How to Find and Hire the Best Project Manager for Your Organization
The interview process can often be just as stressful for you as it is for candidates because hiring decisions impact your entire team dynamics. No matter how eager you are to bring a new person on board, finding the right fit can be nerve-wracking.
This stress feels even more intense when you’re hiring project managers. Why? Well, you’re hiring someone into a position that controls budgets, staffing, client relationships, process, and eventually the bottom line of your operation. It’s an important hire, and most candidates don’t have more than a resumé to prove their experience. That’s pretty scary!
The good news is: There are tons of really great project managers out there, and you can find them. It’s just a matter of determining what the role of the project manager means to your organization and what experience your ideal candidate will bring to the table.
If you base an interview process on these criteria, you'll find a successful, superstar project manager to add to your team.
What do you look for in a project manager?
Hiring project managers is tough! There’s no doubt you’ll get a flood of resumés when you post a job opening. But wading through them and finding project manager candidates who are worthy of an interview can be confusing and time-consuming.
Here are a few criteria for selecting a good project manager:
Project management experience
What are you looking for in your next project manager? Someone who’s been around the block? If that’s the case, take a look at where they’ve worked and the types of projects they’ve worked on.
While industry is an important consideration, unless it’s critical for you and your organization, don’t require an exact match. I would focus more on:
- Project size
- Company size
- Length of time at each organization
It takes a good 6–9 months for a project manager to truly become comfortable in their role. So if you see someone who’s given up on previous project manager jobs within that time frame, you’ll know they didn’t give it a full shot—or they just didn’t cut it.
And keep in mind that, while experience (even for junior project managers) can give you a sense of what a candidate’s used to, it doesn’t show you what they’re capable of. If you’re impressed enough by where a project manager has been, chances are you’ll be excited about where you can take them.
Project management education and certification
Does your organization require PMP certification for your project managers? Or maybe you’re looking for a certified ScrumMaster? Well, you’ll be able to sort through those resumés quickly then.
It’s great to have some sort of hiring guidelines with respect to education or industry knowledge. Just be sure you communicate that in your job listing so you don’t waste anyone’s time along the way.
For the longest time, there was no education specifically for project managers. But now, we’re seeing students come out of college with the right preparation—or even a degree— to be a project manager. So if you want someone with formal training, you’re in luck!
Of course, tons of great project managers come from a variety of educational backgrounds. Unless you favor your alma mater or require a specific certification, it may be best to keep an open mind.
Personal and professional interests
Is it silly when someone adds rock climbing to their resumé? No, because if a hiring manager has the same interest, they may be more inclined to meet that person.
But what if their interests are more targeted toward professional goals and activities? Certainly, if you see a candidate who has participated in local events, taken courses, or attended project management conferences, you’ll be more inclined to speak to them. So before you jump into that pool of resumés, sort out what’s most meaningful to you and your organization.
No matter what you do, don’t judge a potential hire by their resumé design. Sure, it says a lot about who they are and how they’ll present themselves. But project managers aren’t designers, so don’t expect to see a lot of beautifully laid-out submissions.
What kind of project manager are you hiring?
While every project manager position shares some common tenets (on time and under budget, anyone?), the role can vary from place to place. That’s why it’s important to be very clear about the type of project manager you’re looking to hire.
Hiring an agency project manager
Do your project managers strictly handle budgets, timelines, and resourcing? Or are they more strategic client-facing project managers? This makes a huge difference in terms of the role, workload, and type of person you want to hire.
Be sure to outline the expectations of your project managers in a well-written job description. You can see an example of a digital project manager job description here.
Hiring an in-house project manager
Do your project managers work with multiple departments? Or will your candidate serve on a single team, like marketing or IT? Take time to spell out who your project manager will work with on a day-to-day basis and what their tasks will be.
The worst thing you can do is hire a project manager and throw them between two teams and expect them to succeed. Set some boundaries around the role and have a clear reporting structure.
Hiring an industry-specific project manager
Are you looking for a project manager with technical skills to fit into your IT organization? Or maybe someone with construction-specific knowledge? Be sure you have ways to tell if a potential hire has the know-how they’ll need to manage your projects. Or be prepared to train them.
No matter what “kind” of project manager you hire, it’s important to think about how the project manager function truly operates in your organization.
- You might want a highly technical project manager who can churn out pages upon pages of documentation.
- You might need a people person to manage client expectations as well as your internal teams and processes.
- Or you might need a project manager who’s open to helping you with tasks that aren’t 100% project-manager-specific.
The role is different in every workplace, so hire the project manager who will do the best job for you under your own set of circumstances.
Interview tips for finding the right project manager
Once you’ve waded through those resumés and found a handful of good candidates, it’s time to get real. That’s right, start talking to these people!
But what’s your process for that? Be thorough, but don’t kill yourself, your team, or the candidates with a long, drawn-out process.
Here’s the interview process we recommend.
Step 1: Phone interview
This is always a great first step in determining how good a project manager could be and how they might fit into your team. If they have good phone etiquette, can hold a conversation, and seem comfortable, you’ll want to meet them in person.
For the phone interview, focus on asking questions that get at their experience, personality, and potential cultural fit.
Questions to ask a project manager candidate:
- Tell me about yourself and your work experience.
- What drew you to this job and this company?
- What kind of company are you looking to work for?
- What’s your favorite thing about being a project manager?
- What’s your least favorite thing about being a project manager?
- What has your favorite project been? Why?
- Do you have any questions for me?
These questions may all seem high-level, but that’s the point! If you’re a good interviewer with a great interviewee, you can turn a handful of questions into an hour-long conversation. And this early in the process, you want to gauge the candidate’s comfort level and relatability.
One note: ALWAYS ask that last question. If the candidate doesn’t have any questions (unless you exhaustively briefed them on the role, the company, the team, projects, etc.), that should be a red flag. After all, the interview process should not only enable you to get to know the candidate but also invite the candidate to get to know you.
Step 2: In-person interviews
The in-person interview can teach you so much about your candidates. Here are just a few insights you can gain about a project manager you’re considering:
- How they react under pressure
- How they’ll present themselves in formal work settings, like large meetings and presentations
- How well they can think on their feet
- Chemistry with your team or interviewers
- The real facts that appear on their resumés
- Their ability to craft an easy-to-follow project plan (Consider asking candidates for example plans, such as exports from TeamGantt or even a timeline in Excel)
Do yourself a favor and put some thought into how you want to conduct your interviews.
- If you’re a small company, you might do just one interview with a few team members.
- If you’re a larger company, you’ll likely conduct a series of interviews with different people or teams this project manager would interact with.
Either way, be sure to organize these meetings in a way that helps the candidate understand your organizational structure and practices.
At this stage of the hiring process, interview questions should help you understand the candidate’s career experience and goals and provide insight into how they’ll handle the challenges your project managers face.
Questions to ask a project manager candidate:
- How would you describe yourself as a project manager?
- Are there any project management methodologies you prefer? Any you don’t know?
- What has been your biggest challenge as a project manager?
- What would you do if your project is going over time and over budget?
- Are there any tools you MUST use to manage a project?
- What’s your favorite go-to resource for project management?
- Where do you seem to spend most of your time on projects?
Above all else, ask questions that help you get a sense of the kind of project manager this candidate is and what it would be like to work with this person day in and day out. Are they controlling? Will they do well under stress? Is this person a good communicator?
If you zone in on what qualities are most important to you, you’ll hire the project manager who fits the role best for you. So tailor the questions, and don’t forget to have a bit of fun with them too!
Step 3: Watch the follow-ups
The last step is to see how well your candidate does with follow-ups. This is critical with any good project manager because following up is a huge part of their job, no matter where they work.
You don’t just want to see that they’re eager to work for your company, but that they have the guts to follow up to get what they want (or need).
As soon as you get a follow-up that feels right, you’ll know you’ve found the right project manager to join your team.
Hire the project manager that’s right for you
Once you’ve found that special project manager, it’s time to make an offer.
There’s something to be said about a good negotiator, especially when it comes to the project manager role. But if you want to avoid that back and forth, be straightforward about what you can offer from day 1. The last thing you want to do is make an offer that’s way off base with your candidate’s expectations. That’ll just waste your time and frustrate you.
Let’s face it: There’s no foolproof plan for avoiding the wrong hire. It happens.
The best step toward prevention is putting a process in place that feels right. Use these basic guidelines to craft a job description and hiring process that draws the right candidates in, and recruiting and interviewing will feel less like a chore and more like finding your favorite new coworker.
Learn more about what makes a good project manager
Ready to hire a project manager for your team? Check out An Introduction to Project Leadership for even more detailed guidance on how to hire the project manager that’s right for you.
This free on-demand class digs even deeper into the characteristics you’ll want to look for in a good project manager. You’ll also get a sample project manager job description, plus a downloadable guide to hiring project managers.