets tough, we are the ones waving the pom-poms for the agency to help everyone else maintain their positivity and drive the best outcomes for ourselves and our clients.

Take deep breaths. Stretch. Indulge in long walks, and a cocktail or two – whatever it takes. Just be sure to re-center and focus on the happy, because a good Program Manager comes in every day, ready to face the lions — and whatever else awaits — head on.


Ready for more? Visit the rest of the Faction blog to see our thoughts on anything and everything.

Main image:  Sergey Pesterev via Unsplash.
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