The Project Manager
Let’s assume that you have been called for a position of a “Project Manager” in an organization and the JD (Job description) mentions following
- Produce the results as expected by stakeholders
- Measure and report the performance on periodic basis as defined by stakeholders
- Meet the profit objectives
- Comply to the necessary compliances that affect the project
- Build and lead a high-performance team
- Negotiate with relevant stakeholders towards successful completion of the project
- Be a servant leader who leads from front.
- Resolve conflicts within and outside the team
- Have an in-depth knowledge and experience in the domain under consideration
- Proven track record in project management with the previous organizations
- Continuously improve the project management processes and enhance self-skills through continuous learning and adaptation.
- A good relationship builder and manager
- Must be aware of what to do in case the projects fail.
- Must be proactively anticipate the risks
- And many more……
Do you get nervous breakdown looking at these statements?
Do you feel this is too much an expectation from a project manager?
Do you feel you aren’t capable of these?
If so, please think again. These are common expectations. Every organization and sponsor wants the BEST OF BREED qualities in a project manager.
Hence when you go for an interview, you face the situation oriented questions to quench the thrust from these demanding stakeholders and if you really do well, you are the master of your own profession and ultimately become champion in the organisation over a period of time by proving your mettle.
We all live in the 21st Century and its very common across the different sectors (Aerospace, Defense, Construction, IT/ITES, Telecom, Manufacturing, BFSI, Pharma, Healthcare, Textile and so on) to see some of the questions very strategic, some are tactical, some are challenging and some are easy. If you are me, then I wouldn’t worry about any type of questions being asked as long as I am committed to myself, confident , well prepared, experienced enough and self-sufficient enough to tackle any questions related to the Job Descriptions mentioned above and beyond.
Q.1 Tell us something about the kind of projects that you have worked in your past organizations
Ans: “In my role as a project manager for ABC consulting, I frequently work simultaneously on multiple long-term design projects for Residential and commercial buildings with the budget of upto USD 100mn. I’m not only in constant contact with the internal team but also coordinating ongoing communication with clients and ensuring that everyone is on the same page in terms of timeline and expectations. In my previous project management role for a professional services firm I worked very closely with the team of SMEs possessing cross functional skills. So I’m acutely familiar with the pressures that come with big-budget projects and the nuances of interfacing with both clients and my SMEs —and I’d be excited to put that experience to good use working with your esteemed clients and the team.
Q.2 Can you walk us through the specific project that you worked on, what was your role, and stakeholders were?
Ans: This question is specific to your BEST project that you worked on. You would always cherish the memories. Be honest while responding to this and if you haven’t worked on something, say you haven’t worked on that having said that given a chance I can always learn and try my best to do it. This is your opportunity to make a difference and impress the interviewers with all your Project management knowledge and experience, especially the situation based. Be direct, don’t beat around the bush ( lot of people have got this habit to take interviewers into boring zone through their long discussions, be short, straight, to the point and assertive )
Q.3 Tell us something about three challenges that you faced in your project life cycle for the project mentioned above
Ans: be careful, even if you would have stated the best project of your career, this is a cross testing question that cross validates if your response to the “Best project” question was proper or not. I have not seen the BEST project in my career without any challenges. For me top 3 challenges that found in my best projects were
- Stakeholders engagement at the right level, at the right time and with the right impact
- Shared Resources across projects hence the crucial challenge was to have their balancing across the demands from various projects and also their availability as per requirement of project schedule. (apart from their emergency leaves and even planned leaves not available in calendars)
- Pressure on timelines from all directions on the delivery as per timelines even at the cost of 100% over levelling of resources.
Q.4 Let’s turn to interaction with partners and their role on different projects. Other agencies don’t report to you and yet you have to lead them. How do you manage that interaction?
- Stakeholder engagement and management is the only response here. First of all identifying the right kind of stakeholders and their engagement at various levels when needed is important.
- Training the partners in the project technologies is essential component of success of partner relationship
- Trust, confidence and building relationship beyond the transaction levels is another important success factor, so that in case you need a resource immediately next day
- This is also a test of the project manager’s leadership ability and negotiation tactics with the partners.
Q.5 Are you aware of your organization vision and mission and how is your project aligned with them
Ans: This is a very strategic question in nature and tests your ability to have a broader view and understanding of your organisation. You can’t bluff here. If you aren’t aware, please say so. However, I would presume you should at least know the vision and mission of the organization, since they are the most commonly available across. On that note, take a small task and ask your team if they are aware of the organization’s vision and mission and how it is aligned to the project that they are working on. And if you want to do further deep dive, ask: If yes, how and if not, why not?
Q.6 What does “people first” philosophy look like in your daily work?
Ans: It starts with putting attention on the individual person. For example, I look for subtleties in personality and preferences. I might have a creative professional on the project who knows how to prioritize and doesn’t want to be micromanaged. Alternately, you might have a person who cannot prioritize saving his or her life. In that case, the person needs constant attention to be successful. A high level of EQ [emotional intelligence] for the project team you’re working with is important. The ability to observe and adjust as a project manager also comes in handy here.
Q.7 What is the best approach of yours towards leadership
Ans: Honestly there is no single best approach. It’s always “Situational based”
My starting point is that I listen to everyone involved on the project. Next, I try to understand where each person is coming from. As I have moved up at my organisations, my success comes from listening and helping the people I work with. I also start from a place of trust. I think people in this industry have a tendency to over dramatize problems or get overly sensitive about disagreements. I take the view that we’re working toward the end goal of helping the client and let’s keep that in mind with regards to whatever our disagreements may be concerning process or methods. If you know what you’re doing, you need to trust your teammates to get their work done and trust their ideas.
Q.8 Hoping you are aware of the difference between Listening and hearing: Listening is sometimes underappreciated as a skill. Let’s say you’re in a meeting with two other people: X is listening well to you and Y is not. What are some of the differences that you observe in their behavior?
Ans: You may have many different answers for this: One of these: My style is usually to defuse a situation with a joke or with humor. If someone is not listening to me, I’ll probably call attention to it in a joking way. If the lack of listening continues, I will ask about it directly: if you have somewhere else to be, please head out and we’ll catch up with you later. My assumption is always that a person’s behavior is not a personal insult to me.
They probably have eight other concerns going through their mind. By taking that approach, people don’t feel attacked. Empathy is a tremendously important part of effective listening and successful project management.
It’s unlikely that X would walk into the meeting thinking, “I’m going to show “A” how much I disagree with her. I’m just not going to listen to her today.” X probably has a million other concerns on her plate right now. I’ll make a bid to get her to pay attention. But if that doesn’t work out, I’ll encourage her to step out of the meeting so she can attend to her other concerns.
Q.9 How do you handle the conflict between two or more stakeholders
Ans: This is a very common question and very practical in our real life too. Am sure you are aware of the five types of conflict resolution techniques.
- Avoiding, smoothing, Forcing, Collaborating, Compromising.
- Depending on the situation you would use one of these 5, none of these are “Best”
- For example: Santosh reports to his project manager Amit. Santosh calls Amit one fine morning and tells him that he isn’t doing well today, down with health. Depending on Amit’s style of leading, Amit might be the taskmaster and much aligned to the success of the project being task oriented. Hence he tells Santosh, I understand that you aren’t keeping well (when he says he understands, actually he doesn’t many times) however the task for you today is on a critical path and no one else can do this. Please see if you could work remotely from home and save us from the potential delays. What Amit is doing, kind of forcing Santosh to work, in spite Santosh not keeping well
- Now let’s reverse the same situation. Amit and Santosh have the same relationship of Santosh reporting Amit. Santosh one fine morning calls Amit and tells him that he isn’t doing well today, I am down with health. Amit is a person who accommodates these kinds of situations, Amit responds back, oh that’s sad to hear. You take a rest at home, I will try to see if I can get some replacement for you today, leave it to me I will work it out internally, I do understand that this activity is on a critical path. Amit is into smoothing the situation thereby maintaining the relationship with his team colleague.
- The same situation mentioned above can also be handled in a little different manner whereby Santosh offers a quick 10-15 mins call with his colleagues along with Amit so that the team can brainstorm and pick up Santosh’s task for that day in the most effective and productive manner – This is an example of Collaboration.
Q.10 What’s your approach to starting a new project in the first few days
- If you are PMP certified, this is a great opportunity for you to take the whole lifecycle of the project with a live example of the project that you would have done in the past or you are currently doing.
- Take the interviewers through the 10 knowledge areas and 5 process groups of the Project Management Body of knowledge.
- Explain how you kickoff the project from the business case and business benefits plan and project charter.
- Try and understand the project objectives and how they are aligned to the organisation vision and mission.
- Why is your organization doing this project, what pain areas will this project solve?
- How will you create the value upon finishing this project or during the lifecycle of this project.
- How will you build the high performance cross functional team
Q.11 An interviewer asks, do you have any questions?” And then wait a few seconds for a response and keep moving. OR at the end of the interview, question: Do you have any questions for us?
Ans: This is another opportunity for you to clarify your thoughts and queries. Please don’t hesitate asking questions. Upon asking this question at the end of the interview, feel free and ask about the organization, its management structure, its products and services, department and the business in which you are getting hired.
Q.12 How does prior experience working at organizations have an impact on project manager success in your context
Ans: Prior experience is critical. Prior experience is especially important in certain areas, such as photo and video production. The project manager may not personally know how to do each step of the production process, but they will know the steps of the process and the teams you need to interface with to get things done.
Q.13 How did you manage the projects where the teams were geographically spread and not collocated?
- Schedule daily stand-ups
- Over communicate
- Took advantage of technology to connect
- Made the groups of the teams using corporate social media applications
- Established rules of engagement and encouraged the teams to set up their own norms
- Managing their expectations in terms of expected performance and outcomes
- Focussed on outcomes and not activities
- Ensured that the team has been always provided with the resources required
- Helped remove the obstacles impediments and blockers
- Encouraged remote social interactions especially every Friday 5-6pm social event where the participation is mandatory, and everyone has to be on video.
Q.14 Explain one situation where you had a tough, demanding stakeholders and their expectations to manage
Ans: 14. Provide a situation like: One fine day in my data center, there was an information storage outage whereby the applications couldn’t connect to the underlying information storage and couldn’t store or retrieve the data and even the backup plan also didn’t work. This incident happened around 12:24am and I was at home and already gone to sleep. I got a call from one of my customer’s team leaders. And mentioned this and then I immediately called my team in the data center and asked them about the underlying problem. Upon understanding the situation, I called the customer team leader and told him that it might take about an hour to fix. However the problem didn’t get fixed in an hours’ time. That’s where I tried escalating further within my organization to get further help which was beyond control of my team. The allowable downtime was max an hour. I called up my manager and informed him and asked for further help, I also tried calling a few cross functional leaders. The problem within the next 2 hours couldn’t be arrested. Customer side escalations got into fire and we were all tense. Though we got extra resources on the Job, we somehow still couldn’t resolve the problem in 4 hours. The only hope to manage customer’s anguish was my constant communications through a live conference bridge that was setup and a link was circulated to all. The escalation reached its heights to the CEO and finally we got some help from one of our colleagues in Sydney who logged into his early morning hours and helped resolve this. The overall downtime was 6 hours. This could have attracted penalties as per contract terms and conditions based on SLAs defined and agreed. However good relationships, constant communications and our past track record managing the delivery for this account saved us and I still do enjoy a good relationship with this customer.
Q.15 What are your futuristic goals for next 3-5 years, where do you want to be
This type of questions tests you on your ambitions, aspirations in future and also your stability within the organization. If your ambitions are something too high which this organization doesn’t offer that kind of scalability and growth, then based on your response the organization will presume that you might not stick much and apply for this position as changeover. So be careful, be thoroughly prepared and ready to answer these questions in a smart manner.
Q.16 Let’s assume that there are 5 FTEs (Company’s own Full time employees) and 10 contractors (External) on the project and all report to their vertical manager and you are an independent contributor on the project. How will you lead this team who doesn’t report to you directly?
Ans: This relates to Matrix organisation structure whereby one team member can have two bosses ( One PM and another functional/vertical manager) The matrix is a complex organizational form and will not automatically work. The number of things that can go wrong is endless, but the most usual reason for failure of the matrix results from either foot-dragging or downright sabotage on the part of functional management and even by lower level supervision.
I would need to ensure that the matrix will work by thoroughly selling the concept to top management and to all involved functional management. If everyone involved in the matrix is “a believer,” and every effort is expended to make it work, the matrix will work and will result in outstanding project accomplishment. It only takes one uncooperative disciplinary manager dragging his feet to make the whole project fail. However, active, enthusiastic, and aggressive support by top management will counteract even the most recalcitrant functional manager.
I would also ensure that we have a clear R&R (Roles and Responsibilities) defined as part of RACI Matrix and also build a great relationship with the team members and their respective functional managers to help my project further.
Q.17 Let’s assume you have to lead a team of 8 experienced SMEs and out of them 3 are more than your experience! How will you build trust and lead this team towards a successful outcome?
Here are my few practical tips
- Take all informal communication approaches, formal communication will not work here.
- Have a great deal of Emotional Quotient towards your fellow colleagues
- Trust, respect and honour their technical expertise
- Make them feel important in front of others
- Nothing works like frequent appreciations
- Make them mentor/guide to the relevant teams/sub teams
- Provide them with the most difficult and challenging tasks, generally they love to solve these
- Take their feedback and opinions about the other team colleagues and yourself.
- Spend time with them over breakfast/lunch in office
- Occasionally call them up without any agenda in the evening and have a freewheeling chat.
Q.18 What’s the approach in creating schedule, cost and resource estimation
- It’s important to state realistic expectations up front. When we did projects for clients, my view was to fix money and time. Therefore, scope became the variable factor. We would always hit the budget and schedule because we had flexibility regarding scope.
- I would ask clients, “What do you want to do?” On hearing their request, I would often respond with, “I don’t think we can do all of that in the time we have. However, I think we can do the following…”
- Slowly I learnt If you want more scope, we can increase the time and money. We kept money and time fixed. Without that, there’s no end. Without an end, it’s difficult to make decisions. Of course, the project could end when you run out of money.
- However, that’s a problem because the project is in limbo and the client is probably unhappy with the “result.” My feeling is that you should always have something that is finished. If we get to the end and we don’t deliver what we promised, that’s on us as the project manager.
- Finally the lessons learnt was that follow the change control process in proper manner, analyse the additional scope and re baseline the schedule and cost estimates and measure the progress with reference to these baselines
Q.19 Assume a situation whereby the client project that you are working on, has cost overrun and schedule underrun. How will you control the cost if the resources used in the project activities are all FTE (full time employees with fixed salary)
- Most often than not, the concept of Earned Value Management comes very handy here whereby the impact of the schedule and cost together can be made. Here in this case using the EVM, we see that the project is ahead of schedule and over budget which means possibly to crash the schedule, you would have added the resources hence additional cost. If you rigorously follow the EVM, you would get to know the schedule performance index which is greater than one and cost performance index lesser than one meaning the integrated performance in terms of CR (critical ratio)=SPI*CPI most likely will come around 1. And if that’s the case, you can negotiate with the sponsor saying that we can always defer the schedule to allow the resources to work on other projects thereby controlling the costs OR else we finish earlier than planned and save the costs at the end. This is where we literally used the power of Earned Value.
Q.20 Have you done your own SWOT analysis? If so, please let us know your strengths and improvement areas
- This is a relative question that you need to answer honestly. Don’t say no to your improvement areas, everyone has an improvement area because we professionals always believe in continuous lifelong learning hence be fair in your assessment. If you haven’t done your SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats analysis) then this is the right time to do immediately post reading this blog, since this is extremely crucial for your personal career. Believe in yourself and assertively communicate your strengths which can be further leveraged and made stronger by the day.
All the best for future endeavors. Am sure you will do well in your careers.