How to Ace a Preliminary Interview

Project professionals must be ready for anything — including new job opportunities that pop up. But you won’t get a full-fledged face-to-face consideration unless you ace the preliminary interview. Whether it’s a five-minute phone call, a quick email exchange or Skyping from the work site, pre-interviews are the ultimate pilot project.

There’s often little time to prepare for preliminary interviews, so project professionals must work on a compressed schedule. Here are three steps experienced project management pros and talent specialists recommend to make a strong first impression — and get you in the front door.

Rapid Research

Whether you’re given just a couple of days or a couple of hours, getting up to speed on an organization and the people who might interview you means pivoting to discovery mode to gather as much information as possible, says Josh Oni, PMO Lead at CA Technologies in Berkshire, England.

“I once failed to prepare for an interview, even though I was capable of the role. Due to my lack of preparation, I became nervous, did not articulate well and displayed a level of incompetence, according to the interviewers. Since then, I’ve taken time to prepare, gather requirements, ask the right questions and listen.”

When a recruiter contacts you, ask for a list of people who will participate in the pre-interview. Then search LinkedIn, Twitter and Google to get a better grasp of their specialties and personalities, as well as more insight on the company. Knowing more about the interviewers before you talk with them can help you turn the preliminary interview into an informal conversation that highlights your communication and engagement skills, Mr. Oni says.

“Being self-reflective and going the extra mile in my subsequent interviews allowed me to demonstrate my suitability and my capabilities, and instilled confidence that manifested in articulate communication with whomever I was engaging.”

Pitch Perfect

Your résumé or CV already conveys your qualifications and experience, which is why the recruiter contacted you in the first place. So your elevator pitch should focus on what you can bring to project teams and to the company’s culture, says Imran Malik, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, senior director of enterprise business at telecommunications company Du in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Develop a 60-second presentation that illustrates your passion for project management, and how your experience aligns with the organization’s strategic objectives. A tailored presentation helps convince the recruiters they can trust you, Mr. Malik says.

“It’s about understanding what your key strengths are and being able to communicate them in a concise and compelling way,” Mr. Malik says. “Every elevator pitch should come from a strategic mindset.”

Ready to Respond

Talent recruiters will test you with questions — so be ready to give the right answers. You can elevate your response to basic questions — such as the type of projects you have worked on and what delivery approaches you use — by including specific examples to project challenges in your answers. These examples illustrate how your project management skills and experience helped solved a problem.

You’ll also need to be prepared to give answers that reveal your people skills and organizational fit, says Jess Tayel, head of transformation at WaterNSW in Sydney, Australia. For instance: How would your project’s executive sponsor describe you? What would be your most effective technique in dealing with frontline staff when managing change? Who was your project’s biggest fan and why? Regardless of what you’re asked, stay calm — even when you’re stumped.

“In my experience, being evasive when asked a question is a big turn-off,” Ms. Tayel says. “If you don’t know, say you don’t know. A project manager does not have all the answers but rather helps the organization navigate its way through to the right answer to reach a solution.”