Top 5 Questions to Ask When Hiring a Project Manager

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Top 5 Questions to Ask When Hiring a Project Manager

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014 - 3:00pm


By Jill Trees

You’ve taken on more clients, your workload has doubled, and your staff is already stretched too thin – it’s time to hire a project manager. You’ve gotten some word-of-mouth personal referrals and have narrowed your search down to a handful of top candidates. But how do you discern who’s not only the most capable for the job but the best suited for your organization?

Let’s assume the job description you listed was very detailed, that you stated exactly what you want, and your background checking/vetting process has been exhaustive, as this Forbes blog suggests. Now it’s time for some detective work that will yield some valuable insights into each candidate’s compatibility with your organization.

Having been certified as a Project Management Professional (PMP) and worked as a project manager (PM) for 20-plus years, I know what makes for outstanding project management.

Great PMs are like nosy neighbors who know everyone’s business but will have your back when you need it. They know the strengths and weaknesses of the team and drive the project forward along the timeline. Constant communication with their teams is critical, and they send at-least-weekly reminders of everyone’s tasks and manage each person according to their personality and job type.

Too often, hiring managers rely on questions that aren’t specific enough, and as a result they get canned answers that don’t provide real insights into a person’s true skills. And the fact that one is PMP certified isn’t enough to make him or her an outstanding PM – there are plenty of certified disasters out there.

Interview questions should uncover a person’s ability to effectively manage multiple projects and know what’s needed at crunch time, illuminate their professional organizational, time management, communication expectation-setting, and expectation-managing skills, and get at the heart of what motivates them.

Here are five questions to ask prospective candidates:

How many projects have you handled at one time (and get the details on the project scope)?

Outstanding PMs can effectively handle many projects at once. You’ll want someone who’s on top of everything: someone who will send weekly email reminders to the team of all deliverables and projects and a recap to the client. This requires a lot of communication and lot of hand-holding and reassuring. Honesty is huge: Sometimes it’s best to say no to a client, or ask if they’re willing to pay rush fees to meet short deadlines. Overpromising and under-delivering can negatively impact a client relationship. You want a PM who can handle a lot of work, while over-achieving in deliverables at the same time.

Describe your desk/calendar organization. How do you stay on top of the workflow?

Project management requires top-notch organization skills; they’re juggling multiple projects and timelines, not to mention personality types. The tough part is managing workflow when there are tight deadlines. PMs have to work backward from the drop-dead date and know what to expect from their teams, and then always add time for the unexpected. A peek at someone’s calendar and desk will show you just how well they know how to manage everything.

How do you handle missing deadlines? Unresponsive team members? Overbearing clients?

As a PM, my motto was always, “Take the blame and move on.” You’re working with so many personality types: graphic designer, programmer, account manager, IT…. no one ever wants to take blame or responsibility when something goes wrong. So when someone missed a deadline, I would say, “I should have told you the day before and reminded you in person because that email and phone call wasn’t enough.” The job requires a lot of handholding; it’s what I loved about it.

What are some of the ways you’ve creatively managed difficult team members?

Project management is like wine tasting–some team members are sweet, some are sour, some are bubbly. What helped make me a successful PM was to know how to keep the peace and calm nerves when the different types clash. Listen for prospective candidates’ creative solutions to solving the inherent challenges that will arise among team members.

Tell me about a time when you had to…(fill in the blank according to your needs)

The strong candidates are great communicators. They explain in detail how they achieve their goals, overcome challenges, and motivate teams. And, they can take themselves lightly, especially in tense situations. This is a question that can really get to the heart of a person’s personality to see if they’d be the right personality fit.

Finding the right fit with your organization is critical to success – and, because hiring and training employees is a costly and time-consuming process – will save you time and money down the line. 

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