Interviewing for a management position? Even if you’ve never been a manager before, you’ll want to clearly demonstrate to the interviewers your managerial skills and leadership philosophy.
This article will reveal 10 questions you should reflect on and be prepared to answer in your interview for a management role (in addition to other common interview questions). Even if your prospective employers don’t ask every one of these, preparing to answer them will help you gain clarity on your strengths and the way you approach management and leadership—so you can communicate your capabilities with ease no matter what question you’re answering.
In my role as an executive coach and organizational consultant for mission-driven companies, I’ve helped many managers and leaders showcase their talents and knowledge in interviews for jobs and with media outlets. And if I’ve learned one thing, it’s the power of telling a good story to show the talent of a current or potential manager or leader through action, instead of asking possible employers to take their word for it.
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Before we get to the common questions for management interviews, let’s start with a few things you should know going in.
You Should Be Ready to Tell Stories
Once, while preparing a mid-level manager to interview for a managing director role, I asked her, “Which acts of leadership are you most proud of?” Her first instinct was to answer generically: “We’ll, we’ve met almost every deadline for three years in a row.” But when I pressed her for specifics about how she’d succeeded as a leader of people, she had a much more compelling and informative answer:
“I once had this really talented direct report who was always late. Timeliness is one of our company’s core values, and the employee and I discussed and tried to troubleshoot the issue many times. He would improve, maybe for a week. Senior management noticed when he arrived late twice to company-wide meetings. I didn’t know what to do. The thought of firing him really upset me, because he was talented.
“Then, I had an idea. I asked him to take charge of the morning staff meetings: to review and organize the agendas the night before, introduce the main topic and structure, and manage the time at the meeting. It was risky to reward someone who wasn’t following the rules, but frankly, no one else wanted the job. He embraced it and showed up on time religiously, knowing that the team was depending on him.”
This manager’s story revealed her ingenuity in dealing with people, playing to their strengths, problem-solving, and working with a team. The ability to convey so many details to your prospective employers is why storytelling is the most powerful tool in your interview kit.
As you prepare for a management interview, mine your work experience for management and leadership wins. Even if you haven’t been a manager before, you’ve still demonstrated leadership in training others, managing projects, motivating colleagues, contributing ideas, thinking strategically, and holding others accountable. Take some time to reflect on your work experience and jot down significant moments when you led. These are the basis for your stories, which should reveal one or all of the following:
- A time when you influenced and encouraged others (and how you approach influencing and encouraging others in general)
- A time when you and a team were successful and what your contribution was
- A time when your problem-solving and/or delegating skills directly impacted a coworker, team, or initiative
Make Sure You Highlight the Right Skills
Consider what skills are required for the job you’re interviewing for and especially focus on the stories that show you developing or using these skills. Lay out your stories in a coherent way by defining the problem, explaining how you arrived at a solution, and describing how you implemented it. Once you’ve collected a handful of tales, you’ll be able to easily modify them to answer different interview questions in a way that demonstrates your management and leadership chops.
Remember that management across most functions and roles largely involves prioritizing and delegating, time management, problem-solving, and organization. Be sure to showcase those skills in your stories.
And even if a company is extremely focused on having their managers drive the productivity of their staff to “hit the numbers,” you’ll still need soft skills, such as emotional intelligence or interpersonal skills, to manage and inspire your team to get there. Empathy and sensitivity are increasingly valued workplace traits. Show your capacity for them.
Confidence Is Good, But Don’t Over-Rehearse
Thorough preparation will help you feel confident and confidence will help the interviewers see you as a leader. But be careful not to over-rehearse exactly how you will tell your stories. You shouldn’t present as overly polished in your interview, says Alli Polin, a leadership expert and founder of Break the Frame Consulting. “The company wants to understand your philosophy and leadership style—not [be presented with] answers learned by rote.” A hiring team is looking for managers and leaders who are relatable and can think on their feet. And rehearsed speeches can come across as inauthentic.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Are Likely to Come Up
In addition to developing their interpersonal skills, managers must be familiar with DEI principles and resources and why they matter in the workplace. Be sure to go over these and be prepared to speak about diversity, equity, and inclusion in an interview.
Keep all of the above in mind as you prepare for the following questions you’re likely to get when interviewing for a management position.
- Walk Me Through a Project You Led and What Made It Successful.
- How Would You Describe Your Leadership Style?
- Tell Me About a Decision That Was Difficult to Make. Did You Consult With Anyone?
- How Have You Successfully Delegated Tasks?
- How Do You Establish Priorities for Yourself and the People You Supervise?
- What Is Your Leadership Approach to Managing Diverse Teams and Being Sensitive to and Inclusive of All Your Staff?
- How Do You Give Feedback and Hold People Accountable?
- Describe a Time You Managed an Employee Who Was Struggling or Causing Strife.
- What Is Your Ideal Vision for Company Culture and How Have You Upheld Company Values in Prior Roles?
- What Are Your Plans for Your Team’s Professional Development?
When asking this question, interviewers are looking for your knowledge of people and project management as well as communication skills. It should be easy for you to think of the most impactful project you led to answer this question, but a story will truly demonstrate your abilities. Saying something like, “We had a goal to acquire 3,000 new customers by March and we hit it,” reveals a great win, but no leadership skills. Your answer, like the story in the last section, needs to spell out what you specifically did to influence the successful outcome. The more specifics you include, the better able the interviewer will be able to see your talent and impact.
Here’s an example answer:
I was recently in charge of designing a marketing strategy for a premium version of our top-selling hiking shoes for new and existing customers on a short timeline. I led the team through several brainstorming sessions on potential campaigns, and since we were on a tight schedule, I laid out the exact type of ideas we were looking for ahead of the meetings and kept a close eye on the clock to make sure the discussions stayed on topic. We came up with three campaigns we wanted to pursue, then laid out each step of all three to really break them down and see if we could implement the work on time. It became clear that if we wanted high-quality execution, we could either hire temporary people or implement two of our three ideas by the deadline. It was tough, but I chose to only focus on two with the existing team rather than risking not finding the right people to help us on short notice. To me, quality always wins over quantity. I consulted with the project manager and the team to determine who was in charge of and responsible for each part of the campaigns. Together we developed key performance indicators (KPIs), such as how many customers we wanted to reach and how many interactions would lead to direct sales. Additionally, each team member came up with two personal goals, such as: ‘to reach out to colleagues more for input’ and ‘to slow down when I’m rushing so I don’t make a mistake.’
Lastly, we agreed that if someone was falling short of their deadlines, they needed to let the rest of the team know through our project management software and we could discuss the best way to proceed from there. Because we were all so clear on what needed to get done, who was doing what, and where they were in the process, we managed to accomplish our first set of goals ahead of schedule and the campaign ultimately exceeded our original sales goal by over 10%. It really helped me see that being thorough and deliberate about my expectations, making tough but realistic choices about what we could accomplish, and outlining priorities and clear goals were tremendously effective strategies.
Sometimes it seems that there are as many formulas and paradigms for describing leadership styles as there are people to lead. This article reveals eight different styles, but to make it simple, I’ll provide four that I like to reference:
- Direct: when leaders know what they want, outline their expectations, and are not afraid to speak up or confront others
- Relational: when managers lead by forming strong connections with others
- Visionary: when leaders have big ideas and easily find out-of-the-box solutions
- Operational: when managers are focused on the processes of how work gets done
As a leader you might have two or even three blended styles, but for this question, you’ll want to talk about the style you use most and give examples of when and how it has worked to get people motivated and essentially do their work more efficiently. For example, a relational leader I know wowed her interviewers with a story about an employee who suddenly started complaining frequently. Instead of addressing the employee’s complaints directly, she simply asked, “Why now?” The employee broke down and shared her fear that the workload was too much. Together they came up with a step-by-step plan for prioritizing her tasks, getting help from coworkers and, ironically, taking more structured breaks. The employee is now more motivated than ever, and comes to the leader with problems she can’t solve herself quickly rather than letting them build. The leader’s new bosses later told her that they were impressed with what this story said about her capacity for listening and empathy.
Managers are always making decisions, including really tough ones like firing employees who aren’t working out, redistributing work when someone falls ill, making budget cuts, reporting to upper management that a project has failed, or promoting one person over another, to name a few. Interviewers want to see that you’re up to the task.
It’s also useful for hiring managers to see that you include others in your decision-making, rather than trying to make all the decisions by yourself. Work cultures are trending away from an overly hierarchical, top-down, command-and-control style of leadership. And a leader who relies on the input and expertise of subordinates and others in decision-making, also known as a collaborative leader, is often more effective and inclusive than those who do not.
For this question, you’ll want to recap the difficult decision, share your thought process around how and why you came to the conclusion you did, and tell the interviewer what actions you took, including who you consulted with along the way. You can sum it up by sharing the results of your decision-making for the team or project. For example, if you fired someone, was it due to an immediate ethics breach or a long, slow haul of inefficiency that included many conversations with the employee but failed to result in better performance? Was consultation with any staff, board, HR personnel, or outside counsel about your decision useful to you in making it? And how did the team operate after the person was let go? Was it a struggle to fill the gap? What did you learn or take with you?
Managers have to be cognizant of how work is distributed throughout their team. They need to know the details of who does what and who has authority over final decisions in shared tasks—plus they must make sure that these things are clearly communicated. For example, who needs to see the contents of an email communication before it gets sent out? And does the email manager or communications director have final say if they disagree on something in the message? Hiring managers, in addition to seeing that you understand the importance of role clarity—that workers know what their job is—want to be sure that as manager you don’t attempt to take on the entire workload as a way of making sure it gets done, but rather that you’ll effectively distribute it to your reports.
Your story for answering this question could include what you did at a time when the workload was very heavy and you helped the team distribute the work and collaborate, what you did when there was a gray area as to who did what and how you helped straighten it out, or what you did at a time when a deadline was approaching and the team needed additional resources. Companies also want to see that you work to understand the dynamics of your team—who excels at what tasks, who can handle more work, who needs more time off, and who needs tasks that will challenge them to grow, for example.
Here are some things not to do when answering this question:
- Complain about a boss who couldn’t delegate
- Tell stories about how difficult distributing work can be without saying how you’ve solved this problem
- Fail to acknowledge the complexities that are sometimes involved in delegating
Sometimes there are a number of projects taking place at once. Hiring managers know that without clearly agreed-upon priorities, a workforce can become split and frustrated, waiting for key pieces of work in order to be able to complete their own tasks and meet deadlines. So how have you—or how would you—ensure that members of your team know how to organize their day and what to work on first?
For this question, you can share a story about a time you needed to establish priorities for yourself at a past job. How did you decide which tasks to attend to first? If you’ve led a team or been a project manager, what criteria have you used to determine priorities for the team and how did you communicate them? Make sure the story is representative of your leadership style: For example, do you tend to let each worker figure it out on their own or with each other first and come to you with questions or do you step in from the get-go? Does it depend on the employee or situation?
And you can add specifics: What software or tech do you use for project management and when do you need to reinforce priorities outside of it? Are there daily meetings? How are those run? Have you ever coached an employee on how to manage their time or prioritize their own workload?
Don’t answer this question by simply spouting off the talking points from your last diversity training. You need to show your interviewers how your values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice play out in the workplace, says Tameka Nikki Andrews, who has managed teams in nonprofits, tech, finance, and advertising; has extensive experience with DEI work; and is now the founder of the creative consulting agency Flannel and Blade. As a manager, you might supervise employees across spectrums of gender, race, sexuality, age, class, and more, Andrews says. So she says companies want to know: “How are you going to make sure that your own biases and narratives don’t negatively impact the way you manage people?” and “How do you effectively create a healthy and productive…team, when everyone is so different from one another?”
As a manager, it is your responsibility to be self-aware and educated on DEI best practices in hiring, performance reviews, and conflict management. “We’ve all seen what can happen if you don’t educate yourself on DEI as a leader,” Andrews says. Leaders with unexamined unconscious biases perpetuate the passing over and/or silencing of people of color, the stealing of ideas (usually by men from women), and the proliferation of microaggressions ranging from sexually inappropriate to racially insensitive comments, to name a few.
Tell a story about how you helped people work across differences by building bridges to different perspectives and communication styles, or tell a story about how you learned about differences through making a mistake.
Do not explain that you don’t pay much attention to these issues because you are “colorblind,” are more focused on hitting goals, or were taught to tolerate other people’s opinions—even if those opinions are harmful to others.
In addition to making sure that your team gets their work done and that it’s high quality, managing means that you will continually be learning new ways to help people be better at their jobs. As a manager, you’ll be leading performance reviews and challenging employees to grow. So for this question, think back: When it comes to giving feedback, what have you done that works? How did someone take feedback that you gave and make an improvement in their performance, and how did that improvement impact the team or initiative at large? Particularly if you haven’t managed anyone before, you can use an example from times you’ve given feedback to a coworker or even a superior.
You can describe how you were able to keep a team on task and how you’ve held people accountable for their deliverables. What tricks have you learned to help people work smarter and what system(s) have you used to track improvement or lack thereof? If holding others accountable has been difficult, as it was for one seasoned leader I worked with whose employees had different ideas about the flexibility of deadlines, what resources have you relied on to help you solve the problem, such as consulting with mentors or coaches or reading up on the latest trends in employee management, as this leader did?
This is also a time in the interview when you can share your overall leadership philosophy—about what you believe makes people tick, what constitutes effective communication, and how to get the best out of the people you manage.
When asking this question, your interviewer wants to know if you can handle a sensitive situation and how you’ll go about it. The story about the chronically late employee who came on time once he took on a new responsibility (shared at the beginning of this article), is a great example of how to answer this question, as it showcases the manager’s innovation in people management.
In your preparation for the interview, think of at least two people you’ve worked with who struggled or disrupted a team’s work in some way and how you dealt with the difficulties—then choose which situation better exemplifies your management skills and style and makes sense in the context of your conversation. For example, I know a leader who might have talked about the time they inherited a team on which two employees’ division on a hot-button issue created an unmistakable feeling of tension at every meeting, and the leader had to quickly figure out how to repair the rift before it derailed the team’s work.
Ask yourself: Were the issues about skills gaps, personality differences, attitude problems, work ethic, inappropriate behavior, or other types of noncompliance? When you share your story, make sure to describe the employee’s struggles or behavior and the impact it was having in the workplace, followed by how you reflected on and dealt with the issue, including what the final outcome of your intervention was. You can name a difficult behavior, but don’t disparage the worker, by saying, “They were a real pain in the neck,” or anything else about them as a person.
Your example also doesn’t have to result in a fairytale ending where everything works out perfectly. Some employees’ performance or behavior will improve only marginally. And if an employee continued to have or cause problems in the workplace, termination could be a perfectly fine end to the story as long as you thoroughly explain why and what steps you took. A story ending with an employee being let go can show your ability to assess the right staff and/or follow through on ethical standards on behalf of the company.
“Culture” can be like “leadership”—everyone seems to have their own, slightly original definition. I generally refer to culture as an ideal way that a group agrees to act in accordance with shared values. For example, the company Bridgewater Associates is known for its culture of “radical transparency,” which means that giving feedback to anyone at any time is not only acceptable but expected, regardless of role or seniority.
Companies “want to know your view on organizational culture to ensure you’re a strong match for the direction they’re heading,” Polin says. In other words, a company will compare your personal vision of an ideal culture with the culture they want to uphold or create to assess if you’re a match.
So to answer this question, reflect on the behaviors, environments, and values that you believe help groups work best: Is there scheduled company time for socializing because you believe it helps build teamwork? How should people approach difficult conversations? Does everyone need to be involved in every decision? Have you ever participated in establishing a company-wide values, ethics, or culture statement?
Depending on the exact question you were asked, you might go on to discuss how you’ve upheld company culture and values. How have you ensured that company values are upheld in interactions—for example, have you spoken up when something didn’t seem right? How did you foster company values in your direct reports or your colleagues? The ability to translate values into action requires loyalty, awareness, and commitment—traits that are invaluable to a company.
The best managers are not just invested in their teams’ present, but in their future as well, and interviewers want to see that you’ve thought about how your employees can continue to learn and grow.
Being able to truly support individual employees in their professional growth means you have to get to know them. The only way to learn of your staff’s potential is to be an observant leader, looking out for their strengths and opportunities for improvement. This takes time. You can make it clear that in order to answer this question fully, you’ll want to be able to see your staff in action for at least six months before you can determine what training would benefit them most.
Then you can give some examples of what professional development you might suggest. To answer this question you should be familiar with the relevant industry conferences, certifications, and trainings and what they offer. Take the time to learn which ones are best suited to the organization and position you’re interviewing for and why. Get specific about what you’d want each role on your team to get from the possible development opportunities you suggest: What do you want your customer service employees to learn about conflict resolution and why? Do you want your team to be proficient at public speaking and to what end?
You can also share any past experiences of supporting employees taking on a training or advanced education and how it impacted them, the team, and the company. What were the benefits? Were there any pitfalls to watch out for, such as it impacting their ability to handle their workload in a timely manner because they missed meetings to attend classes? Did they develop a new skill, such as video editing, and then leave the company to do more of it elsewhere? If you’re not an experienced manager, you can share what professional development training you’ve benefited from in order to vouch for why you think it’s useful for staff.
After you’ve taken the time to reflect on how you’ve embodied all the aspects of being a manager—leading, delegating, prioritizing, holding people accountable, helping others learn and grow, and more—whether or not you’ve actually been one, there’s one more thing to do: relax. So many situations in your life, at work and otherwise, have prepared you to be in charge. If you’ve taken the time to look back on many of the moments that got you to this one, you’re on your way to acing your next interview for a management position.
And don’t forget, Polin says, that while a company is interviewing you, you are also assessing if they are a good match and if this is where you want to spend the next phase of your career.