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.


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.

Now THIS Is What I Mean By “Advanced” Training

We’ve had a ton of discussions with clients after the Project Management Institute (PMI)announcement that it would soon demand business and leadership training from its certification holders. Some organizations wanted just the facts – who, what, where, when, why, and how — then were on their way. A few weren’t interested for personal reasons: their organizations don’t require or reward PMI certification.

The most interesting talks, however, were with customers who didn’t really focus on the requirements at all. The original blog post or email had merely crystallized needs that they already had. We heard it again and again: “We’ve already had the basics, we’ve already put everyone through the curriculum. How do we get better, how do we advance?”

These kinds of conversations are music to my ears, because it means that we’re going to talk about building new and differentiated capabilities. In other words, these clients aren’t just thinking about industry standards and compliance. They now think strategically about how their staff’s strengths and weaknesses match up to their organization’s opportunities and threats.

So how does this play out in practice? Each firm or agency is different, but we believe there a few useful questions that help focus on the learning that your organization needs to advance.

  1. Knowledge and Skill Gaps: These are items that were simply missed in previous training or need formal reinforcement. Example course topics that address gaps:  How to Lead a Team;  How to Model, Analyze, and Improve Business Processes.
  2. Knowledge and Skill Mastery: Here’s where one truly goes beyond the basics and gets command of a subject. Courses like Project Cost & Schedule Management; Project Risk Management; Strategies for Effective Stakeholder Engagement; and  Vendor Relationship Management take one to the next level.
  3. Behavior Change: Here’s the real opportunity to breakthrough performance: ensuring that skills manifest themselves in behavior. Our simulations — for example, Managing by Project; Managing by Project: Construction; and Leadership in High-Performance Teams — move participants from mere understanding of skills to application of these skills back in the working world.

As always, if your organization would like discuss these ideas and how it will impact your project management training curriculum, please use the contact form below. We are happy to review your current curriculum, your upcoming learning plans, and make recommendations.

PMI Requires Business and Leadership Training

NOTE: My colleagues at PM College passed along the news that PMI is changing its PDU requirements. This post is adapted from our email to our customers.

Well, it’s now official: the Project Management Institute (PMI) demands strategy, business, and leadership skills from its certification holders. Its change to Professional Development Unit (PDU) requirements formalizes the shift away from the “project managers just need to know project management” mentality that used to pervade the profession. As we’ve noted: people skills and domain knowledge are essential to initiatives’ success.

If you or your staff are pursuing or renewing your PMP – or your organization wants to develop well-rounded, competent project talent — you will need to understand how these changes affect you.  Why?

As the global business environment and project management profession evolves, the [certification] program must adapt to provide development of new employer-desired skills…. The ideal skill set — the PMI Talent Triangle — is a combination of technical, leadership, and strategic and business management expertise. (PMI 2015 Continuing Certification Requirements (CCR) Program Updates)

Feedback from high-performing organizations drove three changes to certification requirements that PMO, learning, and talent leaders should be aware of:

The technical, business, and leadership juggler.

The original technical, business, and leadership juggler.

  1. The education professional development unit (PDU) requirement has changed. 60% of the PDUs must come from education (e.g., PMPs must have 35 of their 60 PDUs come from education )
  2. A new requirement is that certification holders must get education in all three skill areas:  Technical Project Management, Leadership, Strategic and Business Management.
  3. Additionally, a minimum of eight (8) PDU’s must be earned in each of the three skill areas; the remaining eleven (11) can come from any area.

PM College proactively recognized this need, and designed its course offerings to align to the three skill areas, so you and your staff can earn the PDUs required in each skill area. For example, among our most popular offerings:

If your organization would like to schedule time to discuss these changes and how it will impact your project management training curriculum, please use the contact form below. We are happy to review your current curriculum, your upcoming learning plans, and make recommendations.


The “High Performer” high-wire act

Great post by Mike @Figliuolo that points out the pitfalls of hiring in high performers.

More often than not, however, we hire for all the wrong reasons and never think beyond our immediate needs for hiring that superstar. When we do so, all we’ve done is arm the timer on an employment bomb that will go off in our faces.

I’ll extend Mike’s remarks by sketching  out how that bomb works.  As he notes, we can tempt ourselves into a hire for “immediate” needs.  What this can lead to is a transactional relationship with the high performer that spirals downward quickly.

Short-term thinking leads to a star being brought in as — and treated like — a consultant.  The focus is on the fire to put out, the project to deliver, the team to reorganize. Promised rotations and exposure are repeatedly delayed for expedience.

She’s disappointed, but then adjusts her expectations.  Unfortunately, she now views the role as another notch in her resume and a stepping stone (or detour) to someplace else.  Even worse, her performance suffers as she scouts around for the next gig.

Sometimes the situation is flipped — the high performer could be mercenary from the start — but the resentments and recriminations are preordained if the cycle isn’t broken.

Which brings us full circle to the prescriptions of Mike’s post.

Matt Ridley on Gut Feelings and the Writings of Gerd Gigerenzer

Merry Christmas!  Here’s the gift of a little science for all you “gut” deciders. Matt Ridley posted this yesterday, pointing to research that suggests that…

more detailed analysis does not necessarily improve a decision, but often makes it worse. He believes, in effect, that less is more: Extra information distracts you from focusing on the few simple aspects of a problem that matter most.

Just don’t call it a hunch, call it a heuristic.

Why I left SAP…”macro” negatives

Second-guessing oneself is a risk when deciding to leave a leading company, so I needed to ensure that I had no regrets when I left SAP.   In particular,  I didn’t want short-term personal or “micro” stumbling blocks to obscure great “macro” opportunities in the rest of SAP.  Unfortunately, there were too many big picture concerns that nagged at me, at least from my less-than-exalted perch:

  • The “Post-Shai” Backlash:  The reaction to Shai’s departure was almost giddy in many quarters, which wasn’t a surprise.  The real surprise was the scale, scope, and snarkiness of the reaction.   A lot of non-Palo Alto folks minimized Shai’s contributions when it was convenient — see Peter Zencke on Shai’s “second tier” involvement with BYD — and blamed him when it wasn’t convenient (e.g, BYD didn’t perform because of NetWeaver). 
  • Condition of SAP’s Product Portfolio:  For those familiar with the BCG Matrix, IMO the SAP portfolio is unbalanced.  Nearly all of the SAP portfolio can be classed as either cash cows or pets.   I just don’t see enough “stars” on the solution horizon. 
  • Confronting the Reality of Business ByDesign:  Speaking of pets, there was way too much happy talk about BYD for far too long.  The funding that was poured into BYD — while SAP increased its margins — came out of the hides of other parts of the company.  

This last point highlights the fundamental doubt I had about the validity of SAP’s strategy: Was it still able to produce “stars” organically?  A “not-invented-here” mindset only works when you’re still able to invent.  It is one thing to miss on product development, it is another to deny the miss. 

 Leo is certainly aware of this issue, but this unwillingness confront reality has continued to spread IMO.   I’m not sure that SAP understands just how much damage it has done to itself by running some sides of the company with a gimlet eye, while other sides seems to be living in the best of all possible worlds.


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