Congrats! You’ve got the project manager interview. Now you are anxiously trying to anticipate the types of questions your interviewer might ask you.
As someone who has been interviewed in the field for over a decade and also done my share of interviewing other project managers, I can say these are the top interview questions that are asked in project management-related interviews. In addition to the types of questions that are asked, I dive into the reasoning behind why the questions are asked and examples of how you can nail your response (mine included below).
Being prepared for your interview is essential and having your own examples to these common questions can set you apart from other candidates.
Furthermore, interviews are not solely based on the questions the interviewer asks the interviewee, but also on the questions you ask your interviewer. Interviews are a two-way street to finding a good fit that is mutual among both parties.
Who is ready for some examples? Let’s dive in!
#1. Tell me about yourself.
This is a very common question that interviewers ask to start an interview. The best way to respond is to give a brief background on some or all of the following: professional history, personal education/training, career highlights, and a great closing.
How to answer:
I have been in project management for over a decade now and have both an educational and a professional background in various industries leading and managing projects to success. Over the years, I have worked for small private companies leading small initiatives to lead enterprise-wide implementations for large corporations and government agencies. Project management has always been a career I wanted and chose to be in and it’s one I continue to invest in and plan to continue growing in for the foreseeable future.
#2. Tell me about a time you had an upset customer, and how you handled it.
Interviewers know that customer conflict and issues will always be a part of the workplace, especially for any role in customer service, or role that is client-facing. What they want to understand here is twofold, 1) you have dealt with an upset customer before, and 2) you were able to provide some sort of support to the customer or resolve the issue completely. The interviewer is looking for insight to your behavior and interpersonal skills. The best way to respond is to look at your actual experience and find a good example to articulate that clearly and concisely shares how you proactively took steps to hear what the customer was saying and take specific actions to see the concern through some sort of resolution that gives the customer a certain level of confidence in you, the team and the company.
How to answer:
Oh, I have a great example!
I had been working on an enterprise-wide software implementation for a large state organization. I was onsite for a go-live with one group while kicking off the next phase of the project with mostly the same team, although Lisa was also involved. Lisa had been on some of the initial calls for this portion of the project. She had been asking a lot of questions to one of my executives, who confidently told her she’d be working with me.
The project team as a whole had agreed upon the agenda for the kickoff. I was feeling more than confident to work with the team and all the familiar faces I had been working with.
Lisa walked in, I sat up and walked over to shake her hand and introduce myself.
|“Hi Lisa, nice to meet you – I am Echo,” I exclaimed!
“I see you got my power-point, it’s going to be super helpful as we get into the system walk-though later today, I said!”
Lisa responds by introducing herself and then says:
“YOUR POWERPOINT IS POINTLESS AND I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY YOU DO BUSINESS THIS WAY!” I immediately had to think on my feet and say:
“Well let’s go through the agenda and talk through what we are here to accomplish! I think that will help bring clarity to some of the documentation I provided.”
With the backup of my team, we did just that.
Long story short, Lisa was under the impression we had the system stood up and ready to go. That was true for the part of the system going live that day with some of her team, but not the part we were here to “kick off.”
The truth was, for the kickoff of the new phase of the project, we were here to do discovery, configure the software on the fly (at least what we could), and ensure the business needs were being met, and identify any gaps that weren’t. PowerPoint was a tool to accomplish just that. To make notes, mark up areas that needed attention, and ensure that my team and I weren’t making assumptions about what they needed.
Things began making sense for the group and we got into really productive discussions and a great rhythm. Before we knew it, our time there was up. I was more than ready to get back home.
Before we got back to the office, we had a wonderful email in our inbox telling the owner/CEO how great our kickoff and working sessions were.
While that was all nice and everything, I realized two things: 1) She was new to the group, while others had been along in other phases of the project. I could have given her more attention upfront and not relied on her manager to do it or my emails to be sufficient, despite Lisa’s sign-off on the agenda.
2) Lisa was under pressure and when we humans are under pressure, we don’t always react the best way.
There were many lessons in hindsight that could have been done differently, but we left feeling confident that we had a happier and more satisfied stakeholder than we started.
#3. What is the most important skill for a project manager to have?
A lot of answers work for this question, it just needs to be justified and make sense.
How to answer:
My favorite way to answer this is with a quote:
“The P in ‘PM’ is as much about people management than it is project management.” – Cornelius Fitcher
And I wholeheartedly agree. As project managers, we are leading the people doing the work. We are motivating the people that do the work. It’s all about the people. There is no project, without people there to do the work. If we can build solid relationships with our teams, we can lead projects to success.
Continue reading: How to Start a Project Management Career with 0 Experience
#4. What is the most challenging project you have worked on and why was it challenging?
Employers know that not every project is a walk in the park, what they want to understand is your process for owning challenges and working through them.
How to answer:
I once was assigned a project working with multiple government agencies that worked together to certify businesses to work on state contracts. The objective of the project was to move all their current certifications in their directory online. The project meant building out the application online, moving existing certifications, updating the online portal, and communicating with all the external vendors. Though the scope of work was challenging enough, there was a huge time constraint because the old certification system was being shut off within 8 weeks of the project starting. My company promised that we would deliver. To me, the expectation of the project wasn’t realistic and would pose many logistical and quality issues and regardless of my concerns, I was asked to make it happen. In addition to the large scope of work, I was working with three different state agencies that had to agree to how things were done and all of the stakeholders had challenges agreeing with one another and had their own challenging personalities.
With a good deal of planning and strategy, the work was completed with days to spare, however, the project did see some of the concerns I communicated come true. Weeks, if not months were spent after the project launch addressing a lot of the shortcomings of rushing a project with unrealistic expectations.
#5. What tools are you familiar with or prefer to use to manage projects?
This question is typically asked for two reasons: 1) Are you familiar with the tools the company uses or requires? 2) What tools have you used, that maybe we could use at our company? Be prepared to answer what you like and do not like about the tools you mention.
How to answer:
There are several tools that I have used in my time as a project manager. A good portion of my team is using Jira, Smartsheet, and Slack, with the majority of my project planning and scheduled maintenance taking place in smart sheets. One of the things I like most about smart sheets is the ability to see all my projects at a high level and drill into each individual project as needed. It’s a central repository for all project stakeholders to access all project documentation in real time. A cool project related to this tool that I worked on, was some of the management reporting capabilities that certainly gave our leadership teams insight into what areas of our projects caused the most delays and really opened our team up to address areas of improvement.
#6. Describe how you implement projects.
The interviewer is looking to get a sense as to whether or not you have experience and the logic around how you implement projects. If you know the type of methodology the company uses, it is best to use that in your example.
How to answer:
When I first get a project, I like to meet with relevant stakeholders to review the charter, sow, etc and ensure I’m aligned with the goals of the project once I am formally assigned during the project initiation.
As I move into planning, I like to begin working on my project plans and leverage my team and other subject matter experts for input where needed. From there, I plan a kickoff to formally start the project with all relevant parties.
Once we get into executing the work, I make a point to check in with the team to ensure the work we planned on is getting done. If at any point we need to revisit plans or deviations, we make a point to address those things asap to determine the next steps, get buy-in, and re-baseline when needed. Once testing is complete and deliverables are verified we transition to the final project stages.
As part of the close-out process, any open procurements are closed, lessons learned are documented and the team ensures complete knowledge-sharing activities before archiving project documents and formally closing the project.
#7. Tell me about a time you experienced conflict with a team member and how you solved it.
Interviewers ask these types of questions to gain insight into your behavior and your interpersonal skills. Avoid complaining, blaming others, or saying you have not experienced conflict. Instead, focus on sharing high-level details that lead to a positive outcome.
How to answer:
I was working on a project with a tight timeline. The technical project manager of the development team shared a date the work would be complete. I followed up during the time period when work was being done to ensure the work was underway and we were going to hit our target date. I was assured that we were. As we came upon the due date, I was informed the date was being pushed because the developer had more questions and had other work. At this point, we were too far in to backtrack with the customer as the due date was the next day.
The conflict came down to the technical manager telling me one thing and in reality, the work wasn’t going to be done. I explained my frustration as the customer-facing project manager and what this means to the project and the company expecting monetary gains as a result of the project being completed. I explained that in the future, I need honest and realistic communication even if it isn’t what I want to hear so I can manage expectations accordingly and the information should come asap. Further, I let him know that I understand we are all busy and all have a lot on our plate and that I respected his desire to protect his team.
We both had valid points. Ultimately, there was company impact here so the issue had to be escalated to a decision maker to determine whether work would be moved off the developer’s plate to hit my project’s target, or if we were going to go back and talk to the customer and the potential downstream impacts we would face.
#8. Tell me about a time you managed a difficult contractor or stakeholder.
Similar to questions #2 and #7, the interviewers ask these types of questions to gain insight into your behavior and your interpersonal skills. Avoid complaining, blaming others, or saying you have not experienced a challenging contractor or stakeholder. Instead, focus on sharing high-level details that lead to a positive outcome.
How to answer:
I was once hand-selected to work as the project manager for more of a pet project for a large government agency. Typically, the CEO did the whole project himself, but this time he wanted to hand off some of the work to me as the project manager. He was going to do more of the technical work behind the scenes so they got used to working with someone other than him.
The challenge lies with the fact that he is a busy CEO. He had a particular way he wanted to operate, have the project managed, and had specifics in mind on how he envisioned communication. Further, this type of working relationship where we were working together, was different from our normal boss, subordinate relationship.
To complicate things even more, this client had a highly customized system that was not part of our standard feature set – – so I didn’t have the normal level of comfort with the product that I typically had with the suite of modules I had grown to master in my role as an implementation project manager.
There was a lot of friction, a lot of last-minute preparing for calls, or spur-of-the-moment meetings where I had to drop everything and redirect my attention. Similarly, I managed projects differently, and had my own communication style and own work commitments within my portfolio of work.
This was neither of our normal work dynamics with our respective teams. To work together successfully, I learned what times worked best to communicate with the CEO and his preference for the medium used to communicate. It made my life easier. I gave friendly reminders when I needed something to do my part in and learned to feel comfortable assigning work. I began to learn his style of reporting and we were able to work more collaboratively after adapting to this type of collaboration.
Bonus! Questions to ask your employer!
- What attributes does someone need to be successful in this position?
- What skills are you missing that you are looking to fill in a new hire?
- How would my performance be measured?
- What does the onboarding process look like?
- Is there anything we’ve discussed today that you’re concerned with, that perhaps I can reassure you on?
Nailing an interview doesn’t have to be hard, it just requires a little preparation. On top of understanding the common questions asked in project management-related interviews, it is also key to understand the company and the person interviewing you as much as possible.
Now go out there and crush your interview.
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