Your team needs someone to get and keep a project organized. You want to hire someone who can do the job well. But how do you learn whether this person – the earnest individual sitting in front of your desk right now, looking nervous and hopeful – is the right one? I asked dozens of people what non-obvious questions they’d ask a prospective project manager, and why they’d choose those questions. Here’s what I learned.
Bottom line: Beyond the obvious fact-finding questions that apply in any job interview – where did you work, why did you leave, do you have certification in this field – ask about the experience, attitudes, and mindsets that are unique to the project management role.
As with any other hire, don’t look for an idealized human being. Instead, look for the person who’s best for your organization and your project, a project manager whose strengths address the team’s weaknesses. For instance, some project managers are good at doing, some are good at making sure it can be done, and some are good at being in the middle. Which does your project need?
Experience: What have you done?
We all assume that people’s previous experience is an indicator of what they’re ready and able to do next. Several of my advisors recommend questions that encourage would-be project managers to describe a previous situation and what they learned from it.
- In your experience, why do projects run late?
- What do you do at the end of each project to make sure that the next one will be better?
- What are the phases of a typical project? How do you identify risks in each phase? What have you seen introduce unplanned risks to a project?
Don’t look for magic answers. You don’t want someone who got everything right. You want someone who learned from mistakes. The responses should help you learn how introspective the candidate is, which metrics he uses for success, and to which project elements he pays attention.
- How much coding have you done?
…Or architectural design, or financial planning, or whatever applies to your industry. It’s not that you should insist on a project manager being a brilliant technician in the field (though some people do feel strongly about this). However, if the answer is, “None,” follow up by asking, “How do you determine that the time estimates that you get from developers are realistic?”
Approach: What would you do in this situation?
The questions you ask prospective project managers during job interviews need to discover how this person recognizes and solves problems. After all, problem-solving and diplomatic resolutions are part of the job.
You already work for the company. You know what sort of challenges any new hire is apt to encounter – whether it’s unresponsive stakeholders or a history of last-minute changes. It behooves you to learn how the prospective project manager would address situations that might come up:
- What would you do if your project sponsor’s demands are unrealistic and you know you can’t deliver to expectations?
- Imagine you’re in a tight deadline situation. What would you forgo to get the job done on time?
- If you were assigned a Project Coordinator, what duties would you hand over to her?
Not every question should be about failure.
- Say you’re working on a project with a lot of moving pieces. What would you do – in an ideal situation – to make sure nothing falls through the cracks? What’s your preferred way to track progress? What doesn’t work?
- I’ll be in the sponsor role for your project. What are the most important things you need from me?
- What’s your philosophy on where to include slack in project schedules?
- When push comes to shove, what have you seen dropped: the schedule, the budget, or quality? Which of those would you choose, and why?
Every project manager knows that it’s difficult to balance cost, time, and quality. Common agreement is that one can manage only two of the three at the same period. Can this project manager change focus during the different stages of a project?
One project manager leaves the candidate alone in a waiting room or meeting room for a few minutes. The room has several books and magazines scattered on the table, a few on the floor. There might be a few equations for Earned Value and Three-Point Estimating, with errors, on the whiteboard, and a small pool of spilled coffee with paper towels nearby.
“When I return,” he told me, “The changes in the room tell me a lot. Is the candidate driven enough to straighten the books or magazines, humble enough to wipe up the spill, confident and competent enough to correct the equations? And is he so anal that he arranges the books or magazines in alphabetical order and lines them up in neat rows?”
In many projects, the “work” is technical: engineering, programming, or other applied knowledge. Project management is a matter of organizing processes and – especially – one of people management. So you should ask several questions about the project manager’s beliefs and practices for dealing with team members.
- How would you handle a situation where one of the project team members is performing her tasks, but missing the deadlines?
- How do you support and enable your teams? Give me some examples of how you’ve cleared the way for them.
- How would you deal with a person who is the most talented developer (or whatever) on your team but is not a team player?
- How do you make sure the people who need to know important updates get the information they need?
- What’s your favorite technique for making the people around you better?
- Have you managed people who are smarter than you? What is that like for you?
I particularly like that last question. It distinguishes the I-have-to-be-the-smartest-person-in-the-room from those who may be true leaders. And it also tells you about the project manager’s ability to appreciate and respect what each individual brings to a team. Imagine how you’d respond to a job candidate who answered, “If I’m the smartest one in the room, I’m doing a poor job of recruiting.” (When can that project manager start?)
There’s a whole category of questions that aren’t about what the project manager does 9-to-5. Some of them make sense; some, not so much.
For example, it’s okay with me if you ask a project manager, “What do you like to do in your free time?” You want to know about your colleagues’ personalities and enthusiasms, after all, and outside-work hobbies do say something about creative choices (structured activities? solitary endeavors?). Plus, as one advisor suggested, a lack of hobbies may mean the candidate does not know how to prioritize and manage time.
Personally, I don’t like brain teaser questions, such as “How would you make a sphere out of Lego bricks?” Some people feel that such questions help you discover whether the applicant can make things fit together into a whole that isn’t obvious from the separate parts. If that’s what I want to know, I’d ask more directly.
Avoid trick questions
I caution you to avoid a hiring trap that’s particularly dangerous in project management: asking a question with only one acceptable answer. It’s a yes/no decision point: Candidates who give the “wrong” (or unexpected) answer are less likely to be hired. There are plenty of examples in every industry, including the regularly cited, “Why are manhole covers round?”
Even when the question is on-topic (“Do you refer to people as resources?”), in my experience it’s a bad idea. For one thing, such questions exist only to eliminate a candidate (who gives the wrong answer), rather than to understand him – or to learn from him. The people whom you most want to hire are, after all, those who bring something new and unexpected to the team, not clones who nod along with whatever someone else advises. That is particularly important in project management, where a key skill is to say, “Here’s another way to look at the problem.”
For instance, in an oft-repeated anecdote, an instructor might ask a student to explain how she would determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer, expecting a calculation using the difference in pressure at the top and bottom of the building. But an equally accurate answer could be obtained by dropping the barometer from the top of the building and timing its fall with a stopwatch, or by trading the barometer to the building’s superintendent in return for the information wanted. Those are not expected answers – but they are correct. That’s especially significant when hiring someone for a job wherein you lack expertise. You need to find someone with skills and knowledge unlike your own; the project manager’s skills need to complement – not duplicate – yours.
The above are the short list of what I’d ask someone I was interviewing for a project manager job. What would you add, and why? Tell us about it on Twitter at @certwise.
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