Things to Ask When Interviewing a Project Manager – Overview

So you’re about to start a major project. And you’ve decided that you can’t get this done without a project manager. Maybe there’s too much risk with the project or maybe the project involves too many items to provide control. For whatever reasons, you’ve decided that you need to use a project manager — a PM — to manage the project. There’s just one minor problem.

You don’t have one.

So you need to go out and hire one. Cool. There’s only one problem. You’ve heard the term. You’ve got a rough idea of what one does. But interviewing? How are you going to come up with a list of questions to ask?

Not to worry, in this article, I’m going to guide you in the things to ask when interviewing a project manager. I’m not going to give you the exact questions. I’ll leave that for later articles. However, I’ll guide you along to some of the questions you should ask.

The questions you need to ask fall into six categories.

1. What do you really want?

You didn’t realize that you would have to answer the first set of questions, did you? The sad truth is that most hiring managers don’t really understand what they’re looking for when they hire a PM. I’ve seen ads for Project Directors which asked for current hands-on programming skills. When was the last time you saw any VP level or C level executive with current skills in their discipline. That’s not what they do.

You need to start by asking yourself what level of person you are trying to hire. Are you looking for a lead hand — meaning a working supervisor? Or are you looking for a senior manager who will co-ordinate the work of multiple managers and their teams? Or a senior executive who will co-ordinate and advise other senior executives?

Once you’ve answered that question, then and only then can you begin to answer the tools and skills questions. What skills are really needed? What skills can be developed on the job? What skills are someone else’s problem? What project management tools will the new person need? As you go through the list always ask yourself two questions. First, “Do I really need this?” Is there an alternative or can the project manager learn it after arrival? Remember the more senior the project manager the faster they will be able to learn. Second, always ask, “Would I expect someone of this level to have these skills if I wasn’t hiring a project manager?” Hiring a VP of Finance or any senior manager based on their ability to do the bookkeeper’s job isn’t very smart.

2. What are you offering?

Once you’ve decided on what you really need you should have an idea of what a person of that level will want. In salary, working conditions and other conditions. What would you do if you were hiring a regular manager at that level?

Pay is only part of the equation. But it’s one part that’s frequently done wrong. Don’t forget that the calculation of pay rate for an hourly employee is different from the calculation of fair pay for a contractor or consultant.

3. Qualifications

Once you’ve determined the type of person you need to hire you can decide what qualifications really matter. After all, if you’re hiring a lead hand asking for a PMP is somewhat overkill. Don’t forget that qualifications like the Project Management Professional (PMP) designation often have experience requirements. Asking for a PMP with less than five years of experience will eliminate 100% of the honest people in the world. And asking for a certification in a programming language from a VP level manager is just plain silly.

4. Tools

There are three sets of tools that a project manager may need to bring. Focusing on the wrong tools is as bad as focusing on the wrong qualifications.

The first are the tools that a PM uses to be a project manager. Things like work breakdown structures, risk management, and communications management. If you have an area of concern for the project, (e.g. it’s very risky or it involves delicate relations with stakeholders), you are going to have to ask a direct question about that area. Any qualified project manager will have experience in that area so it may not show in the resume. And the extent of their experience definitely will not show.

The second are the tools that a project manager uses to perform their tasks efficiently. Tools like MS Project or MS Word. Again, these are standard tools so they may not show on the resume.

Finally, are those tools which are unique to the project in question. For example, if you are installing Quickbooks you may be tempted to ask for experience in Quickbooks. Be careful with these tools. Depending on the level of project manager that question may reject the candidate with the best skills for the job. Generally, knowledge about these tools is needed in the people working for the PM. That’s why the title is project manager.

5. Processes, standards and fitting in

Do you have your own project management process or do you expect the project manager to bring and apply theirs? Many project management consultants are used to quickly assessing your methodology and then supplementing it where their own process is stronger. Others simply adopt yours. Either can be acceptable but you need to ensure that your candidate is capable of fitting into your organization.

6. Skills

The most important questions relate to the soft skills that a project manager brings to the table. And unfortunately, they don’t reliably show up on a resume. Your initial decision regarding the level of project manager you need will determine the level of soft skills you need. Asking a lead hand or first level supervisor to have CEO level presentation skills is not likely to result in a successful search. Equally asking a C-level project manager to have the detailed oriented nature of a programmer will also not lead to a successful search.