The Project Management Interview
In many organizations, project managers are among the most valued employees since they oversee projects and business initiatives vital to the success and profitability of the entire organization. Although job responsibilities will vary based on the needs of the company, the project manager is typically responsible for planning, coordinating, implementing and finalizing projects according to specifications and deadlines set by project stakeholders, while making sure projects stays within budget.
Typically, project managers are not directly involved in actual project work; rather, they put together teams of professionals from different departments (or even companies), manage the project team members, and supervise employees assigned to project tasks. It is the project manager that ensures all deadlines are met, projects stay within budget, and ultimately that projects are completed.
Given their vital and multi-disciplinary role within an organization, hiring managers and prospective employers thoroughly vet project management candidates during the interview process. Project manager job seekers should fully expect behavioral or competency-based interview questions that explore essential project management skills such as team building, team management, decision making, leadership, problem-solving, adaptability, organizing, negotiation, planning, analysis and adaptability. You can also expect project management interview questions to be challenging and time consuming -- so prepare.
Project Management Interview Questions and AnswersBelow you'll find some of the most common (and challenging) interview questions that hiring managers ask when interviewing candidates for project management positions. We've included example answers and notes along with each question, however, we recommend taking the time to develop your own answer for each question based on your background, experience, and target industry.
1. Tell us about your experience managing different projects and how this will contribute to our company.
This is a straight forward, yet somewhat complex and multi-layered question. It's important you structure your answer to this question. In order to stay on point, and not go off on a tangent, start by explaining to the interviewer how you will answer the question.
"I'd like to start by providing you brief description of the last three projects I managed. I will then outline the skills and abilities I developed from each project and demonstrate how these skills will benefit your company, as well as the projects you have me manage."
Now do exactly what you said you were going to do. Provide the interviewer with a concise, yet descritive, summary of each project.
"I was the project manager for the XYZ project which involved..."
After providing a brief summary of each project, describe the skills you developed during the projet.
"As project manager on XYZ project I encountered several difficulties and problems that required an innovative approach to team management. One of the approaches I used was a brainstorming session with all team members about half way through a particularly challenging project that was behind schedule. The approach worked well because it helped each team member take personal ownership of the project and feel as if their voice and ideas really mattered to the success of the project. As a result of the brainstorming session, productivity increased dramatically as each team member felt a renewed sense of commitment to the success of the project. In addition, we were able to come up with a few unique ideas we hadn't considered previously. When everything was said and done, the project was completed according to specification a week ahead of schedule. More importantly, I had developed a spirit of self empowerment and unity among the members of my team that carried over to other projects we worked on."
Now show how the skills and abilities you've identified will be of direct benefit to the position you're applying for and the company.
"Projects in your industry are more complex than every before. They face tighter budgets and fewer resources. The key to getting these projects completed on time, under budget and according to specification is having a project manager that knows how to build, manage and motivate team members to work together for the duration of the project..."
2. Please describe an experience where you managed a diverse project team towards a common goal.
The key to answering this question is to focus on your ability to delegate tasks and responsibilities equitably and in a practical manner. The interviewer will be looking to see if you can clearly define project roles and responsibilities, are able to manage (or avoid) conflict, and provide useful feedback to team members. You'll want to describe your management style and why it worked in your experience.
"While working with XYZ company I was tasked with managing a construction project that pulled from various departments across the company -- engineering, design, quality assurance, finance, etc. Each of the team members brought to the table a unique set of skills and abilities. However, the same diversity of skills required to complete the project also brought with it a variety of personalities and work styles. Even though each team member was prepped by their department prior to joining the team, I held a special team meeting -- actually more like a team social -- prior to starting the project to provide an opportunity for each team member to get to know one another on a personal level. In fact, we rented a cabin up in Tahoe and spent the weekend just having fun together and interacting in a non-work environment. During the retreat, I arranged a number of team building activities that required each team member to rely on the other team members as they worked toward accomplishing a mutual objective."
"The last day of our retreat I pulled the entire team together and asked each member to share with the rest of the team a little bit about themselves, their family, and personal aspirations. I followed this up with an explanation of the construction project we'd be tackling together and then solicited ideas from the entire team as to the best way to successfully complete the project. We brainstormed for several hours. By the end of the evening we had come up with several ideas and picked the best one. The entire team was on board. I've always felt that most conflict can be avoided and productivity is increased when there is not only mutual respect between team members, but sincere friendship. Allowing each team member to voice their opinions and suggestions, then comming to an agreement on a strategy before the project, made each of the team members feel empowered and we were able to work productively as team with minimum conflict throughout the entire project."
"Tasks and responsibilities were assigned based on each team members skill set, area of expertise, and level of experience. Notwithstanding, throughout the project team members helped each other when they notice a tasked wasn't being completed correctly, or when they noticed another team member was struggling..."
3. Describe the most complex project you have managed from start to finish.
This question is designed to help the interviewer see what type of project management experience and expertise you have. As you're describing your project, the interviewer will be assessing how well they think you'll be able to manage projects for their organization. Make sure before the interview you have a good sense for the type of projects the position entails. This is a great opportunity for you to demonstrate how your project management experience will benefit the company.
When answering this question, explain the project you managed as if you were talking to a client, not someone involved in the project. Make sure you provide a comprehensive answer that employs a logical format the interviewer can understand.
For complex projects, project managers are usually required to use formal processes and techniques to ensure deadlines and specifications are met. Outline the project management processes and techniques you used, even if they're just industry standard. Explain the purpose, value and implementation of the most important aspects of the project including the work plan, risks, issues and project completion.
Throughout your explanation let your enthusiasm for the project show. Share with the interviewer your major accomplishments and how the experience you gained from the project will benefit the company. Identify areas where your skills and experience made a difference in terms of quality of work, efficiency, productivity, expenditure, customer satisfaction and organizational success.
4. Based on your experience, what is the most important skill a project manager must have to succeed?
While not the most common interview question, it does pop it's head up from time to time--so be prepared to answer it. Many interviewers like to ask this question because it forces the candidate to choose just one of the many skills required to be a good project manager. Technically, there is no single correct answer to this question, but you need to be cognizant of what your answer reveals to the interviewer about you, your experience and your ability.
Don't dance around the question, or be vague. Answer the question directly and provide just one answer, as requested. Your answer to this question should be what you feel is your greatest strength as a project manager (e.g. team-building skills, keeping projects on schedule, flexibility). Be prepared to explain why this skill is critical to effective project management and how it will benefit the company.
5. How will you put together your project team?
When an interviewer asks this question, what they really want to know is if you're an effective leader. They are trying to find out if you have the skills and competencies required to put a team together, manage the team, and see a project through to completion. What type of team members will you recruit? Can you work with people that are different than yourself? Can you motivate and inspire everyone from support staff to senior managers? The answer you provide to this question should demonstrate that you understand it takes many people with different skills sets and abilities to complete a project. Show the interviewer you know that an effective project manager doesn't have to be good at everything; they just have to be able to put together and manage a team of professionals with diverse skill sets and competencies.
6. What methods will you use to deliver results?
The best way to answer this question is by sharing with the interviewer project management techniques and methods you've successfully employed on past projects. This will allow you to support your answer using your own personal experience. It's wise to show the interviewer that you don't necessarily use a one-size-fits-all approach to project management by sharing a few examples of projects you've managed which required a different approach. You want show the interviewer that you're familiar with proven project management methodologies, but that you're flexible and will adapt your approach to the demands of a particular project.
Interviewers want to see that as a project manager you take the time and initiative to understand the unique aspects, demands, risks and requirements of each project, and that you don't apply the same "cookie cutter" framework to every problem.
7. Describe a project you managed where you encountered a problematic team member and tell me what you did about it?
While there are approaches for dealing with difficult people, there's no one right way to do it. People problems are rarely simple. The most effective way to illustrate your approach to dealing with problematic team members is by sharing an example. Painting a picture for the interviewer by sharing an example will highlight your ability to understand and resolve complex people problems. The following is a sample answer:
"During the most recent project I managed, I found that one of the designers on the team was secretly sabotaging the project by communicating design flaws we were trying to fix directly to the client. The client respected this designer and his opinion, so I had to come up with a way of resolving the issue without jeopordizing our relationship with the client. I knew I'd be walking a very fine line but I decided the best approach was a direct approach. I called a meeting with both the designer and the client to discuss the design issues we were working on. I explained to the client, while the designer was present, that I had successfully completed many similar projects and the design flaws we were fixing were not out of the ordinary. I also offered to provide the client more regular communications. Recognizing that the design flaws were not what he had thought they were, he said that more frequent communications wouldn't be necessarily and just verified that we'd be completed on time. I assured him we would. Not surprisingly, the designer never felt it necessary to communicate directly with the client after that meeting."
8. Why are you interested in working for our organization?
This is a question that any job candidate can expect to get in an interview, not only those applying for the project manager position. However, project managers should be able to provide a very specific answer to this question, one that speaks to their experience and position they're applying for. Before going into any interview, project manager job candidates should learn everything there is to know about the company and the types of projects they tackle. A sample answer follows.
"I've been following your company for a long time and have been impressed with your commitment to only taking on development projects that are environmentally friendly. While I'm not exactly a tree hugger, I value our environment and believe we should do everything we can to protect it. I strive to employ environmentally sound techniques throughout every project I oversee. When I saw that you had a position open for a project manager I thought it might be a good opportunity for me to transition from my current position as project manager with XYZ company to your company."
9. Where have you worked before?
Inexperienced individuals are rarely hired as project managers. Organizations typically hire individuals with 2-3 years of management experience. When asked about work experience, always be honest. If you don't have a lot of work experience focus on the skills you've developed that qualify you for the position.
10. What are some of the projects that you handled in the previous job?
If you have a lot of work experience, organize a portfolio and share it with the interviewer. Do not add information in your portfolio which is false or misleading since being dishonest will disqualify you for the position. Focus on those projects that are relevant to the company and the position for which you're applying.
11. What are your greatest achievements in your professional life?
In addition to sharing your portfolio, describe in detail past projects you successfully managed and enjoyed. Explain how you managed team members, delegated responsibilities, and measured quality. However, be sure to provide concise answers and avoid being long-winded or boastful.
12. Have you ever faced any disagreements in your previous job? How did you solve it out?
Project managers must work with team members, managers, and clients who disagree with their directives. It will seem unbelievable or disingenuous to claim you've never disagreed with a colleague during a project. The interviewer might believe you're dishonest or unable to handle disagreement. Provide at least one example where you had to work with people who disagreed with you and explain what you did to compromise or fix a problem.
13. Have you ever had disappointments?
Regardless of where you work, you will experience disappointment during your career. You may have lost a job because of downsizing, had a colleague you were close to quit, been assigned a project you didn't enjoy, or been passed up on a promotion you were aspiring for. Provide a concise and honest answer. Potential project managers are frequently asked this question.
14. What types of project do you know like to work on?
Be very careful when answering this question. There are always going to be jobs we don't like and everyone has preferences, but project managers are expected to work on whichever project they're assigned. Elaborating on which types of projects you like and which you don't like could loose you the job if the interviewer gets the impression that you're only willing to tackle projects that meet your criteria. The following is an example of an acceptable response to this question.
"I really enjoy projects that present unique challenges. For example, the last project I was involved with required the team I managed to work as a member of a larger team tasked with designing, developing and implementing a system for transporting natural gas through the Sierra Nevadas. My team was in charge of designing the system. A second company was responsible for developing the hardware to support the transporation system. And it was a third company's role to put the physical system together. What I enjoyed most about that project was that it pushed the limits of my organizational and people manage skills and required me to think outside the box in order to avoid conflict and meet all project deadlines."
15. What do you spend the most time doing each day?
You need to be honest, but in order effectively answer this question you must be familiar with the types of projects you'll be managing if hired. Do you due dilingence before showing up for the interview. A good response to this question follows.
"On the projects I've worked on in the past, most of my time has been spent on the phone communicating with team leaders and suppliers. However, I know that many of the projects your company tackles require a more hands-on management approach. Based on what I know of the types of projects I'd be managing for your company, I see myself spending much more time in the field meeting with clients and making sure projects are being completed to client specifications."
The above answer tells the interviewer that you allocate your time based on the type of project you're managing. It shows that you're flexible, consider the unique needs of each project, you've done your due diligence about the company, and that you're ready to hit the ground running.
When answering project management interview questions, maintain a calm demeanor and assertive tone. Before answering the question, take a moment to gather your thoughts and process the information you've been given. You can even ask the interviewer a few clarification questions if needed. Project managers are expected to take time to process the facts before responding.
The majority of project management candidates are quite adept at answering interview questions that test their technical ability and knowledge but tend to struggle with questions designed to evaluate specific behaviors or competencies required of a project manager.
It's estimated that over 80 percent of project manager candidates lose job opportunities because they either lack or are unable to demonstrate that they possess the behaviors or competencies required of a project manager.
Standard Project Management Interview QuestionsThe following are interview questions that are likely to show up in any project management interview. There isn't necessarily only one "correct" answer to these questions. The answer you provide must make sense for the position and be based on your experience.
- How do you determine realistic schedules for the project?
- Explain your strategy for resource allocation.
- How do you keep stakeholders up to date on the progress of the project?
- What methods do you use for managing suppliers?
- How do you evaluate risks to the project? How do you mitigate them?
- What tools do you use for managing projects?
- What project management software do you know how to use?
- What project management methodologies do you prefer?
- What change management processes have you used to ensure that change is introduced properly?
- What practices do you employ for closing a project and making sure all conditions have been met?
- What specific training have you had that is relevant to our project manager position?
Other Skills and CompetenciesProject managers need to be able to coordinate, implement and finalize projects according to specification, on budget and on time. They must be highly organized, good at multi-tasking, leading, communicating, solving problems, negotiating and managing. However, there are all kinds of projects, and all kinds of project managers. Each type of project requires a project managers with unique abilities, skill sets and experience.
Depending on the organization, industry and position, job qualifications for project managers will vary. Below we've listed several additional compentencies that organizations are looking for when interviewing candidates for senior project management positions. You can expect to receive questions designed to evaluate you knowledge of and familiarity with the following:
- Project management tools
Potential senior project managers are typically asked about the types of technologies and tools they've used to manage previous projects. For example, many project managers utilize MS Project.
- Business management tools
Project managers are frequently asked about business management tools they're familiar with, including SAP, BANN, ERP, etc.
- Project Business plan and budget
Employers also want to know how much experience you have creating budgets and managing finances. Additionally, they may inquire about your experience developing project business plans. They will also probably ask you whether you have basic accounting knowledge and experience.
- Project's prioritization methodologies
Every project manager is responsible for prioritizing tasks. As such, you will be asked about methods you've utilized in the past to prioritize tasks, resolve problems, and adapt to change.
- Project's risk factors
Project managers must understand risk management. As such, you will be asked how you monitor and address risk.
- Team management
You will also be asked whether you have provided indirect or hands-on management. Additionally, interviewers ask potential project managers about multidisciplinary projects they've participated in.
- Subcontractors, vendors and suppliers
Since more companies now have international operations, you will be asked whether you've ever outsourced work to foreign markets or subcontractors. If you're asked this question, the interviewer will probably ask you whether you chose the firms or contractors.
Project managers are often responsible for procurement and supply chain management, depending on the organization.
- Cross-company management, matrix management
Project managers frequently work with members of other departments, whether it's the logistics, procurement, or the research and development departments. Additionally, they often communicate with clients, vendors, and other professionals. Project managers are often also required to develop and submit invoices and manage project finances.
- SOW & Action Items
Employers also want to know about your involvement with various types of work projects. As such, you will probably be asked about specific responsibilities assigned to you, scope of work requirements, and other action items you were responsible for.
- Project's status information - Transparency
Employers want to know how you communicated with executives and other managers while overseeing a large project. Transparency is important at all organizations.
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