Onboarding for program managers

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

I was recently transferring some files from my old laptop to a new one. Okay, that’s not really the full story. Transparency is one of our values in the Zendesk PMO, so to that end, what really happened was that I didn’t completely close my bottle of apple juice before I put it into my computer bag. So, I was sitting in IT while one of our patient service desk specialists transferred my files from my now damaged and sticky old computer to my new computer.

Anyway, to get to the point, I came across a file that contained our onboarding plan from those first few months into forming the PMO. It included 10 topics ranging from learning to use Confluence, to understanding our company’s annual goals, to our program management methodology, and finally, to our job architecture, so that our program managers would know what their career path looked like.

I delivered this “onboarding” to program manager #2, who started fresh in the role the day I joined the company. I shudder to think how little I prepared her for the role, because just a few days into her tenure, I needed her to drive the completion of the development of a brand-new product and then launch it. I’m happy to say that she managed to do that quite successfully despite our meager onboarding. And she went on to develop into an extremely talented program manager who still works for me today.

Since those early pioneering (and scary) days, our onboarding has developed into what is now a comprehensive program that takes several months to complete, and assumes previous program management experience. What’s in our onboarding? In week 1, the program manager attends new hire orientation, does some basic setup (apps tooling, etc.), gets started learning about the programs they will drive forward, and meets PMO colleagues. They close out the week with some training on Zendesk products. Week 2 focuses on learning PMO best practices. This includes our mission/vision/values, how to run quarterly planning, how to set up and run a program (an hours-long session that gets to the heart of how we do what we do in the Zendesk PMO: our “playbook,” if you will), and finally, a status reporting overview and deep dive. We allow time for shadowing several program managers, and we hold a PMO happy hour with whomever is around so that the program manager starts to feel like part of the team and knows they have support. We then get into business onboarding, which involves scheduling meet & greets with program/business teams and reviewing current-quarter priorities for the organization the program manager supports. Week 3 involves setting goals and taking ownership of the programs they will drive forward. And they’ll learn some additional best practices, including issue and risk management, learning about our software development lifecycle, understanding meeting management best practices, and how to “pair program manage” when your program is part of a larger umbrella program.

In week 5, the program manager begins driving programs with guidance, putting into practice what they’ve learned so far. Over the remainder of their first three months on the job, they continue their long-term education, which includes going deep on the business they support, learning about other parts of the business, and presenting their business knowledge to their manager and peers. (If you can explain it, you understand it.) Finally, we encourage each program manager to find a domain to gain expertise in, usually an area they’re interested in and enthusiastic about, with the understanding that they may turn that into an onboarding session for the PMO some day. Some example areas where we have expertise on our team include risk management, change management, building stakeholder relationships, and using a responsibility assignment matrix.

We add new content to our onboarding on a fairly regular basis and retire a few things now and then as the needs of the company change. And we do continuous development by presenting training on relevant and timely topics at our monthly “all hands” meeting and at offsite meetings. A solid onboarding program is critical to developing a team of strong performers who program manage in a high-quality and consistent way. It enhances their existing skills and helps them develop new ones. They’ll be better equipped for their role, will feel more motivated, and will feel a loyalty to the PMO and the company as a whole. As a people manager, developing your employees is one of the most important things you’ll do!




Obsessively passionate about helping software companies run well.

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Paula Dieli

Paula Dieli

Obsessively passionate about helping software companies run well.

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