Project Management Institute

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Acing an interview starts with taking a long, hard look at your strengths and weaknesses


Acing an interview starts with taking a long, hard look at your strengths and weaknesses.



Q: Since leaving the military, I’ve been trying to land a project management job, but I seem to fall short at project finance. I’ve always worked within budgets, but interviewers tend to focus heavily on project finance skills, which counts many candidates out. How can I prove I’m ready for the job?

A: You are being selected for interviews, so you obviously have something that interests organizations. Project managers with a military background offer a management style built on communication and leadership. These are often the skills that project managers struggle to develop, so you’re already ticking a lot of boxes.

To overcome the hurdle of project finance, make sure you first understand what the organization means by the term. What responsibilities does a project manager here have with regard to finances? Many project managers are tracking costs, but the majority of accounts work is carried out by the finance department. You need to fully understand if the organization uses the term “finance” interchangeably with “commercial,” meaning the private sector. When you have worked for a public organization, like government or the armed forces, it is often the perceived lack of this experience that is the real sticking point with organizations.

Do they expect experience with contracts and procurement? Think about what questions you need to ask to help you address any shortcomings the organization might see in you.

At your next interview, focus on your strengths. If your strengths are good enough, an organization will hire you on the provision that development is needed in the finance area. Project finance is much easier to learn than leadership and communications.

And keep in mind that there are many project managers who don’t have project finance skills: 14 percent of project managers in the Arras People 2014 Project Management Benchmark Report said they don’t have any budget responsibility at all, and 68 percent don’t have any profit-and-loss responsibilities. Chances are that other candidates don’t necessarily have the exact project finance experience either.

Practical things you can do now include taking a course on project finance. This will show interviewers that you are aware of a skills gap and are addressing it. This will also score you some points in terms of initiative and professional development.

Q: I’m preparing for an upcoming interview by searching the Internet for sample interview questions. Do you have any recommendations?

A: You can come up with a list of questions based on the job, which is much better than random questions posted around the Internet.

Here’s how you start: Take the job specification for the position and group the roles and responsibilities. You will see the groups fall into competency areas: technical ones like risk and planning, behavioral ones like stakeholder management and communications, and contextual ones like life cycles and organizational culture.

Next, jot down examples of what you can do for an organization. Think about times in your career when projects were difficult, challenging or even failures. Here are a few areas that make a project challenging or difficult:

  • Lack of communication
  • Lack of collaboration
  • Lack of governance or control
  • Scope creep
  • Resource management
  • Lack of sponsorship

Now bring everything together and produce interview questions based on what you know.

If the job description highlighted resource management, highlight some excellent examples of the processes and tools you use to manage this. Also think about the behavioral aspects of resource management, like choosing the right skills for the team. There might be a contextual competency too, like pulling the team together in a matrix management organization. Bring in the challenges or difficulties you have faced with resource management—areas like resource scarcity, skill deficiencies and battles with line managers for resource allocation. It is these stories that interviewers are really interested in.

A question like, “How do you manage conflicting demands for resources?” should have an answer that first highlights that this is a common problem on a project and that, yes, it happens to you all the time. You then tell the story about how you overcame the problem by drawing on your technical, behavioral and contextual project management competencies.

Once you start thinking about common challenges in managing projects, it becomes much easier to start thinking like an interviewer.

Networking is not just about meeting new people, it’s mainly about sharing information, and that can apply to people you already know, too.

Q: I’m not looking to change jobs, but I want to become better at networking. Do you have some steps I can start using today?

A: I think networking is one of the most underrated skills for project managers, so it’s great that you recognize that you want to get better at it. Networking is not just about meeting new people, it’s mainly about sharing information, and that can apply to people you already know, too.

The first thing you can do is think about networking in your current organization. The goal here is to cultivate relationships that can help you do your job better. Make a list of the five to 10 people whom you interact with most frequently in your current role. It makes sense to start with strengthening these ties. Next, think about who in the organization could help you do your job better. This might be someone in the finance department who works on your project accounts or someone in the project management office who can advise on certain procedures. These are the new relationships you want to form, and all you need to do is schedule a time to meet.

These are the simplest things you can do now. In lots of ways, they are the easiest because there is a mutual benefit in building a relationship. You get to benefit from their expertise, and they appreciate someone utilizing their experience: a quick win-win in networking. PM

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Lindsay Scott is the director of program and project management recruitment at Arras People in London, England.

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