It is Memorial Day and I am currently sitting on an airplane going from Austin to Atlanta. When I land I will have about half an hour or so to get to my next flight that will bring me from Atlanta, home to Milwaukee. I spent the last several days down here after attending the Indeed Interactive event, Transformational Talent. It was a great event with wonderful speakers and a preview of some really cool technology Indeed is going to be rolling out. Some of it may very well change the landscape of recruiting. While there I attended a talk given by one of the keynote speakers Brene Brown. I had never heard of her before going down there but apparently she is a pretty big deal and has some very highly respected TED talks. She is a PhD who focuses on being vulnerable.
Along with giving extremely interesting speeches on vulnerability, she also consults with companies on how they can shape their culture in a way that empowers their employees to be better. Very cool stuff in my opinion. While I was listening to her I decided I wanted my next post to be on failure. Failure is something that is extremely relevant to job seekers. You might fail to answer an interview question as well as you might like. You might fail at securing an offer after interviewing. Hell, you might get lost on the way to your interview and fail to show up.
However, that is not the failure we will be covering today. I was asked in an interview once, what has been my biggest career failure thus far. It is a great question and it’s a question that at the time caught me off guard. You see, when you are conducting an interview, you are looking for a variety of things when you ask a question. Outside of the answer given by the candidate there are so many relevant things you can look for. How long did the candidate take to answer the question? Did they say it with the command in their voice that demonstrates confidence? Did they answer the question directly or are they doing their best impression of a politician and skirting the question.
This specific question is great because most people won’t have an answer to give right away. You see most candidates have answers prepared for a variety of questions. They have example after example of “Tell me about a time when…” questions. Most have a “weakness: prepared that makes them look like a dedicated worker committed to overcoming obstacles. Most can tell you why they left their prior employers and do so with the type of reasoning that has you thinking, “Well yea, that makes sense to me”. However most won’t be prepared to talk about their greatest failure.
So when you ask this question you get to see how fast they think and you get what you simply don’t get with most questions, some authentic. Because interviews won’t have planned for this question you are getting an authentic response. Those are the best. If you practice a list of questions and then get those questions during an interview, they are easy to nail. It’s like knowing what defense your opponent will run and being able to specifically game plan for that defense.
However since you are reading this post right now that should never be you again. You are aware this question exists and that there is at least some probability that you may be asked it. So, take a minute to think about it. What is your greatest career failure so far? In a way this question is a lot like the, “what is your biggest weakness” question. In fact, because in a sense it’s impossible to surprise someone with the “biggest weakness” question this could be considered the new version of it.
When it comes to answering them you essentially want to do very similar things. You want to be authentic and give an actual example. It’s best to give an example that actually happened if possible because it can be easy to tell if something is made up. Secondly you need it to be an actual failure. If your failure is a thinly veiled success your response comes off as disingenuous as well as ridiculous. We know it’s a hard question if we are asking it but the fact of the matter is that doesn’t give you license to just not answer it. Certainly it is your choice but my advice is to give something that is an actual misstep, everybody makes them. Thirdly you the answer you give needs to be a two part answer. Part one is what you did wrong, part two is how that has positively impacted you and impacted you for the better moving forward in your career. The fourth thing is the example you give shouldn’t be something that is far too off-putting to look past. Ideally this mistake is a misstep and not a symptom of a terrifying character flaw that is going to make it difficult for them to justify hiring you. You want to be real but you don’t want them to walk away from the interview saying this person could pose significant risk to our company if we decide to hire them.
Answering this interview question correctly kind of reminds me of what Brene Brown so excellent covered in the speaking engagement I attended. There is a certain power in vulnerability. Again, this shouldn’t be something that gives them pause about what you might add to the organization but if you are able to give them an example that is authentic and impactful then you might come off looking like someone capable of growth. Recruiters are people too and I have made my fair share of mistakes. We don’t expect our candidates to be infallible.
So think of something you have done, own the failure and don’t distribute the blame to others incapable of defending themselves and explain why in the end it turned out to be positive lesson for you. Candidates usually spend the entirety of an interview trying to showcase why they are the perfect addition to a company and quite frankly, that is a winning approach. However, if you are given the opportunity to appear vulnerable and through story demonstrate your ability to learn, it’s certainly something you should be prepared to take advantage of.