How Do I Interview for Soft Skills?

My last post in this series responding to questions asked by participants in our recent PM Skills Webinar (the webinar recording itself is here, registration required) covered whether employers were really looking for leadership and business acumen. The next question came from a PMO leader, asking for:

Suggestions on interview techniques or questions to find those “soft skills” from a PM applying outside of your organization?       

First, formal talent assessment tools will refine and focus your new hire interviews. We are deploying an assessment for a technology firm to give tailored answers to this question. If your organization struggles to hire the right project management talent, PM College assessment services are just the ticket.

I gave a few questions in my last post, so here I will focus on technique. My experience is that behavioral techniques are the best way to get to soft skills. For example, ask the candidate to put himself or herself back in a situation: “How did you resolve a situation when you didn’t have enough resources?”

In this case, how candidates answer that question gives a feel for how they approach stakeholder engagement and influence without authority. How did the person work the stakeholder plan to drive buy-in to the need to provide resources? Did he deploy influencers to drive that buy-in, or did she reach for the escalation stick too quickly? How would this person’s approach match your organization’s culture?

Also, look at the quality and depth of the answer. Another suggestion is to have multiple people ask the same question. See if the person can give multiple examples for the same question. Was the answer crisp and concise, with appropriate detail, or did the candidate hem and how his way through an unfocused reply?

If she addresses these questions to your satisfaction, then you have some comfort that the candidate has strong command of the topic and its techniques.

One last note: hypotheticals sound like a good technique, but they are problematic. Hypothetical situations often demand or introduce domain knowledge that is not relevant. In some cases, people are good as confecting plausible scenarios for imaginary problems. Those people, however, may not be so good at crafting a solution to a real world challenge.

NOTE: This post is adapted from a series posted on the PM College blog.

Are Organizations Hiring for Leadership and Business Skills?

I am continuing with my series on the PM Skills Webinar we just held (the webinar recording itself is here, registration required). My first post discussed how to hire for the right project, leadership, and business skills. That is the essence of our research findings: how do we make sure that we have the right skill mix. The second answered a natural follow-on question: do job descriptions really address this skill shift?

Today’s question carried this line of thought into the hiring decision itself.

“Do you see any significant shift in hiring skills from the practitioner skill set to leadership and strategy?”  

First, I believe that our findings strongly imply this is happening. Senior leaders and practitioners differ on both the relative importance of these skills, as well as the skills that need improvement. It makes sense that leaders will – or at least, should – hire for these skills.

Leaders-and-PMs-Differ

This question hit on why PMP continuing education requirements will soon change. The requirements for the PMP have always included the kind of experience that would bring leadership and strategy to the table. That may have been true 15 years ago. However, where the PMP used to signify total project management excellence, it now signifies tools and techniques mastery.  Project managers who simply run projects without reference to their larger leadership and business environment are becoming a commodity. As I related during the webinar, even PMI recognized that the PMP – and by extension project management skills – was only “table stakes.” It allows you in the game, but nothing more.

A Global Executive Council counterpart of mine told a story that laid out the problem in terms of experience. He had to counsel a project manager who was very itchy to advance but was perplexed that his PMP hadn’t taken him further.  The council member put it to him bluntly: “A PMP is worth about two years of experience in our organization, which is something … but it isn’t equivalent to leading and delivering a multi-year project or program.”

Speaking for myself, when I interview a candidate, I most of my time probing about whether he or she understands how to think about business. I will, of course, ask a few questions about key project management topics. Even then, I focus on the areas where I believe leadership and business savvy come most into play. For example:

  • How do you think about the different elements of the triple constraint and their relative importance? Provide an example where you had to drive tradeoffs among time, scope, and resources.
  • How do you go about evaluating scope elements and how they fit into the strategic intent of the project? Tell me about a project where you or your team had to navigate a dispute about project or product scope.
  • Describe the last change control process you ran on a major project. What were the most challenging aspects managing change control on that project?

I found that the best candidates could give solid and convincing discussions around these three topics. A solid grasp of the leadership and business issues involved bring clarity to the tradeoffs, negotiations, and communications inherent in project management. As we have found in studies of project failure, beware the project manager who seals himself off in a room with a MS Project schedule or dives into issue resolution. Those activities are never – at least in my experience – the root cause of project success or failure. Poor leadership engagement, ignorance of key contracts, or misunderstanding the strategic framework behind the project are much more likely causes.

Note: This is adapted from a post originally posted on the PM College blog. This is the third of a series of posts based on questions asked during our latest webinar covering the newly released research report, Project Manager Skills Benchmark 2015.

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