Program Manager Interview Questions & Answers

The role of a program manager is becoming increasingly vital in every organization. A program manager takes on a leadership role that helps their company achieve strategic objectives through the management of a project portfolio. This senior position is highly technical and data-driven—and comes with a salary to match—so, it has suitably high requirements for applicants. It should, given many companies have only one person working in this role, and they’re one of the people most responsible for achieving the company’s goals for the future.

If you’re just taking the first steps in planning your next hiring process, or you’re hoping to prepare for your next interview, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve compiled the latest information on best practices for program manager interview questions, so you can go into your next interview feeling ready, no matter which side of the table you sit.

Program Manager Qualifications

A good candidate should have strong skills and experience in project management, as it is the core of the job, and he’ll need to have a full understanding of the work his subordinates are doing, to best communicate with them and facilitate coordination. They’ll need to be a master communicator, the kind of person who can relate high-level strategies in digestible ways and can keep the board up-to-date on progress towards the organization’s goals.

As program managers often oversee broad changes to an organization, they’ll need to be well-versed in change management strategies, so they can carefully steer the corporate vessel towards its new path, managing expectations all along the way. On top of all of that, it’s important that they can be a strong leader that their subordinates can look up to, with good problem-solving skills, and that they have the head for numbers that such a data-focused position requires.

Program Manager Interview Questions and Answers

So, what do you actually ask your prospective hire (or prospective employer)? The answer is, obviously, that it depends. What’s important to you is going to vary a lot depending on your industry and the specific projects you’re going to want this person to supervise. If you’re filling a position that requires a very specific educational and career background, like medicine or journalism, you’re going to need to ask questions which help you to vet the applicant’s expertise. In this case, you may want to google relevant interview questions for that field, as this article is going to stick to the specifics of program management.

Without further ado, let’s get to the questions. Here’s what we’ll be covering today:

  • Operational Questions
  • Role-specific Questions
  • Behavioral Questions

Operational Questions

What are the most common issues which cause projects to fail?

This question is an opportunity to gauge the applicant’s risk management abilities. An ideal candidate will have good experience with bringing at-risk projects back in line and will be able to share examples from their career.

How do you prioritize the different projects in your portfolio?

This question gets to the heart of the difference in role between the project manager and program manager. While the project manager has many direct responsibilities to a project’s success, the program manager’s overall goal is to achieve a strategic outcome for their company. The ideal candidate will express their methods of measuring a project’s ability to achieve that overall goal and relate an experience with prioritizing projects that were at risk of violating the strategic boundaries of the company.

Say that you were assigned a program with a 6-month deadline. How do you go about planning the program and delivering the desired outcome?

This is a tough question for many candidates, as it’s very open-ended. A good answer to this question will show that a candidate has a very strong understanding of their working processes and management style, usually developed with a great deal of real, practical experience in program management. As project management is a field composed of people of many varied backgrounds, this question is perfect when you’re interviewing an applicant of the desired specialization without a traditional business education; it can filter out the dangerously unqualified while quickly proving the management acumen of an expert in your desired field.

You’re 50% of the way through a program and everything is going well. Suddenly, with little warning, there’s a major change in your company’s business strategy. How do you respond?

This can help you to measure an applicant’s response to frustrating circumstances. It will also highlight a candidate’s knowledge of change management. Change management is all about implementing changes and managing people’s expectations in careful, practical ways. Being a program manager is all about implementing change and changes can be scary. It’s vital that a program manager can prepare their teams, as well as the organization as a whole, for the changes to come with their programs. An ideal candidate will express these ideas in clear, easily understood ways, as well as share the measures they would take to help salvage the work which has already been done.

Role-specific Questions

How do you keep up with industry trends?

This is a softball question, but it’s a good way to see how engaged someone is by project management. There are a lot of resources out there for people in this field to learn, grow, and become better. An ideal candidate will have no trouble answering this.

How do you avoid scope creep?

Scope creep is an ever-present threat in project management. A good program manager can help curtail the natural impulses of a project manager who’s too invested in their contribution to a program. An ideal candidate will monitor their portfolio closely for deliverables falling behind schedule, and be very scrutinous of new potential deliverables proposed by their PMs. Good people management and communication skills will go a long way here.

What’s your experience with program charters?

A program charter is an important first step to taking an organization down a bold new path. An ideal candidate will be able to share their experience with participating in drafting one or more of these in the past.

Which metrics do you use most frequently?

The most common metrics used in project management are the deliverable benefits, time, cost, the scope of work required to deliver an outcome, the quality/customer response, and the risks involved in pursuing a project. Every business and a program manager will have different priorities, resources to invest, and level of risk they’re willing to take. This question allows you to find an ideal applicant for your corporate environment.

Behavioral Questions

Give an example from your career of how you budgeted and dispersed resources to a program you managed.

This is another softball question for any experienced program manager that provides a window into the applicant’s management style. The ideal applicant should provide an in-depth rationale into budgeting decisions in ways that are easy to digest for the interviewer. This ability will be vital when they later need to explain budget decisions to program stakeholders.

What was your contribution to the last program you managed?

This question can give you an important insight into the way your applicant becomes involved in the projects he lends oversight to. There are many interesting ways to answer this question, as it’s very open-ended, and it’s a good opportunity for the applicant to impress with personal stories.

Tell me about the biggest challenge you’ve faced while managing a team of project managers.

Project managers are all leaders in their own right. It can be difficult to provide leadership and oversight to people who are already senior in their field. A program manager needs to be able to implement advanced conflict resolution practices and semi-democratic decision-making processes that make everyone feel like an important stakeholder to the program. This is the opportunity for the applicant to display those abilities.

Tell me about a time you found it difficult to negotiate with a sponsor/stakeholder. What did you do?

This provides the applicant with an opportunity to show the interviewer how well they interact with others, even during conflict. The way they talk about their past colleagues and subordinates in the example they provide gives the interviewer precious insight into their minds. A wise applicant responds to this question carefully, as any troublesome colleague from their past—no matter how frustrating at the time—should not be the one to cost them a lucrative new position.

The Next Steps

There are a lot of interesting methods and approaches to learning more about applicants for such a pivotal role. There’s no perfect set of interview questions for program manager position applicants. So, just prepare yourself in the best way you can and hope for the best. Here’s what you should do next:

  1. If you want to learn more about project management, specialized offline and online resources are always at your service.
  2. If you’re certain that this is the best next step in your career, feel free to apply for the role. But at first, customize your resume and cover letter. If you need a cover letter for the program manager sample, this link will come in handy.
  3. Before you apply, make sure your skills and qualifications meet the current requirements of the industry.

Dragan Sutevski

Posted by Dragan Sutevski

Dragan Sutevski is a founder and CEO of Sutevski Consulting, creating business excellence through innovative thinking. Get more from Dragan on Twitter. Contact Dragan