9 Must-Ask Interview Questions When Hiring a Project Manager

September 8, 2016 Karla Cook

Imagine you've been tasked with spinning plates on sticks while also hula-hooping on a balance beam.

That's kind of what being a project manager is like.

With so many varied responsibilities, demands, and expectations, not everyone is cut out for the job. Finding a project manager who fits your unique needs can be a real challenge, and it's difficult to nail down exactly what qualities you should be keeping an eye out for -- or how to test for these.

We've compiled a list of interview questions that can help you identify the right leader for your next project, and we've given you some insight into what to look for in a good response. Whether you're hiring internally or recruiting outside of your company, these questions can help you identify a good hire

9 Interview Questions for Project Managers

1) How do you build consensus on a conflicted team?

One of a project manager's core responsibilities is managing groups of people. And where there are people, there are conflicts.

A good project manager knows that some conflict is inevitable -- and even healthy -- on a project team. Avoiding or glossing over conflicts that arise can be detrimental to the project's objectives and can actually exacerbate underlying issues, causing them to bubble up and wreak havoc later down the line.

The ideal candidate will understand that each conflict is nuanced and unique, and she won't try to approach each one with a cookie-cutter solution. Having some knowledge of conflict resolution techniques is great, but project managers need to be able to adapt to the needs of their individual team members and the greater company culture, particularly in high-stress situations. Look for a candidate who doesn't fall back on textbook frameworks or inflexible methods.

2) What was the outcome of your last project?

This question is less about whether or not her last project was a success, and more about what she took away from the experience. She should be able to evaluate the success or failure of a project, determine what precise steps led to that conclusion, and take steps in the future to improve.

If the project ended well, what exactly contributed to that success? Look for a candidate who is able to find learning experiences even when a project's end result is successful. Just because the project went well, doesn't mean there isn't anything that could have gone better.

If the project didn't go as planned, where does she think it went wrong? What changes does she wish she could make in hindsight? You want to see candidates who have the ability to identify issues post-mortem so that they can recognize them if they arise on a future project.

3) When every task is urgent, how do you determine what to prioritize?

With all the intricate details and moving parts that go into a project, it's easy to get bogged down and overwhelmed. But a strong project manager possesses discerning sifting abilities, enabling her to identify the most important components of a project and filter out the static noise.

Deciding which areas of a project require the most resources is a tough call, especially when every single component seems like it should be the #1 priority. Your candidate should be able to comfortably convert a tangled web of responsibilities into an organized hierarchy of action items, and follow through on all the tasks.

4) How will you gain and keep the support of your project sponsors?

Building and maintaining support for your project is absolutely imperative, and losing that support is essentially a kiss of death. If your sponsors aren't able to see the definitive purpose of your work, their support will rapidly dry up -- along with any hope of completing the project.

Project managers are responsible for managing these upwards relationships, ensuring that sponsors understand the value of the project as it progresses. Seek out a project manager who exhibits strong negotiation skills and has a history of building strong relationships with her colleagues.

5) How do you turn around a project that isn't going as planned?

Anyone who has ever worked on a project knows this to be true: Things don't always work out as you originally intended. From the kindergarten classroom to the corporate boardroom, all projects are vulnerable to the unexpected.

What really matters is how a project manager deals with whatever gets thrown at her. The ability to re-evaluate and re-prioritize as a project progresses is a crucial skill, but it's also important to keep up the team's overall morale. Find a project manager who isn't afraid to change course when the waters get rough and who can keep the team energized even when things aren't looking so great.

6) How do you handle an under-performing team member?

One of the many hats a project manager wears is the one of head coach. She's responsible for the training, ongoing development, and motivation of all her team members. If someone on the team is under-performing, it's her job to figure out the best method to help them get back on track.

Working around a team member's slack or even replacing that team member shouldn't be the first answer, and acting rashly can deal an unrecoverable blow to team morale. Look for a candidate who understands the importance of having the entire team working at maximum capacity and who is committed to helping her team members mature and thrive.

7) How would you characterize your communication style with your team?

Being a strong communicator means being self-aware about your own communication style. There isn't a single ideal style that all project managers should have, but they should be hyper-aware of how their communication methods affect those around them.

If a candidate is unable to clearly characterize her own communication style, it indicates that she may not have an adequate grasp on how she's perceived by others. Possessing an awareness of how you communicate enables you to navigate difficult conversations as they emerge, and project managers need to be able to know where they stand.

8) How do you evaluate whether or not the team is on track?

Being a project manager requires a lot of balance. The person needs to be hands-on enough to check in with team members at regular intervals and hands-off enough to avoid over-scheduling extraneous meetings that can eat into the team's precious time. She can't let any small detail slip under the radar, but she also has to remain completely focused on the end result. And most importantly, she needs to monitor the progress of delegated responsibilities without micro-managing.

Find a project manager who can keep the team focused on a task-by-task basis and continually re-affirm the project's main objectives. If a project manager thinks that the only way to keep the team on track is to constantly hover over everyone's shoulders, she probably isn't a good fit for the job.

9) Have you worked on a project in our field before?

In addition to the extensive list of organization, communication, and leadership skills a good candidate must posses, a project manager also needs to have some solid expertise in your field. This is more relevant for external hires, but it's important to ensure that internal hires have sufficient knowledge of the project's needs as well.

Generic skills and experience may seem adequate at first, but down the line they could lead to problematic gaps in understanding and contribute to major missteps. Make sure that your candidate has more than a basic understanding of your company and field. Otherwise, they could fall behind and steer the project in the wrong direction.

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