Project Management Interviews: What to Expect and How to Spot Red Flags

Emphasize your past successes while ensuring the project matches your skills

May 20, 2021 | Helen S. Cooke

red flagsOne of the interesting aspects of searching for project management positions in today’s employment market is that sometimes you’re not really being interviewed for a project manager position. Project management might be the title proposed, but the role might diverge from a position as a true project manager. If a position as project manager is truly what you’re looking for, it’s important to learn how to differentiate a project manager interview from an interview for an operations manager or a supervisor role. A fundamental difference is that project manager positions require hiring someone who is not only responsible for the success of a project, but is comfortable taking charge of something new and different, in spite of the risks and ambiguities that come with doing something for the first time. Operations manager positions require hiring someone who can implement refinements or changes to a work environment that is already in place: work efforts and processes are already defined and workers know their jobs. They are looking for a change agent in an existing work setting.

The interview questions for a project manager position typically explore what prior projects you have managed, how big or complex they were, what goals they were intended to achieve, and whether they were successful. The interviewer probes your approach to handling challenges and unknowns, your particular strengths as a manager, as well as your philosophy for managing teams effectively. Your knowledge, creative approaches, and ingenuity are explored. Your track record for getting results is closely examined.

If you’re being interviewed as a project manager, it’s likely that the organization needs to make a change in how they proceed into the future. It is typically important, because if they could have, they would have already accomplished it with current staff and resources. Often the “old” way of doing things wasn’t working out, and now they are pressed into trying something new. The executive team will likely want to explore your responses to ideas they are already exploring. The executives and the project manager, sometimes along with a lead tech, a division manager, or a client who will finance the effort, will block out some initial “guesses” about the type of project that’s needed. They will propose the approximate timeframe available to do it, specify any inflexible boundaries or requirements, and propose a range of costs or resources that can be allocated. While sometimes these hard boundaries are established even before enough is known to define the approach, many boundaries and requirements are still to be determined, and therefore negotiable. The project manager will have a certain amount of discretion to explore, estimate, and refine initial scope and boundaries.

During the interview, the project manager candidate can explore if there is a “drop dead” date that will make the project moot if it is not met. Other important questions might include: Are there hard limits on the maximum number of people or amount of money the sponsor is willing to pay? What is more important: quality/performance of the outcome, cost of getting it done, or meeting the time limits? Those priorities shape the options available in designing the project. In addition to these questions, try to probe whether the project already has a clear intent and desired outcome, and what they have already tried. If they are exploring reasonable goals or are still unsure of limits, and if the executives understand that there isn’t a single “right” way to achieve that outcome, the project manager can explore these after starting work on the job. A project plan usually takes as a scope boundary what is already known, and unknowns can be more clearly defined or else built into another phase of the project, or even another project.

If you’re looking for a job as a project manager, be on guard if your interviewers seem to have a clear idea of a right and wrong way to do the project. Another red flag is that they want you to tell your team what to do and exactly how to do it. If that’s the case, you’re being interviewed to be a supervisor. Similarly, if the executive above your position intends to tell you what to do and how to do it, you’re interviewing for an operations manager job, not a project manager job. If that’s not who you are or what you do, the job in question is probably the wrong fit. It is a real challenge to turn an operations supervisor or manager job into a project management job, because the role might not only place barriers in the way of project progress but expect you to manage in a way foreign to your management leadership style, your skills and your strengths.

If the job role is truly a project manager role and they simply have a different name for it, you can still take the job and manage it effectively. However, if the organization does not have a project-based culture, you would have very little chance of success in changing a corporate culture from below! Don’t put yourself in a role that is inimical to you and unlikely to result in a successful project outcome. The failure of the management environment will set you up for failure, and you don’t want that for yourself or your team. There are times when an organization is seeking an outside expert in project management because they know they cannot achieve success without your capabilities. There are other times when they cannot risk failing and are simply willing to pay someone to take the dive for them.

On the other hand, if the role you’re considering definitely falls within the parameters of project management, and you are being evaluated as the best candidate to manage this particular project, you can use the interview as an opportunity to explore their expectations. You have a rare opportunity to capture and assess everyone’s ideas concerning the project and hear their views of risks and potential pitfalls. Once hired, the project manager and the executives proposing the project will have the opportunity to work together to get things started properly. There will be a public communication regarding the person selected as project manager, their role, and a description of the project. Much of the open discussion held during exploration is no longer part of the public conversation. The project is now ready to hand off to the project manager and team, and the real fun begins.

Do some serious homework and high-level planning before starting on the job. What is said in public in the early stages of discussion may be hard to change after you begin work. Your job is to build success for your new employer and your team, so shape success from day one.

  • About The Author
  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was Senior Principal at American Management Systems, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.