6 Hidden Interview Questions That Break PMs

Enjoy Your 

Understand Your Hard, Soft and Cultural Fit Skill Sets

Aug 13, 2018
project manager candidate is stressed during interview.


When we prep project managers for an interview here at Axelerate, we normally find them armed with answers to a battery of common questions.  They show up prepared to discuss everything from certifications, to experience, to skills, etc.  And that’s a critical part of the interview process.

For any position, there are really two sets of qualifications being vetted, not only the fit between you and the technical demands of the job, but also the fit between your personality and the culture of the work group you’re hoping to hire into.

Unlike the more objective assessments surrounding measurable skills, establishing the cultural fit is necessarily a subjective affair.  To get a sense of your personality and temperament, the interviewer may be more circumspect and the questions less precise.

She might use a general prompt such as, “Tell me about a recent project challenge.”  Then she’ll listen carefully for clues to your working style.  Do you tend to avoid conflict?  Or are you simply introverted? Are you accountable or do you blame teammates?  Do you ask for help when you need it?  There’s a second hidden interview going on.

project manager fails cultural acceptance screen
For any position, there are really two sets of qualifications being vetted, not only the fit between you and the technical demands of the job, but also the fit between your personality and the culture of the work group you’re hoping to hire into.

Without adequate preparation, negotiating this hurdle can be nearly impossible.

Hiring managers want transitions to be relatively fast with minimum shock to the organizational ecosystem.  They want a candidate who can slide into an existing team without disturbing the team’s rhythm. That means finding a candidate who fits a working environment with the players and a culture already in place.  An excellent review of situational interview questions designed to unearth soft-skills is contained here.

So how can you best prepare for a cultural evaluation?

First, be honest.  The group must be a good fit for you, too.  It won’t work for you or the team to pretend to be something you’re not.  Think about your “must haves” in a culture and then assess your traits.  Ask yourself which of your needs are core and which are preferences?  Where can you be flexible?

Second, be proactive, not passive.  Use the interview to uncover the values of the hiring group so you can frame your answers in a way that shows your fit.

Third, if you’re not asked questions about your working style, be prepared to bring up the topic.  Ask:  What’s the team culture?  Then be prepared to give clear, specific descriptions of your own traits and preferences.  Don’t be afraid to be distinctive.  Your goal is not to show up as just another competent, flexible PM.  That sets the bar too low; it’s too general. You need to stand out from the competition.  No one is looking for a just a PM – they’re looking for a specific PM.

Understand the cultural fit dimension with these 6 interview questions

Q1 – How assertive or aggressive are you?

This isn’t a question of whether you can lead, that’s a baseline expectation. It’s a matter of leadership style. The client’s needs will depend on their internal culture and their relative political power. Some workgroups are able to dictate the terms of a project and are looking for a project manager who can manage to aggressive deadlines. Others in positions of less influence are looking for PMs who understand nuance and demonstrate diplomacy, fostering stakeholder support through out the project.  

Q2 – Do you tend to be proactive or heads-down?

Proactive is flashy and sexy.  Actively addressing concerns and challenging assumptions while cooperatively making decisions gives you the air of command and seniority.  It makes your workgroup look competent and confident. But proactive can also costly — in terms of both money and time.  Some organizations may prefer the proactivity to reside outside of the project at predetermined lifecycle points under higher management supervision.

Q3 – Do you operate best within structure or ambiguity?

We like to call today’s business environment fluid and dynamic. The truth is sometimes it’s just plain uncertain. Some groups will be working at the bleeding edge of innovation and looking for a PM who can roll with the flow, accept risk, and pivot on a point.Other groups, especially those in large, established, matrixed organizations,value process. They’re looking for someone who can flawlessly execute on established plans.

Q4 – Do you favor conceptualization or attention to detail?

Everyone seems to want to be a strategic thinker. And some groups will value that. They’ll want to know that you can see past the limits of your silo and add insight at a high level.Other teams, with a rapid cadence and detailed deliverables, will value granularity. They care less about the blue sky and more about not letting the details fall through the cracks and expect the PM will be an integral part of that effort.

Q5 – Do you tend toward domain expertise or ideation?

You may find yourself across the desk from an interviewer who is looking for an “out-of-the-box”thinker. But what’s trendy may not be necessary or effective in a given role.Remember that PMs are always part of a team. Research shows that imaginative solutions come from teams of people with classical, but complementary, expertise. If you’re a fact and data person with deep subject matter expertise that’s just as valuable as generating multiple ideas.

Q6 – Do you view the PM role as more business or more technical?

Intentionally saved for last, this question might appear as a familiar topic of debate as laid out in our blog “Assessing PM Ability the Easy Way.”  However, don’t underestimate the weight or importance of this topic.  Organizations can differ dramatically in their perception of a PMs role in a project. Some expecting a high degree of knowledge, experience and participation along with the team during project execution. Other organizations prefer PMs with a mastery of business acumen and an array of soft skills to drive their initiatives.


Yes, it can feel risky to choose a position. It’s natural to want to appear to be flexible. But ultimately, you’re looking for an environment in which you can thrive. A place where you can truly contribute.  You’ll have a better chance of standing out if you’re the one who precisely fits the company’s needs rather than the one that can work in any environment.

At Axelerate, as we develop PMs who are advancing in their careers, we coach them to maneuver outside of conventional thinking by making their technical abilities integral to, but not the focus of their total inventory of skills.  Understanding and being prepared to fully engage these 6 questions will establish not only the candidates fit into an organization but will illuminate the organization’s behavioral framework for the candidate.

Written By:
Kerrie Gill, PMP, ITIL

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