by Moira Alexander

12 difficult project manager interview questions to prep for

Mar 22, 2016
CareersIT JobsProject Management

Most project manager candidates can talk about their strengths and skills, but those who ultimately land the job are prepared to answer these difficult PM questions.

By itself, the title of project manager can be a bit misleading in terms of the responsibilities and level of accountability involved. Make no mistake about it, though, a PM is a leadership role, and as such project managers should think and act as leaders, always factoring in high level business goals and objectives. With this in mind, be prepared to answer a few broad, complex questions around business strategy, objectives and leadership.

1. What do you think your role is as a project manager in terms of achieving company-wide business objectives?

Before your next interview, spend time doing some research in preparation for your response:

  • Research the industry the business resides in.
  • Research the nature of the business, its activities, products/services, stakeholders, etc.
  • Review the business vision, mission statement, short-term and long-term objectives.
  • Search for information on the management team and overall business culture.
  • Determine how your role as a project manager and leader may impact that particular business, and in turn, also how it may be impacted by that business.
  • Think about how you can best utilize your training and experience to advance the overall business objectives.
  • Picture yourself working within the business to envision your role.

2. Describe your style of project leadership, and why you think it will work well within this company.

  • Think about leadership characteristics that you may possess – and be honest with yourself.
  • Consider if your specific leadership style will work within the new business specific projects, and if others would find your project leadership style helpful and supportive.
  • Take some time to think on your leadership style within previous projects, noting any feedback you may have received.
  • Be honest, this is not the time to project something you are not, as it may come across as disingenuous.
  • Give thought to attributes that may make you more effective than other project leaders, these are the things you want to focus on in an interview?

Sometimes you may be asked to voice your expectations from company leadership to assess the type(s) and level(s) of support they may be expected to provide to enable your effectiveness in the job. This is important because it establishes expectations on both sides up-front and can be an indicator if the fit works for both company and candidate.  Remember, both parties need this to be the right fit to avoid disappointment after the hiring process is complete.

3. What would you need from this company’s leadership to be successful in this role?

  • Think about question 2 from the subordinate perspective. Be honest about what you require – and be honest and transparent about the leadership style(s) you prefer to work with.
  • Think in terms of the job description and what is required, this will help you communicate your project support needs more effectively.
  • Be clear, and be brief.

As project management involves much more than just technical knowledge, and centers to a great extent around human interaction and communication, you can almost guarantee you will be asked questions similar to the following:

4. Describe your communication style(s) as well as the situations you believe your style works best in.

  • Prior to the interview walk yourself through past projects and the various types of communication mediums used.
  • Again, be honest with yourself about how you usually communicate with various stakeholders
  • Think about your communication preferences and how they have been received by various stakeholders.
  • This is a good time to be constructive with yourself and analyze the pros and cons of your communication methods. 

5. What do you think are the three most important attributes to have to offer as a project manager and why?

  • Reflect on positive feedback you have received on previous projects from stakeholders.
  • Factor in the new role in terms of business objectives and intended outcomes, as well as vital job-specific requirements.
  • Think of this as simply prioritizing the top three “must have” skills to do the job successfully to accomplish the desired outcome(s).

Project manager interviews invariably include multifaceted, situational questions. Listen to them carefully, noting how many questions you were asked and how they relate to the previous parts. Always keep calm: Remember it’s acceptable to ask your interviewer to repeat or rephrase any part(s) of the question. Always be honest about your experiences – don’t embellish. If you don’t have a relevant example to share, it’s OK to admit it. Here are some of the situational questions you may be asked:

6. Give examples of the most complex project you have managed, and strategies you employed for a successful outcome.

7. Give examples of when you have worked with difficult stakeholder(s), how you handled the situation, and the end result.

8. How have you handled conflicting goals and deadlines? Provide examples.

9. Have you ever had a failed project? What were the circumstances, and what were your lessons learned?

10. How and when have you utilized technology to improve or enhance your effectiveness as a project manager? Provide some examples.

If you don’t have direct previous experience with a particular situation, you may be asked to answer the question under a “what if” scenario. Take a moment to fully process these questions and think in specific terms about previous projects before answering. It’s better to take a moment to pause rather than blurt out a less desirable response for the sake of having a quick answer.

The following expressive questions may seem like the trickiest questions to answer, as they involve career aspirations, job satisfaction, stress management techniques and motivation.

11. Tell me why you like your job as a project manager?

  • This question is straightforward, resist the urge to overcomplicate the answer.
  • Typically there are no right or wrong answers here, as the answers rely solely on personal preferences and job satisfaction aspects.
  • Try to remember that various people may enjoy completely different facets within the same role.

12. What keeps you motivated when projects become difficult or frustrating?

  • Think of mechanisms and strategies you have used to stay positive and focused in situations. Where you have been discouraged while managing a project?
  • Similar to question 9, each individual’s style is a personal preference when it comes to staying motivated. There is no one right answer.
  • Think of your internal value system in relation to the company and its culture.

There are several other tough questions a project manager should be prepared to answer. Alexandra Levit, former nationally syndicated columnist for the Wall Street Journal, current writer for The New York Times and author of six career advice books, posed the following questions that she would ask a potential project manager:

  • “If a project is proceeding contrary to your ethics or values, what would you do?
  • What PM innovations were you responsible for at your current job?
  • What types of projects play to your strengths?
  • What’s your approach to managing people who don’t officially report to you?”

There are, of course, are many other technical and situational project management interview questions you could be asked. The most important things to remember? Come prepared to answer some difficult and specific questions based on your previous experience; take your time in answering questions; be transparent, truthful and personable.

Your technical experience and training is easily verifiable and often speaks for itself. Companies want to know they are hiring innovative, positive, dedicated individuals who can help them advance their culture, vision, work ethic and direction.