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How To Ace A Project Management Interview

Updated on February 13, 2014
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Preparing for an interview

If you are reading this because you've been invited to an interview for a project management job, then congratulations. You've beaten off lots of other candidates just to get to this stage. Of course, the interview is going to be much tougher, and you'll need to really stand out from the competition to attract the attention of the recruiter. This guide outlines everything you need to know to prepare you for the interview.

Research the company

Your interviewer will probably think their company is pretty unique, special and fantastic to work for. So it makes sense to attend the interview armed with a bit of knowledge about the company, what it does, and what customers it serves.

However, a lot of people fall down with this preparation. The reason is simple. Many people prepare for an interview by reading the "About Us" page of a corporate website. The problem with this approach is that for a vast majority of companies, the web page is often out of date, or written for the benefit of investors, and doesn't always accurately reflect what the company is like or what it does.

A far better approach is to widen your research technique to learn about the real picture of the company. Look for news reports. Read their case studies. Better still, see if they have a twitter feed, as this often provides a more honest picture of the company. Look at the LinkedIn page of the person who will be interviewing you. Find out a bit about their experience. If you can, speak to someone who currently works there, and get an insider's view.

By doing this, you won't fall into the trap of many interviewees who often quote buzz words they might have seen on the corporate website, and then fail to explain in follow-up questions what these buzz words actually mean.

Prepare scenarios

Many project manager interviews take the form of a scenario-based question and answer section. For example, the interview may ask you to describe a time when you demonstrated a particular skill they are looking for.

It is worth finding out in advance what format the interview will take. If you are likely to get scenario-based questions, then these are great because they are a perfect opportunity to rehearse some answers.

Start by thinking about all your experience to date. Next, create categories of skills you think you can demonstrate with each of these experiences. For each of these skills, outline a scenario using the following structure:

  • Background to the scenario
  • Your role
  • What goal you needed to achieve
  • How you used your skills to achieve it
  • The outcome

Keep it short. A short paragraph covering each section is enough.

The table below provides some examples.

Skill
Scenario
Example
Teamwork
My office move project I completed last year
Supplier let us down so I arranged for a team to work the weekend.
Organizational skills
My data migration project earlier this month
Data was kept in different places, by different people, so I created a configuration management system to organize and centrally store the data before the migration

Think About Your Strengths

One of the traps that many interviewees fall into is simply listing out the strengths they think the interviewer wants to hear. But what really comes across well in an interview is when you can genuinely talk, and justify, what you believe your strengths to be.

So start with a simple list. Think about all the things you are good at, or anything you've been praised for by your colleagues or manager. What is it that you do that makes people respect you in the workplace? You don't have to limit this to the workplace of course; you might be able to think about strengths you've demonstrated in other areas of your life. For example, in sport.

What you really want to do when talking about your strengths is to persuade the interviewer why your particular strengths put you at an advantage above every other candidate. There is no point in just talking about how you are great at communication, simply because 'good communication skills' were listed in the job description. Talk about the approach you take when communicating to others, and why that makes you great. If you do presentations, for example, don't just list out the times when you've carried out a presentation. Instead, talk about how you try to make them engaging to the audience, and how you use questions and answers to keep the audience feeling involved. Talk about some of the positive feedback you've received after you've carried out a presentation.

You want your strengths to show that you are interesting, that you have a talent for what you do, and that you are always committed to doing the best.

Think About Your Weaknesses

Do you feel nervous about the thought of discussing your weaknesses in an interview? Of course you do. That's only natural. However, a reluctance to discuss weaknesses in an interview can really backfire on you. Interviewers are very deliberate in asking this question. It isn't to catch you out. It is simply to get a better picture of who you are as a person, and if you do get the job, whether your weaknesses are something that they can work with you to address.

So the golden rule of thumb when talking about weaknesses is this: be honest, but don't be stupid.

Honesty comes across well in an interview. Your conversation will flow naturally, your body language will appear more relaxed, and you will make eye contact. So it is worth opening up and giving an honest account of your weaknesses when asked. However, don't be stupid. There is no point in telling the interviewer you have a weakness in a fundamental skill they are looking for. For example, if you are going for a project management job and you tell the interviewer that you are badly organized, then you might as well have not bothered attending the interview. However, if you had said that you sometimes take on more work than you can manage, this is honest but is something that is reasonably easy to address.

So the key when discussing weaknesses is to tell the interviewer something that is genuine but something that is easy for you to address. If you are self-aware enough to know you have flaws, then you prove yourself to be someone who is always on the lookout to get better at their job. Big tick in the box as far as the interviewer is concerned. Just be sure to back your weakness up with a statement about how you would address this in the workplace. For example:

"I know in the past I have sometimes taken on too much work. So I try to use an online task manager to monitor my priorities so that it makes it easier to see if I'm overloaded."

Prepare Some Material To Show

Come armed to the interview with some material to show. So few people do this, but if you want to demonstrate that you are an organized, capable project manager, it is really essential. Have a well presented folder of material that gives a good snapshot into the types of projects you've done in the past. This might including designs, pictures of prototypes, project plans, industry award certificates or documentation. It shows that you've taken the time to prepare for the interview, and that you can back up what you are saying with evidence.

A word of caution: never, ever show anything in an interview that is commercial sensitive to your existing employer, a past employer or a client.

Get A Quote From A Referee

This is a great trump card to play after your interview is finished. If you are as good as you say you are, then it shouldn't be difficult for you to get a good referral from someone you know - whether that's a colleague, customer or previous manager. You might even have some referrals already on LinkedIn. So after the interview has finished, send this referral on to the interviewers (or point them towards your LinkedIn profile page). It's a great way to remind them about who you are, and why you are actually as good as you said you were in the interview. If the interviewer was 50/50 about you during the interview, this little trick can be enough to swing it.

Prepare Intelligent Questions

Always have some questions prepared for the interviewer at the end of an interview, but be intelligent and thoughtful about what you ask. Here are some do's and don'ts:

Do:

  • Research the company thoroughly. If something strikes you as interesting or unusual in your research, ask about it in the interview. It proves you've done your research and that you are genuinely interested in the company.
  • Ask about the company culture. It's just as important for you to find out if the company is a place that you will enjoy working in, as it is for the interviewer to see if you are the right candidate.
  • Ask about training and development. It shows that you are interested in growing and committing yourself to the company long-term.
  • Ask about when you can expect to hear back from the company.

Don't:

  • Ask specifics about the package, money, or benefits. There is plenty of time to do that after you have been offered the job.
  • Ask about how many other people have applied for the job. It shouldn't concern you, especially if you truly believe you are the right person for the job.
  • Ask about company sensitive data (e.g. profit of the company). No interviewer will release sensitive data to an interview candidate, so just don't ask.

Test Your Journey

This advice should be obvious enough, but for thoroughness I have included it in the article. If the interview is local to you, test out your journey before the big day. You should know how to find the company, and whether there are going to be any roadworks, train cancellations or any other things standing in your way of getting there on time. Never, ever arrive late to an interview.

Calm Your Nerves

Interviews can be tough and they can be stressful. But it is important to remember this:

The interviewer wants you to succeed.

Even if you get some tough questions in an interview that you really struggle to answer, I guarantee that the interviewer isn't trying to catch you out or see you fail. They are just trying to find out everything they can about you so that they can find the right candidate for their job.

So remember, take a deep breath, take a minute or two to collect your thoughts, and stay focused.

Dress The Part

Finally, always dress the part. Even if you are interviewing at a company with a very relaxed environment, interviewers always want to see smartly dressed candidates, with no exceptions. Wear a suit. Polish your shoes. Iron your shirt. Keep accessories, jewelry and makeup to a minimum. Keep it professional. Keep it smart.


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