The best Program Directors (PDs) are individuals who possess the skills of the best CEOs of science- or engineering-based start-ups. Some PDs may have held such positions. Others may come from academia, government labs, corporations, and nonprofits. They need to have deep technical or scientific knowledge, be natural risk takers, and be thought leaders who can create a vision that inspires an entire community to action.
The PD must orchestrate the entire effort. He or she determines what pieces of work are needed to produce a specific result, conducts a proposal competition, and contracts organizations to do the work. Program Directors then oversee the collection of performers, manage the technical details, and make all the major program decisions. They handle budgets, contracts, execution issues, speaking engagements, and partner relationships. This may entail explaining a project in three minutes to a world leader who may or may not have a technical background, delivering a technical talk at a research conference, working out intellectual property concerns with a university, discussing necessary regulatory changes needed to allow new advances to make an impact, or negotiating for follow on transition work with partners.
Many, but not all, project leaders have PhDs. Typically, they’re 5 to 10 years past earning their last degree, and already have made important achievements (delivering a product to market, successfully leading a university research center, starting a company). Confidence is important. These mid career leaders may recruit people who are older with accomplished reputations; they must be able to hold their own. Notably, they rarely have MBAs. The skill set that you acquire in business school is often about defining the market opportunity, writing a plan, and then faithfully executing it. By contrast, successful program directors are more focused on managing constant flux — building, replanning, changing tack, and moving talent in and out as project needs shift.