A skilled project manager brings order to chaos, keeps priorities in check, and plays a pivotal role in helping teams hitting deadlines and achieving goals.
But understanding the importance of an experienced project manager doesn’t mean that you know exactly which traits to look for during the interview process. And even if you do, it can be tough to come up with project manager interview questions that effectively screen for those attributes.
We’ve prepared a palette of questions that will help you screen for candidates who are efficient, collaborative, and process-driven. These questions will help you dive deep into your candidate’s experience, skills, and temperament to help you make a confident hiring decision.
1. You’re leading a project with a dev team in Minsk, a design team in London, and a client in Japan. How do you manage communication?
This question gives the candidate a chance to demonstrate their knowledge of efficient communication in the face of multiple teams and time zones. Hiring a project manager with a proven record of effective communication is crucial. A study by PMI showed that ineffective communication could be responsible for up to one-third of project failures.
This question also lets the candidate explain their perspective on working with a distributed team. As more and more companies are pursuing global workforces nowadays, project managers need to know how to work around difficulties like limited crossover time and remote collaboration.
Additionally, a scenario with stakeholder groups in three different cultures will likely result in differing styles of communication styles. A candidate who understands that different cultures communicate differently possesses a level of cultural sensitivity that will make them an effective project manager on a global team.
2. Your client has strong opinions without much relevant knowledge. How do you prevent scope creep?
Scope creep is a frequent risk in project management, and combatting it is one of the most common challenges faced by project managers.
This question helps reveal a project management candidate’s past experience with clients who have unclear goals. A candidate who has faced and prevented scope creep before is more likely to solve the problem in the future.
Sometimes a client’s lack of clarity of their own objectives can put a project and relationship at risk. The best project management candidate will be able to help a client clarify and articulate their own ideas via active listening techniques like mirroring and labeling, and use negotiation tactics to reach a place of compromise.
3. Tell us about a situation in the past where you threw out an old process and created a new one.
This question will tell you a lot about the candidate’s strength of character when it comes to thinking critically and departing from received wisdom. Project managers need to be process-driven—but they also need to know which processes are worth continuing and which ones need to be replaced. Consensus among leaders places great importance on critical thinking ability as a key attribute of a successful project manager.
Listen to how the candidate communicates the need for change. Changing is not easy—it’s estimated that around 70% of all change efforts in organizations fail. Take note of how your candidate explains the need for the process switch and whether they mention procuring buy-in from all stakeholders while successfully modifying an older process.
4. What are some mistakes that a PM can make while building a budget?
Being aware of potential mistakes is a crucial part of avoiding them. This question helps you identify experience in project scoping and budgeting. A promising candidate will demonstrate awareness of potential problem areas, from cost-of-quality to the risk of gold-plating.
Listen if the candidate admits to having made a budgeting mistake in the past. A candidate that admits to a previous error isn’t foolish—in fact admitting to a past mistake can signal a candidate that’s more qualified. Owning mistakes shows integrity and suggests that your candidate is trustworthy.
5. Your client requests an unrealistic deadline revision as a response to a sudden global market event. How do you navigate the situation?
All project managers will come up against a situation in their career where scope change creates an unbeatable deadline. This question helps demonstrate how they handle these impossible-to-satisfy requests.
A candidate’s answer to this question will reveal their ability to manage expectations. Failing to set the right expectations with clients at the start of a project can lead to scope creep, resourcing issues (as projects may drag on for longer than forecast), and poor relationships with clients. It can also sour relationships on a PM’s own team. Victor Lipman said it best in Forbes: “The best managers always set clear expectations.”
This question also shows your candidate’s commitment to quality. Unrealistic deadlines often come at the expense of quality. A good answer to this question will include the candidate expressing the need to confirm with a client if they are willing to sacrifice quality to meet the revised deadline.
Finally, this question lets you assess your candidate’s response to scope change. Scope change is not quite the same thing as scope creep—scope creep involves unclear expectations, whereas scope change involves updated expectations that are clear. Pay attention to how your candidate defines new processes, creates new structures, and adjusts resourcing and budgeting during a scope change.
One other thing to listen for: Does your PM candidate want to please the client at all costs? Or are they aware that the customer is not always right?
6. How important is a sense of cohesion and team spirit on your team?
Project managers must be collaborative themselves, but also need to encourage collaboration across their team. Your candidate’s answer to this question will give you insight into their pastoral skills. Is your candidate a results machine, or do they care enough about their team to know a happy, unified team in a positive work culture is more productive?
The question also allows you to screen for conflict management skills in your candidate. As the glue holding their team together, your PM candidate may have to deal with conflicts between stakeholders, and it’s vital that they are able to do so constructively.
Creating a sense of team togetherness isn’t just a matter of some custom emojis in the group Slack channel. Listen for specific recommendations about ways to increase cohesion across the team.
7. You are given a project working with an international team and well-defined goals. List some of the things that can go wrong with the project.
This scenario-based question lets you get a sense of your candidate’s skills in risk management. With over half of companies having suffered risk events in recent years, PMs who have a sense for parsing risk and taking proactive steps to mitigate those risks are worth their weight in gold.
The question also lets you take a measure of your candidate’s capacity for figurative thinking. You’ve given your prospective new hire enough variables to set the scene, but they’ll need to rely on their imagination to spot risks without additional prompting. Imagination is a valuable quality when it comes to devising improved processes and spotting risk ahead of time.
Make note of the questions the candidate asks to find out more context. A candidate who is a proactive knowledge gatherer, and understands the right questions to ask in each situation, is likely to be better at spotting risks, mediating disputes, and conducting research.
8. Describe a foolproof way to increase the performance of an under-skilled teammate.
It’s a challenging scenario for project managers: there’s a fast-approaching deadline and an under-skilled team member is an obstacle to finishing on time. An under-skilled teammate can create real challenges with delivery and project quality, so it’s important to see how your candidate deals with this issue.
This question assesses your candidate’s willingness (and ability) to provide coaching. Professional development is seeing increased focus recently, and project managers are in an ideal position to coach their teammates.
Of course, your PM needs to balance coaching efforts with the demands of the project itself. This question also measures their ability to balance these two priorities, which is vital in a good project manager.
Listen for the candidate to touch on the importance of patience in dealing with this challenging situation. Impatience can lead to complications, cloud one’s vision, and encourage negative emotions—none of which are tendencies you want in a PM.
The list of qualities in a good project manager is extensive because a project manager isn’t required to get the best just out of themselves—to succeed, they also need to bring the best out in everyone they work with.
This comes through the interaction of soft skills with a strong pragmatic sense of planning, process building, and efficiency. If your candidate’s answers suggest they’re good at staying focused even when their mind is in several places at once, they have the makings of an excellent project manager.