Project Manager Interview Questions
Updated 6 December 2020
Project managers are sought after by employers of all shapes and sizes across a wide range of sectors, from professional services like finance, engineering and architecture, to charity and non-profit organizations.
The role they fulfill involves the day-to-day management of any given project, through planning execution and delivery.
Typical tasks that fall under a project managers responsibility include:
- Project coordination
- Delegation and team management
- Stakeholder engagement
- Risk assessment and management
- Quality control
This is a brief overview of the profession, and we’ll look at specifics in more detail throughout our top project manager interview questions.
If you’re yet to apply for a position, you might first want to read our article on how to write a project manager cover letter.
What Do Employers Look for in a Good Project Manager?
Since the responsibilities of a project manager are so diverse, employers look for candidates with a broad range of capabilities.
This will be a combination of hard skills learned through education and experience, and key traits inherent in your personality, known as soft skills.
Some of the most commonly sought-after qualities include:
Communication – You’ll need to interact with stakeholders at all levels and coordinate activities among multiple parties, making effective communication vital.
Leadership – Managing and motivating teams is a key part of successful project management, so employers look for capable leaders.
Adaptability – It’s rare a project ever runs 100% to plan, so you’ll need to show you’re adaptable and able to implement change whilst staying calm under pressure.
Budget management and negotiation – These skills are central to your role as a project manager.
Strategy and business acumen – Understanding how a project impacts on wider business objectives and how to strategize accordingly is a skill that many employers consider a top priority.
Technical skills and methodology – Proficiency in project management software and a keen understanding of project management methodologies is a huge bonus, although because these skills are more easily taught than others, some employers may not see them as vital to your success at interview. That said, if you have experience in the field, these are areas you’ll already be comfortable with.
All of the above are transferable skills that can be taken from one area of project management to another, so it’s not always necessary to have experience in a particular area. Though most employers will see industry knowledge and connections as a bonus.
Some roles may require additional qualifications, such as a Professional in Project Management certification (PPM), but this will usually be advertised in the job posting or person specification.
Top 10 Project Manager Interview Questions and Answers
To help prepare you for your project manager interview, below is a list of some of the most asked questions, followed by sample answers.
Of course, every sector is different so your answers will need to be tailored to your experience and the role for which you’ve applied.
1. What Do You Consider the Most Important Skill for a Project Manager to Have?
The first of our top project manager interview questions is all about what you see your key attributes to be and how they relate to the role.
Remember here that technical skills, like software proficiency, can be taught, whereas soft skills are inherent. They can be improved upon, but if they’re not there to start with, they’re difficult to develop.
You may want to reference more than one skill in your response, but make sure you include justification for each.
The most important qualities for me are leadership and communication. Together, these make for a smooth-running project. It’s all about uniting and inspiring a team to succeed, whilst communicating clearly with every stakeholder at every stage of the process. Without these skills, even the most experienced project manager will run into difficulty.
2. How Do You Deal With Underperforming Project Team Members?
As they’re so crucial to successful execution, many project manager interview questions focus on your leadership skills, and this is no exception.
If you have a good example to share, do so, but try not to limit your answer to this scenario alone. Instead, talk around your wider management style and how this ensures a productive team environment.
I tend to find if a team member’s underperforming, it’s for one of two reasons. Either they’ve lost their sense of involvement in the project or they don’t have the support they need. It’s important to establish where the problem lies to find the best solution. In the first instance, it’s helping them find their motivation – showing them that without their input, the project will suffer. If it’s that they need support, then my delegation skills need assessing and I need to put new measures in place. Either way, criticism is never the best course of action. As a leader, my style is all about nurture and positivity. I see it as the best way to improve productivity.
3. What Was the Most Challenging Project You’ve Ever Faced?
This is an example of a competency-based question you might face in your project manager interview.
It might be phrased in a slightly different manner, but its purpose is to uncover how you react to complex or unexpected situations.
Key skills to demonstrate here are adaptability, assertive decision making, ownership and communication. It’s also important to include what you learned from the challenge.
I once worked on a project for the rollout of a new drug for arthritis. The focus of the project was to ensure buy-in from all internal sales reps and educate them on the groundbreaking benefits of the drug. As part of this, we held a series of three events, the first two focused on education and training, the final one on sales motivation and launch.
The challenges arose early on. We had multiple suppliers involved in delivery, including a creative event production and AV team, a MedComms agency, and a creative agency. All were responsible for individual elements, but ultimately, they needed to work together towards a shared goal.
It was clear that communication was not forthcoming between the agencies. Our key messages were becoming blurred and the event concept lost its focus. Deadlines were also being missed, which greatly held up the production side of things. The challenge was further compounded by the physical distance between each agency.
I decided to make an in-person visit to each to discuss their issues and progression, before compiling a new project plan moving forward. I then organized weekly virtual meetings with all parties present to ensure they stayed on track, at the same time encouraging cross-agency communication.
Everything eventually pulled together but not without a rocky road along the way. What I learned is that my responsibilities don’t end with my own internal project team, and when working with several third-party suppliers, I must maintain effective communication between all.
4. What’s Your Experience with Project Failure?
When planning project manager interview questions, employers don’t just look for examples of success. They’re also interested in candidates who can identify their weaknesses and use that knowledge to make improvements going forward.
That’s why they ask you to explain any past failures.
Make sure your response doesn’t just tell a story of when you missed out on success, but shows you understand why the failure occurred and what changes you made in its aftermath.
I was once hired by a software brand well established in the States and looking to launch their service in the UK market. As the project manager, it was my responsibility to travel overseas, find suitable offices, hire staff and implement a marketing campaign. On its first attempt, the project was a complete failure and the brand received zero traction. The UK office subsequently shut down and we went back to the drawing board.
After a year of investigation, we landed on the conclusion that failure was in replicating the company culture the brand had in the US. This was a huge factor in its success but what I’d failed to do was recreate that with UK working culture in mind.
What I learned on a personal level was that I’d gone into the project all guns blazing and neglected some very important details. We’ve since relaunched, and I’m pleased to say the firm's UK arm is now performing well.
5. What Project Management Tools Do You Have Experience With?
There are a wide range of project management tools available, some designed for a specific industry, others used more generically. Each organization will have its own preferred system so this question is designed to establish if you have proficiency in the software it uses or something similar.
Before the day of your interview, read the job description to see if there’s mention of any specific tools.
If you do have the experience, great. If not, make it clear what software you are proficient in, and that you’re willing to learn to use any new platforms necessary.
My main experience is with Basecamp, though I also have experience using Slack for smaller-scale projects. I think Slack’s great for assigning and tracking tasks, but tools like Basecamp allow for far greater collaboration. I understand you use Celoxis, so I took the liberty of taking out a free trial period. It’s very intuitive and I already feel quite confident with the platform. I’d be happy to undertake further training should it be a requirement.
6. What’s Your Approach for Working with Sponsors?
Referred to as managing up, how you work with sponsors is of great interest to an employer, as these are the people for whom the project is being undertaken.
Ultimately, this question shows how you engage with those higher up the project ladder than you.
Your response should show first-class communication skills, as well as respect and an understanding of how different sponsors may seek different involvement in any given project.
I’ve had experience with all sorts of sponsors in the past, some who love taking a hands-on approach and others who prefer minimal involvement. My approach is based entirely on theirs. I always seek to establish a relationship at the outset and use this to judge how best to move forward.
If a sponsor is active, I’ll schedule regular meetings at their convenience to update them on progress, get their input and inform them of any issues. If they’re more of a silent partner, I’ll generally leave meetings in their hands. Of course, should an issue arise that required sponsor involvement, I’d contact them immediately. For me, it’s all about tailored communication on a sponsor by sponsor basis.
7. Tell Us About a Time a Project Was Not Going as You Planned and How You Got It Back on Track
Decision making is one of the key skills under scrutiny here, but it’s also about ownership and understanding that when a project veers off course, it’s your responsibility to set it right.
In your response, be sure to show you were aware of the implications for all stakeholders involved, as well as the actions you took to resolve the issue.
My background lies in construction project management, and one of the biggest challenges here is staying within budget. There was a recent project that went way over time because of unforeseen issues with the weather, which led to cost issues too.
We had contingencies in place but I was keen to still deliver under budget. So, in the extended downtime we had, I ran comprehensive cost-saving exercises and worked closely with the architect to implement cheaper alternatives that didn’t compromise on the finish.
As soon as the weather cleared up, we were able to hit the ground running with our new plan. We even managed to pull back some lost time. There were a lot of late nights but you have to roll with the punches and do whatever it takes to deliver for all stakeholders.
8. We’ve Adapted to a System of Working From Home. How Are You Prepared to Manage a Remote Team?
As working remotely is now the new normal for many people, this is a recent addition to the most common project manager interview questions.
Consider what experience you’ve had with this so far, the challenges you’ve faced and how you’ve overcome them.
Remote collaboration is not an easy thing to manage. I’ve had experience with this firsthand over the past year and it’s certainly thrown up some challenges. I think a lot of people resorted to increased communication.
Personally, I’ve found it to be about improved communication. Removing unnecessary phone calls or emails, trusting team members to focus on productivity, and using smart solutions like Slack to stay abreast of things.
I’m not one for micromanagement, even when there are remote teams involved. What I find more important is maintaining team spirit, which I do through regular virtual meetings and feedback sessions, so everyone feels in the loop and valued.
9. What Do You Do if You’re Feeling Overwhelmed and Need Support?
Project management is a demanding profession, and employers are looking for candidates that have a level of self-awareness and won’t drive themselves to burnout.
You could make mention of an open-door policy or any other procedures you’ve used in the past, but avoid an answer that implies you’re completely self-sufficient or work yourself into the ground for results.
The interviewer wants to hear that you’re able and willing to ask for help.
We’d all like to think we’re capable of handling everything on our own, but if I’m struggling, the project will struggle too. Honesty is paramount. In the past, I’ve used my company’s open-door policy to seek approval to bring another project manager on board temporarily. Before I take those measures, though, I look at what I’m overwhelmed by and see if I can improve delegation. I may be a project manager, but I’m part of a team, and good teamwork is knowing when to ask for help from those around you.
10. What’s Your Preferred Project Management Methodology?
There’s a multitude of project management methodologies, each with its own particular style. Some are more appropriate for particular projects than others, and it’s important to show you understand this.
It’s also important to consider that a business's preferred methodology will reflect its wider corporate culture, and what the employer is looking for is someone that’s the right fit for how they operate.
In the past, I’ve made most use of Agile methods like Scrum, but I find certain projects more suited to Lean methodologies. In most cases, I find a combination of the two works best in creating shorter lead times whilst eliminating unnecessary time and financial spend. As with all aspects of project management, adaptability is key – knowing when a method suits and when it needs revising.
Questions to Ask in Your Project Manager Interview
As well as preparing to answer project manager interview questions, you should also come up with some of your own. Here are five to consider:
1. What’s the Typical Career Path for Project Managers within Your Company?
This shows you’re interested in developing within the company, and the response will help you determine if it offers opportunities that align with your plans for career growth.
2. What Key Metrics Do You Use to Determine a Team’s Success?
In asking this, employers will see your enthusiasm goes beyond the job itself and reaches more broadly to business objectives. It will also give you a good insight into company culture.
3. What’s the Biggest Challenge You Foresee for Whoever Takes on This Role?
This can bring up a topic of conversation as yet uncovered. If you have relevant skills to the challenges they mention, you can use this opportunity to expand on them. It also shows them you are keen to hit the ground running.
4. What Does Success Look Like for Your Stakeholders?
Again, this demonstrates a wider commitment to the role. The interviewer will see you already have your sights set on delivering optimum results for everyone involved.
5. What Is the Current Team Dynamic Like? What Is the Working Style?
Lastly, you’re showing that you’re keen to establish a culture fit and are looking to determine if the team you’ll be managing is right for your leadership style.
Preparation for your project manager interview will be the key to your success. Do your company research and learn all you can about what projects you’re likely to be involved with.
A lot of project manager interview questions will require you to implement the STAR method, so you should also practice forming your answers around a situation, task, action and result.