5 Interview Questions Your PM Candidate Doesn’t Want You to Ask

Effective Project Management Strategies for Successful Outcomes

5 Interview Questions Your PM Candidate Doesn’t Want You to Ask

Here are five interview questions that will make an amateur Project Manager squirm in their seat–and the answers you should be looking for.

1. Who was your last Project Sponsor? Is she one of your references?

First of all, you’re looking for a Project Manager who knows what a Sponsor is. It may seem silly to quiz a candidate on  a sub-101 term, but the bottom line is that “Project Manager” is such a ubiquitous job title that it’s starting to lose meaning. In a world where an executive assistant and a chief engineer might  have the same  job title, you need an easy way to clarify your candidate’s real experience.

The second reason to ask this question is that you need to know the unvarnished truth about the candidate’s performance record. Applicants are trained to answer questions like, “What is your biggest weakness?” or “Tell me about a time your project failed,” but explaining why your Project Sponsor didn’t make it onto your reference list takes more on-the-spot finesse. Here are a few acceptable answers:

  • “I opted to put the name of a chief stakeholder instead, since he/she was more involved in day-to-day project operations. However, if you’d like me to put you in touch with the Sponsor, I’m happy to do that.”
  • “Unfortunately, the Sponsor left the company shortly after the project ended. However, I can put you in touch with a chief stakeholder.”
  • “On my last project, I was brought in to assist with the development of a project plan–however, I was not responsible for execution. I’ve heard since then that due to some risks that realized midway though, the project was killed. The Project Sponsor’s career suffered as a result of the project, so I’m uncomfortable providing him/her as a reference. However, I’m happy to share a redacted copy of the planning material with you so you can evaluate my work first-hand.”

2. What’s most important to you as a PM: finishing a project on time, on scope, or on budget?

Inexperienced Project Managers will say these are all equally important. Even less experienced PMs will try to argue hard for one over the others. The answer you’re looking for is: “First, I’d have an honest conversation with the project’s stakeholders to find out their drivers. I’d then prioritize these objectives based on that analysis.” One defining element of a project is that it is unique. As a result, each project’s particular bag of drivers will be different than the last. An experienced PM is prepared to manage a budget-driven, scope-driven, or schedule-driven project with equal skill.

3. Can you give me a redacted copy of the most recent “lessons learned” document you created?

You’re looking for a couple things here. First, like question 1, you want to make sure your PM candidate knows what this document is. A “lessons learned” document is what helps organizations improve performance from one project to the next. You’re also looking for a PM who keeps project records in their career portfolio, because this is a sign they take their own development seriously.

Once you get your mitts on the document itself, look for the following:

  • Are lessons learned captured at all phases of the project? For example, were insights only gleaned during execution or are there some that pertain to project planning or close-out as well?
  • Are there any lessons learned that were the responsibility of the Project Manager? Most likely, your candidate edit these out–be careful not to hold it against her if she doesn’t. You’re not looking for “gotchas”–you just want some insight into how she operates, learns, and grows.
  • Is the document professional? A PM should be a communications expert–you’re looking for solid writing, clarity of thought, and formatting that lends itself to easy reading.
  • BONUS: Does the document reference other “lessons learned” from previous projects? After all, lessons aren’t really learned until they are implemented. If the PM can show that he uses this document from project to project, hire him fast!

4. You’re leading a project that must be planned, executed, and closed in ten days. The work itself will take nine days to complete. How will you conduct your project planning?

This question is designed to measure your candidate’s flexibility. When you have all the time in the world to plan, it’s easy to produce all of the “textbook” planning documents–but what if your time is limited? This question is useful for evaluating  you candidate’s experience, style, priorities, and overall competence. There are a variety of answers to this question, and some are better than others. But what you’re really looking for here is solid rationale plus an ability to clearly articulate it. PMs hate this question because we pride ourselves on our methodism–unfortunately, real life often usually has other demands.

5. What industry experience do you have besides [insert your industry here.] Tell me about a project you led in that industry.

Project Management is one of the only fields that easily translates from industry to industry, so don’t discount any experience they bring from other sectors. In fact, it’s a plus to hire someone with a little variety on their resume. This question will help you discover skills you might not have thought to ask about (like ability to work in a heavily regulated environment, or ability to adhere to strict deadlines.) It will also tell you a little bit about their cultural fit with your organization. Did she come from a “boys club” industry where she had to fight for resources and recognition? Did he come from an agile small business where the rule was forgiveness over permission? Bonus Benefit: We PMs love to talk about our experience, and hate it when non-PM interviewers adopt a “if it’s not in our industry, it’s not relevant” attitude towards our resumes. That said, not all of us are prepared to talk about our transferable skills. Be wary of PMs who don’t feel comfortable applying their skills to any environment.

What sort of questions do you ask your project manager candidates? 

Sara Gallagher

Sara Gallagher is a consultant, speaker, and certified project manager (PMP) who loves helping all professionals use PM to enhance their work. By day, she works as a consultant for The Persimmon Group. Off the clock, she serves as the Director of Publicity for the Project Management Institute-Tulsa Chapter and teaches kids about project management through a program called PM4Youth. In addition to her role as a contributor for blogging4jobs, Sara writes about business, project management, and her “DIY MBA” education at www.gearsandshifts.com. Connect with her on LinkedIn!

Reader Interactions


  1. Asghar says

    Interesting read but too bookish. Once we are in field there are so many things going on and the boundaries are so blurred for that you cannot make sense and come up with documents and process.
    As a PM I have been involved 3 types of project group, first projects form conception – design to deployment- delivery complete ie complete project life cycle is about 6 months to two years. Second implementation projects for specialized services or just add with a time frame of 4 to 12 months. Special Projects – smaller in size (range from hours to weeks of work). Also as a PM I could hardly be dedicated to one type of project as I juggled multiple projects simultaneously
    Kind Regards



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