9 program manager interview questions to ask candidates (and what to listen for in their answer)
Program managers are responsible for articulating, overseeing, and driving the goals of a given program in accordance with the company’s overarching objectives. They may oversee several projects, project managers, and teams to make this happen, so strong leadership and communication skills are essential. And with so many moving pieces to keep track of, it’s important for program managers to be highly organized, strategic, and goal-oriented. But how can you spot these skills and traits? These interview questions for program managers will help you identify the best candidates for the job.
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Give an example of a specific project where you identified project risk and were able to mitigate.
Over the course of a major project or program, something can—and sometimes will—go awry. A good program manager is able to anticipate and identify these risks and develop strategies to prevent them or mitigate the impact. A proactive mindset is crucial here. Candidates should talk about assessing risk before a project begins and consistently analyzing the project’s health from start to finish to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
What is the difference between a project manager and a program manager?
Though the names sound familiar, project managers and program managers have vastly different jobs. Project managers handle and oversee the day-to-day execution of a project, while program managers provide strategic guidance to ensure that every project contributes to the company’s bigger goals. It’s important for candidates to understand the need for big-picture thinking, and to prove they have a high-level understanding of program management and operations. Look for an interviewee who emphasizes the importance of communication, collaboration, and multitasking—three major tenets of program management.
What do you think of change management? How do you approach it?
When change is handled poorly, projects can be disrupted and team morale can take a hit. That’s why a robust change management strategy is so important, helping teams to weather any shifts in strategy, tools, or processes without jeopardizing the company’s goals. A great answer will focus on selling the benefits of the change to the team so that everyone is on board with the new way of working, and offering support and guidance rather than making demands.
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Describe the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced when managing a program.
With this question, you’ll gain insights into the candidate’s resilience, professionalism, and aptitude for effective problem-solving. Did the candidate stay calm and determined in the face of adversity? Were they able to think quickly to solve the problem? Did they use creative solutions? At the end of the day, the program manager is a strategist, so they need to be able to come up with alternative solutions if one strategy is proving to be ineffective.
Think about the last time you experienced a breakdown in communication. How did you right the ship?
A program manager is effectively a communicator. They are tasked with both strategizing goals and processes and then disseminating that information effectively to the project managers and teams. Of course, things can sometimes be misinterpreted or forgotten. In that scenario, a solid program manager knows how to course correct, without getting angry or making anyone feel stupid. Great candidates will be able to point to specific situations where there was a miscommunication, identify the cause of the mistake, and explain ways they shared new information—and implemented processes to prevent a similar miscommunication in the future.
Tell me about a time when you faced scope creep. How did you handle this situation?
A project scope is defined by a set of objectives, deliverables, and specifications. Anything added after the project starts falls under the category of “scope creep”—leading to unsuccessful, over-budget, or delayed projects. The role of a program manager is to identify when this happens, keep an eye on culprits, and prevent projects from getting out of control. Often, this means the program manager has to be “the bad guy.” The ideal candidate will talk about their experience laying down the law and effectively communicating expectations to the team members and stakeholders. Additionally, they’ll be able to describe situations where they’ve reined in projects, communicating to the team how to course correct and how to prioritize tasks based on greater company goals.
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What does program success look like to you? How do you measure it?
This open-ended question asks the candidate to consider the most important metrics for success. Answers will vary, but an ideal program manager will be data-driven and emphasize the importance of using quantitative measures of success in addition to trusting their experience and instincts. Furthermore, they will have methods in place to measure success both quantitatively and qualitatively. Schedule variance, cost variance, resource utilization, customer satisfaction—these are all specific metrics that may be important depending on the type of programs, so it’s a plus if the candidate shows a real understanding of them.
In the past, how have you dealt with team members who aren’t pulling their weight?
If someone isn’t doing their job correctly or needs to be disciplined, it often falls on the program manager. A solid candidate has experience giving constructive feedback, communicating the issues, and implementing concrete strategies to solve the problem. They will also show that they’re not afraid of keeping team members accountable. Nuance, delicacy, and empathy are certainly important to being successful in this role in order to maintain respect and camaraderie among the team.
How do you keep yourself organized?
Program managers have to keep track of multiple projects—and often programs—at the same time. The best program managers are highly organized individuals, able to juggle various tasks at once. Look for candidates who give very specific answers about their organizational strategies, like keeping up-to-date lists of priorities. They may also highlight program management tools that they find useful, such as Basecamp, Google Suite, and Trello—and be able to explain why these tools are so helpful.
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