Program Manager Interview Questions

Recently I’ve been interviewing for two new roles within my team, Program Manager and Project Manager. On the day I was to interview the first candidate I was cycling to the office that morning trying to decide what questions would be appropriate for a mid-level Program Manager position. Once I got to the office I scribbled down the few questions I had thought of, and went to conduct the interview.

Over the course of the next few weeks I developed these questions into a more comprehensive set of questions to get a handle on a candidate’s suitability for each role. In this post I want to share the Program Manager interview questions I used and explain the reasoning behind each one. If there is any interest I’ll also write down the questions I used for the project manager role.

Ok, so here are the questions I asked and why. I always like to start with the first question on the list.

Question: Spend 5 minutes explaining your current position? Sometimes I might ask them to spend 5 minutes describing their career to date. Sometimes I ask both questions.
What I’m looking for: I’m asking these questions to determine how well they can take a huge amount of information and compress it down to 5 minutes. Additionally I’m interested to observe if they can explain themselves in a crisp and clear manner. This question is important as a large part of Program Management is taking complex information from multiple sources and communicating it to stakeholders in an easy to understand manner.

Question: If you had no direct authority over a colleague, how might you go about persuading them to support one of your proposals?
What I’m looking for: Here I’m hoping to see that they understand how to influence. I also like it when they offer and actual example. There are obviously numerous ways to influence and I’m not looking for a specific one. However, here is a link to the process I use to influence.

Question: What does a program manager do?
What I’m looking for: This might appear to be a very simple question but I was surprised how many candidates couldn’t describe accurately what a program manager does. I’m not looking for the perfect answer but would like them to point out that program managers manage the dependencies between projects, but not the projects themselves. Also, it’s always good if they mention Benefits Management.

Question: If I was to task you with implementing a Program Management Office, how might you go about it?
What I’m looking for: All I’m looking for here is that they’re able to think on their feet in a logical way. So perhaps they might answer by saying they would understand the business need for PMO, to shape how best to implement one, and then implement in phases, attacking the easy wins first. But really any logical answer is good.

Question: How do you ensure the whole team feeds into the risk management process, and how do you go about managing risks?
What I looking for: An understanding of the risk management process and its importance.

Question: How would you go about building a team?
What I’m looking for:Primarily an understanding that teams are very important. You can have the best governance and processes in the world, but if you have a bad team, your program will fail. Conversely, truly great teams always seem to find a way to deliver no matter what the obstacles. Other than this I’m just looking to see their approach to team building. Candidates often mention the use of Myers-Briggs Type Indicators to aid in building a balanced team.

Question: Suppose you were tasked with building a new Play Station and rolling it out globally. What roles would you have within your team and what would be the responsibilities of each role?
What I’m looking for: This is a practical question for which you’ll need to use a whiteboard. The question is designed to start a debate between the candidate and myself about team planning. If I feel there are gaps in their proposed team I will ask questions hoping they can identify the gaps and fill them. If we get the team in place quickly then I often follow up by asking what are the initial tasks the program manager might kick off for this program?

Question: With programs running over a long duration and Agile over very short time periods, do you feel there is a tension when it comes to including Agile projects within a program?
What I’m looking for: I personally do not think there is any conflict between Agile and programs, however, whichever point of view the candidate takes, what I’m interested in is an intelligent, considered answer.

In addition to the questions above I obviously always ask all the stock questions about a persons strengths and weaknesses etc, but the questions above are the ones which I feel are specific to program management, and enough to give a good indication as to candidates experience of program management and thinking style.

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