Things to Ask When Interviewing a Project Manager – 7 Questions to Ask A Candidate

Selecting a project manager who can do the job can be quite stressful. After all, there’s a lot riding on the success or failure of the project. Your company’s future could be dependent on the project.

But what do you ask when you don’t know what a project manager does?

In this article, I’m going to give you seven things to ask when interviewing a project manager. But before we start I want to clarify two things.

First off, you need to define exactly what you are hoping the project manager will do for you. You also need to realistically define what skills you really need. No I’m not being redundant. You see there are two distinct groups of project managers. One is a real project manager and the other is simply a lead technician. This latter is often called a project leader in order to avoid the management label. Don’t get the two mixed up. Asking for the skills of one when you need the skills of the other is a sure way to be disappointed in your search. In a previous article in this series, I described some of the questions you need to ask before the interview is scheduled or the ad even placed in order to clarify exactly which you need.

Second, a project manager is a specialist manager. He has focused on creating a team from the ground up, aiming that team at a specific problem and then directing that team to achieve that objective despite the distractions along the way. His or her focus is on the implementation of change and dealing with people under the stress of change. This is different from a resource or operational manager whose focus is on maintaining the status quo. And it requires a different set of management skills.

In addition, it also requires a set of specific skills associated with the governance of a project. Finally, it requires the ability to deal with a number of different specialists in their terminology. That involves the ability to gain respect and communicate across specialties. This is different from a project leader who is expected to communicate primarily with a single discipline.

Here are seven questions you should always ask a potential candidate.

1. What types of project have you worked on? What size in money? What size in team? How long were they? How many stakeholders? There are a number of questions but they’re all really the same one. Do you have ten years of experience or one year repeated ten times? The more types of projects, the more varied the experience, the more likely it is that the individual will know how to react when the inevitable hits the rotary air handler.

2. Would you say you’ve specialized in any particular aspect of project management? Even project management has its technicians. In very large projects some people specialize in specific parts of project management. If the answer is any particular part that may mean they are a technician. Which is fine if you’ve got a very large project. But not so fine if you’re looking for someone to run the whole project. Further questions will be needed to clarify.

3. Project Management is often described as both an art and a science. What elements of Project Management would you use to illustrate each? The science of project management is most of the elements covered in the PMBoK — risk, work breakdown structure, time management, cost management, reporting and so on. The art is working with people and getting things done and understanding the balance between the various elements.

4. Art or Science of Project Management. Which is more important? And why? The art is definitely more difficult and more important. After all, everything is being done by the people for the people. So being able to get the people to form a team and work towards the desired goal is more important that being able to fill out a report.

5. What would you say is the most difficult part of Project Management? And why? The answer to this will give you a very clear indication of the type of manager they are. The answer should focus on people (including politics).

6. What would you say is the most important part of Project Management? And why? Everything project management does is intended to get people who don’t want to work together to work together as a team. So people should be the answer. Anything else will give you an indication of the type of manager they are. One exception is risk. This answer tends to indicate the type of organization they last worked in. In that case you should explore their people skills a little deeper.

7. Why do most projects fail? And what would you do to prevent it? You may get any number of responses all of which will help you to identify the type of manager you have. There are really two correct answers. The first is that the project should never have been approved in the first place. The solution proposed will give you some insight in to how the candidate deals with upper management. The second (and less correct answer from a statistical point of view) is that scope changes. The solution will give you an insight into how open the candidate is to change or how they deal with people.