There’s a big myth when it comes to interviews for project management positions.
The myth is that you need to be fluent in all the fancy-schmancy project management concepts and impress the interviewers with your immense amount of methodical knowledge to get you the job you desire.
Most people preparing for a PM interview do something like this:
- They google project management interview questions and answers
- They find articles from sites like Simplylearn or Coursera that have lists of hundreds of questions.
The thing is:
Most of the questions are really technical, like:
- What are the five phases of a project?
- Are you familiar with the concept of RACI?
- What is the difference between risk and issue?
Now here’s the problem:
As a former Senior Project Manager with 10 years of experience (about me) and as somebody who has screened and interviewed dozens of project management candidates, I can tell you that such questions simply do not get asked in interviews.
Here’s why (2 big reasons):
#1 – Most hiring managers do not have a project management background. Some have managed projects before but failed, and thus went into a line management path.
Hence, most managers wouldn’t even know how to correctly answer questions like the ones above. They are looking for someone like you who comes with the necessary skills and experience to run the show for them.
#2 – The other reason why you rarely get technical questions: These questions are not useful for uncovering those points about yourself that hiring managers (and organizations) really care about!
What hiring managers actually care about
What hiring managers do care about – and what they want to find out during the interview – is whether you score high on the following points:
- Do you approach work in a methodical and analytical way?
- Are you skilled at planning and organizing complex tasks?
- Are able to communicate with people from all levels?
- Are you able to deal with setbacks and issues?
- Can you manage stressful situations?
- Are you able to inspire and motivate people?
- Are you an honest individual who can be trusted?
These are the qualities that make a good project manager! They are essential for delivering value through projects. They are also must-haves for surviving in the tough project environment. Note that I’m talking about qualities – not knowledge.
Knowledge can be taught within a few months. But qualities such as being an awesome communicator or an inspiring team leader are much harder to develop. It takes years of trial and error to achieve a good level if you are not a born communicator, leader etc.
Prepare for THESE types of questions instead
The questions that you’ll likely get can be grouped into the following categories:
- Situational questions
- Questions concerning your interests and motivation
- Questions evaluating your experience and ability to see the bigger picture
Let’s go into detail.
With situational questions, your interviewer wants to know how you deal with challenging situations commonly encountered during a project.
Examples of situational questions:
- What would you do if a request to add 3 more features requests came in while you were working on a project?
- Have you ever managed an escalation and what did you learn from it?
- How would you deal with a difficult stakeholder?
Questions concerning your interests and motivation:
Hiring managers want to know whether you are genuinely interested in the position. They also want to know if you are excited about joining the company because it is where you’ll spend your next years at. For answering motivational questions well, you need to have clarity about what you want to do, and you need to have done a good amount of research about the company and the position.
Examples of relevant questions:
- Where do you see yourself in five years?
- What made you apply for this position?
- Why do you want to leave your current employer?
Questions evaluating your experience & ability to see the bigger picture:
Your experience is your greatest asset as a project manager. The more projects you have managed, the more you’ll understand how to avert risk and keep the momentum going until the mission is completed. Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that your interviewers want to dive into the specifics of your projects.
- Explain the team composition in one of your projects
- Explain the business benefits of one of your projects
- How do you manage risk in a project?
Now that you know what type of questions you should expect for your interview, let’s look at some actual examples of questions.
5 Project Management Interview Questions That DO Get Asked (See how I would answer each)
What follows is an excerpt from my PM job interviewing guide, The Underdog’s Guide to Project Management Interviews.
I have picked 5 common interview questions which naturally are tricky to answer. They have quite some weight on your overall assessment because they reveal a lot about your style of work and your motivation. So we want to be careful with what we say!
The first question to ask yourself before giving an answer: What is the interviewer trying to figure out about me? What is the question behind the question? Only when you know the underlying question are you able to give a compelling (and conclusive) answer! See section “What this question is assessing” to get the meaning of each question.
Let’s dive into the questions!
Question 1: How would you deal with a difficult stakeholder?
If you’ve ever led a project which involved a larger group of participants, you’ve probably had your share of stakeholder woes. Some stakeholders will not show up for meetings, some don’t respond to your emails, and other stakeholders will reject any proposal you make. The reasons can be different priorities, or the changes your project is going to make are making your stakeholders nervous (read also: 5 Reasons Why Your Stakeholders Are Making Your Life Hard).
As this question points at a ‘difficult’ stakeholder, we can assume it’s somebody who is unwilling to support or right away sabotaging the project. Not just somebody who has different priorities.
What this question is assessing:
- Are you able to competently deal with people from different levels? We can make the reasonable assumption that we are dealing with a management-level stakeholder.
- Your ability to resolve the conflict will be a demonstration of your skill to work at eye level with management.
- Are you a strong communicator? Good communication skills are the key to resolving conflicts or managing negotiations so that both sides will be happy. If you were able to manage the conflict yourself and without the help of your manager, then you are probably really good at bringing obnoxious stakeholders back on track.
How to answer the question:
- You could answer this question in a generic way, talking about techniques found effective for engaging stakeholders. A better way is to give a real example from your projects.
- Share details about the project
- Explain the role of the stakeholder
Explain in what way the stakeholder was difficult to manage
- Describe how you approached the situation. In particular, share details about the communication with the stakeholder and what meetings you arranged to reach an agreement.
- A good process for dealing with difficult stakeholders can be as follows:
- Have an informal, personal meeting with the stakeholder (Do not come with a prepared agenda).
- If you share the same location, drop by their desk. If not set up a call.
- Show interest in the stakeholder’s area of work
- Try to understand what challenges he is facing in his area
- Try to figure out why he is unwilling to support your project: What is he afraid of? What negative impact does he expect the project to cause?
- Explain how his area/work will be affected
- See if you can make any concessions that would calm down the
- This is essentially a negotiation! you try to achieve a win-win scenario for both parties.
- If none of the above techniques work, escalate the matter to their manager and make sure everything is documented.
Assuming we answer this question using an actual scenario from work, here is what the answer could look like:
“Let me answer this question by sharing a story from one of my last projects. I think the case is very typical for the kinds of stakeholder issues we run into, and I can share how I dealt with the situation.
In the project I’ll be using as an example, we were rolling out a new ERP system at our company. The project involved stakeholders from all functions, including sales, manufacturing, logistics and other support units like accounting.
One of the groups that provided particularly difficult to work with was our purchasing unit. Purchasing was particularly affected by the system implementation. And with topics such as data cleansing and the revision of the supplier master record, the staff were faced with both important and time-consuming tasks. At the same time, the responsible manager was not particularly keen on the project. He had been with the company for more than 25 years and was generally skeptical of change. I knew from the beginning that engaging the team would require some effort on my part, but I didn’t expect it would be that hard.
Without going too much into the details, here’s what happened: The purchasing team would often not show up at project workshops. This slowed down decision-making and led to great frustration within the rest of the team. Another problem was that the department head would hold back key information we needed regarding their processes. I had to remind him five times to get what I needed.
When I honestly had enough, and when I realized we were not getting anywhere with this type of collaboration, was in the scoping workshop. We were discussing requirements and the purchasing manager began making requests about things that were clearly outside of the scope of the project. He definitely was aware of this, he was simply trying to disrupt the workshop and delay the implementation.
So here’s what I did:
First I set up an informal meeting with the manager. We had only dealt with each other on a work level and only on a few occasions. So I didn’t really know him as a person. Generally, my perception was that he was a friendly and supportive individual. So I was keen to meet him and learn more about his area. I didn’t come with an agenda, I just said I wanted to speak to him so we could better understand his position and find a way that would work for both sides. It was a friendly meeting and we talked about all sorts of non-work things. He told me about how his last vacation and how proud he was of his children. I think starting off with personal topics was helpful because it helped establish the level of trust needed to tackle work-related issues.
The manager went on to talk about his team, the projects they were working on, and how challenging it was to supply the growing manufacturing operation with the right materials.
I told him that I had the impression he didn’t seem willing to support the project. He basically said was not in agreement with the system strategy at all and gave all sorts of reasons why the new system wouldn’t be able to meet their needs. How it would slow down processes and so on. Some of his concerns were justified, but most of them were exaggerated or unjustified. To me, it seemed as if he was simply afraid of the upcoming change and the fact that his unit could be monitored more closely in our new system. After all, reporting was a big deal in the new system. So he was trying to create roadblocks to delay the project and protect his turf.
I just kept listening to his thoughts without saying anything. I think this made him feel more understood. I didn’t come with an agenda or a plan to put him under pressure. I just wanted to hear his perspective. And after he was done talking he really started to open up.
I told him I was taking his feedback seriously even though I didn’t think all his points were valid. So I offered to organize a special workshop just for his team where we would go through the new system and review their points of concern. He was content about the offer and promised to bring on his best people to familiarize themselves with the new workflow.
Taking up his concern about the visibility of performance data, I said that even though we had approved new reporting standards for all business units, he would have some say in the exact definition of the reports.
Ultimately, my meeting with the stakeholder proved to be really helpful. I could feel there was much more trust between us, and he started to care about their involvement in the project. The manager asked specific questions on what they should do next and what meetings they should attend. This was a big relief for me. The collaboration turned out really well and we completed the project successfully.
So I think when it comes to engaging difficult stakeholders, what matters is:
We must make an effort to see things from their perspective. Why are they unwilling to support? How are they affected by the project? What are their objections or concerns? For a productive discussion and to come up with a solution, we must have a good understanding of their area of work, the challenges they face and their goals. This requires empathy and listening skills.
Once we understand why they are unwilling to collaborate, we can talk about ways we can get them on board. The solution of course depends on the case. Maybe they just need more hand-holding because it’s an unfamiliar topic. Maybe we can reschedule some of the activities to reduce the burden on their team. Maybe we can incorporate any additional requests they may have. This is just like most negotiations, where we make an offer or make some concessions in order to get our negotiation partner to agree.
If none of the above techniques work, we need to escalate the matter to their manager and make sure everything is documented.”
Question: How do you deal with a difficult stakeholder?
- Try to see things from the stakeholder’s eyes – why are they unwilling to collaborate?
- Learn about their area of work, their goals and fears
- Try to reach an agreement that is acceptable for both sides (win-win)
- Increasing the level of confrontation by not listening to your stakeholder but simply starting an escalation or some other “fight”
- Turning a work conflict into a personal conflict
- Not showing empathy about your stakeholder’s situation, expectations and needs
Question 2: Have you ever managed an escalation and what did you learn from it?
Did you ever have to escalate an issue to senior management? Maybe inside your organization or with a customer or vendor? How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?
What this question is assessing:
- Your ability to deal with people/stakeholders at all levels n Your ability to communicate effectively
- Your ability to manage exceptions and resolve conflicts
Typical scenarios where escalations are common:
- Project team member not suited for the job / not performing
- Inacceptable behavior of a team member or contractor
- Addressing a larger, newly identified problem that currently isn’t been addressed (e.g. fraud)
- Failure of a vendor to meet performance or quality standards
How to answer the question:
- Think of an issue at work that you could not solve at your level of control where you decided to escalate to senior management. Elaborate on the issue.
- Share your initial strategy for addressing the issue n Explain what made you consider an escalation
- Who did you escalate to?
- How did the escalation go? Was it successful?
- What did you learn from the escalation?
“In one project we were working with one of our subsidiaries in Mexico. It was an SAP system implementation that involved large-scale process redesign and huge organizational changes. We had an onsite PM who was supposed to coordinate the project and change management locally.
Initially, the collaboration with the local PM went well and I enjoyed working with the person. But as the backlog of tasks assigned to the local team grew bigger and bigger and we continuously failed to meet deadlines, I understood we had a problem with local leadership.
The onsite PM was obviously overwhelmed with work and not the best fit for the job. I tried to support him as much as I could but that didn’t help.
At one point I found out that some tasks in our task list which were assigned to the local team had been set to ‘closed’ even though they clearly had not been completed. I talked to the local PM, and to my surprise, he had intentionally closed those tasks because he didn’t know how to handle them. That’s when I had enough and I reached out to his manager. He was the plant manager and also the sponsor of the project. We had a friendly conversation and I shared what I had noticed about the local PM’s work. I also pointed out that the lack of onsite leadership would definitely negatively affect the project. Without a strong and reliable local coordinator we as the implementation team would have to get more involved in local affairs, which would drive up costs. There was also the risk of a postponement of the go-live.
The director was receptive to my feedback and promised to get more involved in the project and attend our weekly status meetings together with his PM. That’s what he actually did and it did help us make progress with the project and close some long overdue tasks.
In hindsight, I would probably have escalated the issue earlier but back then I simply didn’t realize how bad things were. I assumed the local project manager was actually driving the project within his organization. I thought they just needed more time to complete the assigned tasks. After all, there were so many changes coming for the team, so I was okay to give them some extra time for completing the work like sorting out responsibilities and defining their future processes. But of course, I was expecting they were actually doing their homework, which wasn’t the case.”
Question: Have you ever managed an escalation and what did you learn from it?
- First, try to resolve a conflict yourself before escalating it to a higher level.
- Always stay at a subject matter level, never make a conflict personal
- Gather facts and evidence about the issue: what happened, what was the impact, what are the options to resolve the issue etc.
- Making a conflict personal
- Escalating too early – or too late
- Just complaining without providing ideas for resolving a conflict
Question 3: Explain the team composition for one of your projects
What this question is assessing:
- Your grasp of project resource staffing as a critical factor for the success of a project
- The level of projects you have headed – were these smaller and easy projects or large complex projects with a complex team structure?
- Your grasp of the project itself – do you know the project inside out and do you understand why it has been set up in the way it has?
How to answer this question:
- Choose a project you have led yourself
- Explain the team composition, including team member roles and responsibilities
- Explain how the team members interacted with each other
- What was good/bad about the team setup? What would you do differently?
“In one project I was leading an SAP implementation for a client in Turkey. The project team consisted of nine sub-teams for each of the processes we were touching: Sales, Purchasing, Finance, Engineering, Service Management and so on.
Each process team included one IT consultant with specialized knowledge about the process, a process coordinator from our lead plant as well as a business user representing the local functional team.
This setup worked great for several reasons: We had stable teams for each area where each team worked together during all phases of the project, from discovery to requirements gathering, concept design, implementation and testing up until go-live. The sub-teams almost became little families with people helping each other with ongoing tasks wherever possible.
This trio setup was also great because it balanced out differences in skill or experience. For example, we could put a junior IT consultant in the Finance team because we had a really strong finance key user there who had been with the company for almost 25 years. He could properly guide the young IT guy and supply the needed input in the right information because he had been on so many implementations before. So this was a really nice setup.
Besides the process teams, we had dedicated owners for cross-functional topics like data migration, training coordination and IT infrastructure.”
Question: Explain the team composition for one of your projects
- Give a specific picture of your team setup – including roles and responsibilities
- Explain why this setup was beneficial or what could have been better
- Share examples of how the team collaborated in day-to-day activities
- Being unable to provide a detailed picture of your team structure
- Not having an opinion about the quality/effectiveness of the team setup
Question 4: Explain the business benefits of one of your projects
Talk about a project you have worked on and explain the benefit your company was trying to achieve with the project.
The best project leaders don’t just ‘manage’ a project. They are concerned with helping the client achieve the desired benefit with the project. The project is simply the vehicle for delivering the desired change or outcome. What ultimately matters is whether the project has provided the expected benefit or not. The benefit is often measured in business metrics like sales, profitability, time savings and financial savings. Benefits can also be viewed from a long-term, strategic level.
How to answer the question:
- Choose a project with a good amount of business impact (no pure IT/technology project)
- Explain the reasons for the project
- What issues did the project address? Here are some examples:
- We could not give the customer an exact delivery date because our systems were not integrated with our carriers
- We spent nearly $200k annually on paper invoices for our customers
- It took us 15 days to complete an order whereas our competitors managed to complete the manufacturing in 7 days n What were the desired improvements?
- Explain how the project was scoped and how specifically it was supposed to make a business impact.
- Describe the benefit using phrases like the following:
- We wanted to give each customer a definite delivery date when they completed their order
- We wanted to achieve a 40% reduction in billing cost
- We wanted to achieve a performance where we could fulfill any manufacturing order within the same timeframe as our competitors.
“In one of my projects I designed and implemented an e-invoicing strategy for my company. It was 2009, right after the financial crisis and my company was looking for ways to cut costs. Our accounting and billing process had a lot of potential for improvement. We spent about $3 million annually sending out paper invoices to our customers. That was a lot of money that was not providing any real value for us our clients. Some of our clients had asked for digital invoices, but we didn’t have a system or a strategy for it. So I took on the topic.
We looked at different solutions and ended up building our own e-invoicing solution. Then we rolled out e-invoicing country by country. Our local organizations were eager to jump on board and offer digital billing to their customers. There was such a big demand.
In some countries, we achieved an e-invoicing coverage of 40% within 6 months. In other countries, adaptation took a bit longer. But the achieved savings within one year were massive.
Whereas a regular printed invoice invoices cost us $50 cents for printing and postage, an electronic PDF invoice basically costs zero. We saved our company $400.000 in the first year, $850.000 in the second year and over $1.9 million in year 3.
The great thing was, the cost savings were only part of the achieved benefit. We also noticed a positive impact on our working capital. This is because electronic invoices reached the customer instantly and thus often were paid much earlier than traditional paper invoices. For a regular, mail-delivered invoice it could take up to 3 days to reach the client. And once it was in their inbox, the letter first had to be sorted and routed to the billing department. So it would take up to 10 days until an invoice was paid. An electronic invoice we would send directly to the customer’s billing team and they would normally pay within 3-5 days.”
Question: Explain the business benefits of a project
- Having a deep understanding of the reasons behind the project: Why it was kicked off, what was it supposed to achieve?
- What was the expected benefit for the business?
- Being specific in your answer
- Tell an exciting story
- Not knowing the backstory and the deeper reasons for the project
- Not knowing the business impact of the project or not being able to articulate it in a competent manner
- Using common business terms or metrics incorrectly; e.g. confusing revenue with profit
Question 5: How do you manage risk in a project?
How do you avoid or mitigate risks in a project? Share a few general techniques unspecific to the project.
What this question is assessing:
- Your understanding of general risk management techniques for project management
- Being asked this question, I would structure my answer into two parts: First I would share specific formal risk management techniques commonly used in project management.
- Secondly, I would talk about good practices for avoiding or managing risks in a project.
- Formal risk management techniques used in project management:
- Performing a risk assessment
- Keeping a Risk Log (or tracking risks in a RAID Log) for ongoing monitoring of risks. See my blog post on how to do a risk assessment
- Helpful habits for avoiding or managing risks:
- Regular check-in with team members to see if there are any bottlenecks or issues
- Regular status meetings with stakeholders
- Regularly checking plan v. actual – progress, effort but also cost
- Sporadically attend subject matter meetings – are there any conceptual issues or issues with implementation?
- Facilitate communication inside the team but also with outside parties/stakeholders
- Facilitate workshops
- Provide concise project updates frequently
- Communicate issues early
- The most effective way to avoid or manage risk is to ensure good communication in the project.
- When it comes to getting the status of a particular task and getting a feel for the health of the project, don’t just talk to the person in charge of the task. Ask different people for their opinion on the project … from other team members, stakeholders, from the client etc. People don’t always tell you the (full) truth. By talking to different people, you get a realistic perspective on how the project is doing and if there are any bigger issues that need your attention.
- Inspecting work done – does it meet your expectations? Don’t just rely on the feedback from team members. Take a look at the work they have done.
How to answer this question:
- Talk about formal risk management techniques, ideally those you have applied in your own projects (see above comment about specific techniques)
- Share several good practices for avoiding and monitoring risk and why these are effective for risk management
- Provide examples of techniques you have applied and measures you have implemented in your day-to-day project management work.
“If you are referring to formal risk management techniques, we always performed a risk assessment at the start of every project. In fact, this was a mandatory step as per our project management guidelines. We would have a meeting with the sponsor, myself as the Project Manager as well as the key stakeholders. In the meeting, each participant would share what they considered to be the major risks and potential issues for the particular project. We would discuss each point and record all major risks in a risk log, along with an assessment of its probability of occurrence and potential negative impact on the project. Finally, we assigned a risk owner for each risk who would monitor the risk and coordinate or perform any mitigating actions.
Apart from the formal risk management techniques, I think there are a lot of things we as project managers can do to ensure we don’t even run into issues, or at least to contain the impact of those risks. For example, frequent check-ins with each team member are useful to see if there’s anything they are struggling with or that’s not going according to plan. If you become aware of those problems early, you can intervene and take action to avoid bigger crises. Therefore frequent check-ins and status meetings are the best way to monitor and manage risk.
In general, I would say good communication is one of the most effective tool for avoiding and managing risk in a project. As long as everybody knows exactly where we are at in terms of progress, what issues the team is working on and what the next steps are, the chances of us running into bigger issues and facing significant risks are going to be minimized.”
Question: How do you manage risk in a project?
- Share examples of methods for managing and mitigating risk that you have used in your own projects
Be specific when illustrating the use of a particular risk management technique.
- Not giving any examples of how you’ve managed risk
You can find more interview questions & answers in my Interview Guide:
Want to catapult yourself into the circle of top candidates?
Did you like the way I’ve covered PM interview questions? Are you willing to put in extra effort that will push you into the circle of top candidates?
Then you should check out my interview guide, The Underdog’s Guide to Project Management Interviews. In the guide, we’ll review 10 additional tough interview questions and I’ll show you how to come up with compelling answers that will WOW your interviewers. We’ll look at questions like: How do you prioritize between multiple active projects? What does your typical day look like? Tell us about a time you made a mistake and how you handled it.
Not only will the guide help you give more profound answers. It’ll help you tap on the endless store of stories, learnings and successes you’ve gathered throughout your career. Stories that you definitely want to share with the interviewers, because they will reveal the most about who you really are.
It’s all included in the guide:
The Underdog’s Guide to Project Management Interview Questions includes:
- A detailed discussion of 15 to-be-expected-but-hard-to-answer interview questions asked during interviews for project management positions.
- Detailed, real-life sample answers
- Breakdown of the criteria companies and hiring managers actually care about in PM candidates
- BONUS: Easy-to-implement insider tips for making your resume more persuasive