How can you tell if a candidate will be an excellent project manager? Ask them these questions.
As a business leader, you can spot terrible interview responses from a mile away. (“My biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist!”)
But do you know what makes a good interview question? Specifically, what kind of questions should you ask someone you’re interviewing to lead teams at your organization as a project manager?
A good project manager communicates well, has exceptional organizational skills, can negotiate and mediate, and is a natural leader. And, of course, they should also be able to manage your projects using project management software.
What should you ask to determine if a candidate has those assets? Let’s take a look.
7 project manager interview questions to ask your candidates
We reached out to a number of hiring managers and scoured through Glassdoor and LinkedIn data to bring you the most popular project manager interview questions—and what to look for in candidate answers.
Your interview shouldn’t be an oral version of the PMP exam (which is undergoing a major change in summer 2020, by the way). A good project manager interview is as much about revealing soft skills—how well a candidate can lead and work within a team, communicate, and mediate—as it is about uncovering budgeting and scheduling skills.
In other words, you’re looking for someone who will get along with everyone and make your company’s projects successful (No sweat, right?).
Don’t worry: these seven project management interview questions, along with specific guidelines on what to look for in candidate responses, will help you find the right person for the job.
1. Can you tell me about your organizational skills?
There’s no such thing as a disorganized, successful project. You might get lucky and have a project that manages to be a success despite running into a bunch of issues, but at some point every project needs an adult in the room to keep things under control.
It’s not so important exactly which system a candidate uses to stay organized, as long as they have a system to stay organized. Mobile task management app? Desktop software? Spreadsheet? Notepad? A combination of all of the above?
Any system is fine, as long as the candidate can make a strong case that it’s worked well for them, preferably illustrated with real examples (“I check my project management app on the train every morning to see which tasks need to be completed that day.”)
What you don’t want is someone who says: “I like to deal with things on the fly!”
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Specific stories that demonstrate how the candidate keeps projects on track, be it with PM tools or paper.
2. Tell me about a time when your stakeholders didn’t agree on a project. How did you proceed?
Monster.com notes that companies are interested in project managers who can inspire cooperation between all parties.
Interviewers should ask this question to draw out stories that will reveal whether the candidate has the necessary soft skills for the job. Try to deduce insights about the subject’s personality, priorities, and skills. Past work experience tends to foreshadow future work behaviors.
Strong candidates will have stories about former project management roles and use them as a confirmation of their mediation skills, making sure to give context, outline the actions they took in response, and then explain the results of their actions.
Be wary of candidates who can’t come up with a specific experience to refer to, answer vaguely, or boast about a situation that they handled poorly, such as treating someone harshly for an honest mistake.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Evidence of a soft touch that can be used to resolve conflicts and mediate between parties.
3. Have you ever experienced project failure? What happened?
It’s happened to the best of us: A project went too far out of scope, became too expensive, or was behind on delivery—and ultimately failed.
The situation is always unsettling, but strong candidates won’t look at this question as an ambush. They’ll see it as an opportunity to discuss what they learned.
Lily Zhang of The Muse suggests that if you can’t believe what the person you’re interviewing is saying (“I’ve actually never experienced project failure!”), it’s impossible to trust them enough to bring them into your organization.
A good candidate will be straightforward about what happened without trying to downplay their responsibility or shift blame before coherently explaining what and how they learned from the experience.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Evidence of how the candidate responds positively to adversity and failure, along with lessons learned from those situations.
4. What projects do you not want to work on?
Everyone would like to believe they can handle every project, working with every type of person, but the reality is that most project managers have strengths and weaknesses, industries, and types of projects they excel at, and those they have no experience with.
If your interview subject tells you that they love working on everything and are an ace at every type of project: They're probably bluffing and don't actually know what they're talking about, and they're unwilling to communicate weaknesses.
You don't want to bring either trait into your organization.
Good candidates are honest. Are they more of a software development person? Do they thrive with creative media campaigns? Would they rather take a ride in a cement mixer than work on a construction project?
Look for a candidate who lets you know what they like and dislike; you'll know their strengths from the outset as well as areas they need to grow into.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: The industries and project types your candidate has experience with to determine which of your upcoming projects they'll best align with (IT? Creative? Construction?), as well as a willingness to admit where they lack experience.
5. Are you familiar with project management software?
Project management software is used everywhere. And it's not just for highly technical organizations. Our research shows that every industry from marketing to healthcare (and everything in-between) uses project management software.
More importantly, as 70% of those organizations are happy with their project management tool, look to hire someone who can use your PM software of choice.
A good candidate will outline which project management software they've used in the past, and explain how that skill set can translate over to your system.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: What kind of experience the candidate has with project management software and technology, and whether or not they'll be able to adapt that experience to the system you have in place.
6. How do you deal with difficult team members?
Project management flows a lot smoother when everyone is meeting deadlines with quality results. Unfortunately, there will always be times when some individuals have trouble delivering. You'll want to know how candidates deal with these interpersonal and personnel issues before adding them to your team.
Keep an ear open for an understanding of the proper approaches to dealing with difficult team members. A strong candidate will also provide examples of how they helped improve the work processes of team members in previous roles.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: How the candidate will use soft skills to deal with difficult situations and difficult team members.
7. How many gas stations are in New York City?
Good project managers will be able to thoughtfully answer questions that seemingly come out of nowhere. But you're not just trying to catch your subject off guard and see how they deal with discomfort and pressure.
You're trying to assess their business and problem-solving acumen with a disguised case study question. Ask a question that nobody could know the answer to—like the gas station and piano questions—and be prepared to answer follow-up questions as your candidate reasons out a ballpark guess.
Well-prepared candidates will jot down notes, ask questions, stay calm, use logic and creativity, and come up with a reasonable estimate. You're not looking for the best answer, you're looking for how they take on this challenge.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: An ability to stay composed in an unexpected situation, along with an ability to apply past experience to a unique problem on the fly.
Get your new project manager up to speed
Now that you've used these questions to nail the interview and hire your ace new project manager, make sure they have all the resources they need to thrive and contribute to the success of your organization.
We've got you covered on our PM blog. Start here: