January 24, 2018
The very best way to answer this commonly asked, cookie cutter interview question.
Understanding the full breadth and depth of a candidate is difficult for an employer to achieve in an hour, a week or even a month. So the pressure is on and stakes are high for employers to hire the best talent with only a short window to time to judge. To accomplish this goal, employers pursue different strategies, which include interview questions designed to provide insight into a candidate’s articulateness, judgment, experience, competency and character. Some of these questions are situational (“What would you do in this situation…”) and some are out of the box (“If you were a bird, what kind would you be and why?”). There are also questions that are deemed standard fare.
“Tell me about a time you failed?” is one such question.
And given its pervasiveness in interviews, it would be natural to assume that every candidate nails the answer when confronted with the inquiry. Right? Wrong. In fact, candidates butcher many of these common questions because they aren’t adequately prepared. At the root of much of this butchering is fear-which produces answers that lack insight and are cookie cutter in nature. So in order to differentiate yourself as a candidate, I recommend that you shift your mentality and view these questions as opportunities to shine. So how does one do this? By being thoughtful, genuine and honest-with the courage to show a little vulnerability. Words are important as well-how you use them to communicate and express yourself.
In preparing your answer to the interview question “Tell me about a time you failed?” sit down in a quiet place and…think…about the following:
- What does the word “failure” mean to you?
- In your professional and personal life, list at least three situations where you truly failed (or made big mistakes). What were the circumstances? How long ago did it happen? What were the consequences? What role did you play? How did you feel? What actions did you take as a result? What did you do “wrong”? What have you learned? Have you encountered a similar situation later on? If so, how did you handle things differently? What is your current perspective/value/belief today about such a situation – and how does that manifest itself in your behavior today?
After you’ve ruminated, write down your thoughts and organize them into a narrative for each example. Then, read your narrative out loud and revise as needed until your interview answer is clear, concise, natural and…authentic. Below is a conversational example:
“This is a challenging question because it really forces you to be self aware and analyze your mistakes – which isn’t always easy. I’ve given this topic a lot of thought as my career has progressed because failure can be a great teacher. One example of a failure occurred in my first management position. I was eager to please and highly focused on my group’s deliverables. At times, I was too focused and did not consider the needs of my team – which is an important quality in a good manager and colleague. While nobody expressed his or her feelings to me, I didn’t take the time to read the signs or take inventory on morale. So even though certain aspects of the job were going well, my team was falling apart. After a few departures, I realized that I needed to learn how to be a good manager if I wanted to succeed in the role. I spoke with successful managers, read books and worked with a coach. I implemented my new philosophy of investment in my team and have had positive results ever since. That was several years ago, but that experience made me better in every way. I know that might sounds a little cliché, but I am really grateful for that experience.”
There is no one perfect answer to an interview question. But…the best answers are thoughtful and genuine with a well-delivered message. They also provide a unique opportunity to gain greater insight into You as a person and professional. So use this opportunity wisely and you will turn your question about failure…into an outcome of success.