5 Hidden Project Manager Interview Questions That Could Determine If You Land the Job

February 15, 2016 · By · Consulting, General, Project Manager · Tags: , , , ,

When we prep project managers for an interview, we often find them armed with answers to a battery of common questions. They show up prepared to discuss everything from certifications, to experience, to skills.

And that’s a critical part of the interview process.

But for any position, there are really two sets of qualifications being vetted, not only the fit between your skill set and the technical demands of the job, but also the fit between your personality and the culture of the workgroup you’re hoping to hire into.

The Two Interviews for a Project Management Position

To get at your skill set, the hiring manager will ask straightforward questions, the kind you’ve been studying for. But culture can be a touchy topic. To get a sense of your personality and temperament, the interviewer may be more circumspect. She might use a general prompt such as, “Tell me about a recent project challenge.” Then she’ll listen carefully for clues to your working style. Do you tend to avoid conflict? Or are you simply introverted? Are you accountable or do you blame teammates? Do you ask for help when you need it? In essence, there’s a second hidden interview going on.

And that can be trouble, if you’re not prepared.

Hiring managers want transitions to be easy and painless. They want a candidate who can slide into an existing team without disturbing the rhythm of business. That means finding a candidate who fits a working environment with the players and culture already in place.

In a choice between two technically qualified candidates, often cultural fit swings the decision.

So how can you best prepare for a cultural evaluation?

First, be honest. The group has to be a good fit for you, too. It won’t work for you or the team to pretend to be something you’re not. Think about your “must haves” in a culture and then assess your traits. Which of your needs are core and which are preferences? Where can you be flexible?

Second, be proactive, not passive. Use the interview to uncover the values of the hiring group so you can frame your answers in a way that shows your fit.

Taking the Lead in the Project Management Interview

If you’re not asked questions about your working style, bring up the topic. Ask: What’s the team culture? Then be prepared to give clear, specific descriptions of your own traits and preferences. Don’t be afraid to be distinctive. Your goal is not to show up as just another competent, flexible PM. That sets the bar too low; it’s too general. You need to stand out from the competition.

No one is looking for a just a PM – they’re looking for a specific PM.

Here are the five project management interview questions potential hirers are asking themselves to determine if you could be the right PM for their IT project:

  1. How assertive or aggressive are you?

    This isn’t a question of whether you can lead, that’s a baseline expectation. It’s a matter of leadership style. The client’s needs will depend on their internal culture and their relative political power. Some workgroups are in a position to dictate the terms of a project and are looking for a project manager who can manage to aggressive deadlines. Others in less powerful positions are looking for PMs who understand nuance and demonstrate diplomacy, bringing stakeholders along as attentively as possible.

  2. Do you tend to be proactive or heads-down?

    Proactive is flashy and sexy. Walking into a room and challenging assumptions while actively making decisions gives you the air of command and seniority. It makes your workgroup look competent and confident. But proactive can also costly—in terms of both money and time. Failure to get stakeholder buy-in upfront may delay the project and create political repercussions. Your interviewer may want a candidate who can flex PM muscle, or they may want someone who can quietly and consistently move the action forward.

  3. Do you operate best within structure or ambiguity?

    We like to call today’s business environment fluid and dynamic. The truth is sometimes it’s just plain uncertain. Some groups will be working at the bleeding edge of innovation and looking for a PM who can roll with the flow, accept risk, and pivot on a point. Other groups, especially those in large, established, matrixed organizations, value process. They’re looking for someone who can flawlessly execute on established plans.

  4. Do you favor conceptualization or attention to detail?

    Everyone seems to want to be a strategic thinker. And some groups will value that. They’ll want to know that you can see past the limits of your silo and add insight at a high level. Other teams, with a rapid cadence and detailed deliverables, will value granularity. They care less about the blue sky and more about not letting the details fall between the cracks.

  5. Do you tend toward domain expertise or ideation?

    You may find yourself across the desk from an interviewer who is looking for an “out-of-the-box” thinker. But what’s trendy may not be necessary or effective in a given role. Remember that PMs are always part of a team. Research shows that imaginative solutions come from teams of people with classical, but complementary, expertise. If you’re a facts and data person with deep subject matter expertise that’s just as valuable as generating multiple ideas.

Yes, it can feel risky to choose a position. It’s natural to want to appear to be flexible. But ultimately, you’re looking for an environment in which you can thrive. A place where you can truly contribute.

You’ll have a better chance of standing out if you’re the one who precisely fits the company’s needs rather than the one that can work in any environment.

As we develop PMs who are advancing in their careers, we coach them not to be satisfied with reeling off their resumes in the interview and then tossing off a few “insightful” questions at the end to show they’re interested.

You’ll get farther, faster by making the interview a true mutual exploration, by actively questioning clients to uncover how best to position yourself as a PM and a valuable addition to an existing team.

Axelerate is a PM company. We do IT project management consulting and IT project management staffing. We’re the place PMs come to get promoted. Join us today and Axelerate Your Success™.


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