Assess People Skills in Project Managers

The best project leaders don’t just manage projects. They manage people, too. So how can companies spot candidates with the necessary soft skills?

7 February 2012

Project professionals cannot live on tactical competencies alone. But sound people skills aren’t as easy to spot in a candidate as the ability to deliver a project on budget. So what can organizations do to ensure the applicant has what it takes?

For starters, hiring managers must understand the value of people skills, says Ginger Levin, DPA, PMP, PgMP, OPM3® certified professional, a project management consultant and educator based in Lighthouse Point, Florida, USA.

“Ninety percent of a project manager’s time is spent communicating with stakeholders. He or she is the leader on the project and coordinates work performed by project team members, the technical experts,” says Dr. Levin, also author of Interpersonal Skills for Portfolio, Program and Project Managers.

Deborah H. Herting, PMP, a Doylestown, Pennsylvania, USA-based author of The Power of Interpersonal Skills in Project Management, says organizations should look for candidates with the ability to:

  • Communicate project goals cross functionally and with all levels of the organization.
  • Unite project stakeholders through collaboration and teamwork.
  • Gain project buy-in with active listening and relationship-building.

Identifying people skills in project professionals isn’t difficult — you just have to know what to look for.

On a résumé, for example, look for candidates with elected leadership positions, public speaking awards, community service, participation in team sports, and sales and/or management experience, suggests John Paul Engel, a Sioux City, Iowa, USA-based author of Project Be the Change: Career & Academic Advice from Highly Successful People. These experiences indicate interpersonal skills such as communication, leadership, empathy and teamwork, he says.

Once a candidate has advanced to the interview stage, use the “STAR” method to establish patterns of behavior that demonstrate people skills, suggests Gillian Ormston, an executive coach at Intelligent Awakenings, a project management coaching firm in Luton, England.

Ask open-ended questions that encourage candidates to describe real-life “situations,” including the “tasks” they were working toward, what “actions” they took to achieve it and what the “results” were.

“Through using some targeted questions, interviewers can understand a candidate’s pattern of behavior and gain a clear feel for their people skills,” Ms. Ormston says.

Stephen Balzac, president of 7 Steps Ahead, a management consulting firm in Stow, Massachusetts, USA says the following questions are good examples of questions that will show evidence of people skills in action:

  • When your team had a difficult decision to make, what did you do to help the team reach consensus?
  • When someone on your project team made a mistake, what did you tell your own manager?
  • When someone on your team pointed out that you were wrong, how did you respond?

Pay attention to whether the candidate speaks inclusively about how he worked with his team, or whether he was always in conflict with the team, says Mr. Balzac.

Answers that show the candidate’s ability to persuade others rather than compel or intimidate them demonstrate positive communication. And responses that show a willingness to focus on understanding why a problem occurred and how to fix it, rather than finding someone to blame, indicate good leadership.

Candidates who ask engaging questions about the company and position, turning the “interview” into more of a “dialogue,” demonstrate strong listening skills, adds Dr. Levin.

And sometimes, actions speak louder than words — especially in an interview. Look for candidates who smile, maintain eye contact and sit on the edge of their seat. All of these non-verbal cues indicate a high level of interpersonal engagement, says Mr. Engel.

At the end of the day, a well-rounded project manager is the best project manager, so use these tips to find one with both technical and personal prowess.