Spring is among us. The sun is warming our days, baseball stadiums are filled with the smell of brats and cracking bats and tulips and cottonwood trees are beginning to blossom. This time of year, companies are also beginning to blossom. Annual budgets are now set and new projects are getting approved after end-of-year assessments of accruals, carry-over spending and holiday parties.
This means hiring managers are now on the prowl and that makes it a great time of year to look for your next project management opportunity. Managers are developing resource plans for their portfolios for the year and they need talent. But don’t think just by getting through the door that you are assured an offer from someone you’ve only spoken with for an hour. Your entire network is also aware of these opportunities and you’d better expect that they are interviewing and are doing either as well or better than you.
So, what are some of the approaches, discussions and responses you can take to stand above the rest to hiring managers and make the strongest impression that will get you to the next round? Here are a few things an experienced hiring manager is looking for from you during an interview.
An interview is a conversation and you must be prepared to engage in one. Don’t take your background and experience for granted. Others will be interviewed and they are preparing. Beyond knowing just about the role itself (this better be a given!) how much do you know about this company? What has the media reported about them over the past year? If they are publically traded, is their stock trending up or have they been losing market share? A good hiring manager will want to know about your desire to work with their company and that you are not just looking for a generic position.
Know your resume inside and out. Review it and prepare to talk about details and the value you specifically provided about anything they can see on paper or the internet. Don’t have a copy in front of you. This is your summary of what you think is important to discuss and you should be completely familiar with its content. Go online to find a list of ten standard project manager questions. Then, write down answers to each that provide details about your experience. Read these out loud and practice your answers in front of a mirror. If your answers are prepared prior to the interview, you won’t be pressured to think of details during the discussion, and you can focus instead on providing your rehearsed answer in a confident fashion.
Most likely this is not an entry-level role and expectations of a hiring manager will therefore reflect the professionalism needed of an experienced project manager. The first impression you will make is timeliness. Be early! Once your interview is scheduled, capture it as starting at least 30 minutes earlier. Being late to an interview for any reason makes your first impression to the hiring manager as someone who cannot manage a schedule. If you believe you will not be on time, make an attempt to contact your interviewer to reschedule. While not ideal, this will at least present a proactive quality.
Your wardrobe is the next immediate impression. You’ve researched the firm and they have casual dress policy, or this may be an IT position only or your recruiter may say it’s okay to dress-down for this round of interviews. Do not do this. These points will only distract from your need to impress the interviewer with your commitment to the professionalism required by the project manager role. Show those in the room that you take yourself seriously, that you take this opportunity seriously and that you respect their organization. Not all candidates make this statement with their attire and it is a great way to easily stay ahead of your competition.
Everything to this point was the easy stuff. Now it’s time to wow them with who you are and the value you bring to their organization. Start by listening to their questions and then answering what they ask. Unprepared candidates may freeze when asked a question and can’t think of an answer. They start to talk about the first thing that comes to mind so there isn’t an awkward silence. These answers tend to wander and the interviewer will be distracted trying to find an answer to their question within your ramble.
A prepared response should include details about you and your value. Don’t talk about what the scope of the project was or what the team did. Answer their question by detailing what you did specifically. Once their question is answered, expand on it and describe how your input was valuable. Tell about what you learned and how you applied that learning in future situations and how they were eventually successful too. Look for ways to relate how you performed your activities in a way that matches their own culture. This is your chance to differentiate yourself from the other candidates and impress on those in the room that you are the right choice to meet their needs.
Embrace the opportunity you have to be speaking with people who may be your future teammates. Actively engage with them throughout the interview. Make eye contact with whom you speak with as this makes them comfortable. Be sure to smile and express your happiness just to be considered for the opportunity. Don’t get mired down into taking notes during the conversation. Hiring managers will appreciate your eagerness and desire to be on their teams and will assess your personality as well as your technical background. If they think you are the right fit with others on their team that may be the deciding factor in your favor over someone with more experience.
The portion of the interview for you to ask questions is as vital as when you were answering their questions. Have a set of questions prepared in your mind before the interview begins. Focus on questions about what would make you successful and what your boss needs from you to be successful. Ask about the culture of the company, the department and the team. Make sure you’ve checked recent headlines about the organization and touch on any mentions in the media. These kinds of questions speak volumes to a hiring manager about your attention to detail and your drive to accomplish your goals.
Your questions also give you an opportunity to assess whether this company is a fit for you. Listen openly to their answers and ask follow up questions. Follow up on any other issues that stood out to you during the interview. This will demonstrate that you were engaged in the earlier conversation and are able to participate in pressured, high-level discussions with other leaders.
By now you’ve made an incredible impression on the hiring manager and any others in the room. They will ask if you have any more questions and take that as the queue the interview has concluded. If you feel that the role is a good fit for you, tell them that you are now even more excited about the opportunity to take on the role and that you would be happy to come back for any further interviews they’d like to conduct. Unless they offer you the role on the spot, any questions about next steps will lump you back in with the other candidates. Just state your availability, shake hands and reiterate your strong desire for the role.
If you’re looking for your next project management opportunity, this is the season for searching. Once you are called to come in for that interview you want to stand out from the other candidates as much as possible. Be sure to prepare and practice ahead of time, focus on making that good first impression, fully engage in the conversation, follow up with thoughtful questions and emphasize your excitement for the role. Hiring managers spend a great deal of time interviewing and if you exemplify these qualities, you will surely separate yourself from the crowd.
Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.
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Jeff is passionate about coaching others to become project management stars. His expertise spans across finance, healthcare, telecommunications and government industries. He is a graduate-level instructor in project management courses and leads educational seminars and writes articles concerning both delivery and management aspects of the profession.
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