Get personal

Feb 06, 2017

There are four ways AEC project managers can shine in team interviews. Try them all and win more work.

Juggler. Cat herder. Diplomat. They go by many names, but project managers have one of the toughest jobs in the AEC industry. On top of that, the selection panel members tell us the PM is the most important person in the interview, making the pressure even greater.

“The PM must be a powerful, confident leader without coming across as arrogant or domineering. The selection panel will rarely select a PM who appears passive – they want someone who will direct the team to a successful project no matter what obstacles appear,” says Carol Slaughterbeck, executive vice president/CFO at Herrera Environmental Consultants.

So how do project managers introduce themselves at a big interview? Often, by saying something like this:

“Hi, my name is Johnny Appleseed and I’ll be the project manager for this project. I’m really excited to manage this project – it’s the perfect fit for me. Did I mention I’m passionate about being a project manager?”

Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. But only a slight one – and only to make a point. It’s hard to stand out as a PM. To rise above the crowd, follow these four tips:

  1. Get personal to be memorable. Record your introduction and play it back. Now ask yourself the following: Could a project manager on another team say exactly the same thing? All PMs claim they communicate regularly, listen well, ask questions, and are well organized. What are you saying that’s different and memorable? “We always try to connect with the client on a personal level,” says Stefan Rehnfeldt, a project manager at GLY Construction. “While it might seem like banter or chitchat, there are clues as to what is looking for.” The best introductions connect something authentic about the PM to one of the client or project needs. What led you to become a project manager? How can you relate a personal or professional anecdote to a critical issue confronting the selection panel? Find something and lead with it, and be the PM they remember. The PM on one of our winning teams for an engineering project began this way: “I took the lawn mower apart when I was 5 years old. My mother was upset because I couldn’t put it back together again. But by the time I was 8, I could take it apart and reassemble it. I have been putting – and keeping – complicated things together ever since. As your project manager …”
  2. Show you approach situations with foresight, not hindsight. Project managers often use language that is reactive – which is normal since they put out fires on a regular basis. But in front of a selection panel, reactive language positions you as someone who rushes from three-alarm blazes to false alarms. You want to be confidently and proactively leading the charge and seeing what’s over the horizon before anyone else. Reactive: “The funding was delayed so we had to come up with a plan for a one-year pause in the project.” The difference in language is subtle but critical. Proactive: “When we saw that the funding was delayed, we implemented the plan we had prepared ‘just in case’…” Anytime you’re telling a story about how you reacted to something, make sure you don’t come across as “flatfooted.” You didn’t “have to” do anything – you were prepared and executed the strategy.
  3. Be the man or woman with a plan. Selection panels tell us that project managers often describe themselves in terms of accomplishments. But that doesn’t tell them what it’s like to work together day in, day out. Everyone will tell the client they’ll get the project done on time and within budget. If you couldn’t do that, you wouldn’t be at the interview. They want to know how. Think of it as a venture capital pitch. You may have big plans for how your invention is going to change the world. But the people choosing where to invest are going to want to know the details for every step of the way. Even if you have a home run in your portfolio, the investors are going to want to know how you’re going to do it this time. If you’re not sure how to describe your “how,” think back to your toughest, most successful project. Now pick up the phone and ask the people you worked with what they saw in your methods that stood out in their eyes. Better yet, use an impartial third party to ask the questions. You’ll get the straight dope right from the horse’s mouth.
  4. Realize it’s not about you. Well, it is – but that’s not how project managers often think. Everything a PM does ensures the success of the project. But project managers often describe what they do in a vacuum, and to the selection panel it all sounds the same. Connect what you do with how it contributes to the success of the project by adding so that. “We have regular meetings with all stakeholders ... so that we can make decisions once and move forward together.” “We send cost estimate updates every Friday at noon ... so that everyone is working from the same numbers.” “Collaboration is integral to the design process but it’s how we do it that gives the team authorship,” says Ty Miller, project manager at Integrus Architecture.

Make a commitment. In the competitive interview environment, AEC project managers must not only convey their expertise but must also come across as someone who the panel wants to work with. After all, as one selection member put it, “We’re getting married to these people for three years!” Follow these four tips and you’ll not only win the project, but you’ll “live happily ever after.”

Scott Johnston is a principal strategist and facilitator at Johnston Training Group. He can be reached at

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