On Our Minds

Re-considering the Failure Question

I am often surprised at how frequently impressive candidates, in the context of otherwise strong interviews, falter when I ask them to tell me about a time they failed.   I started asking the question to get beyond rehearsed stories of success and to uncover a candidate’s capacity for humility, self-awareness, and learning. More often than not, however, candidates’ answers are in fact disguised tales of success, lacking depth or consequence; some people even answer simply and confidently, “I don’t have one.”  Why is this the case?

I think that candidates may believe that the failure question is designed to determine if they’ve failed and, if so, to ensure that the failure wasn’t so bad. In this paradigm, “I’ve never failed” is a terrific answer, and small failures, such as administrative mistakes, would get you high marks. Candidates may also tell a story that turns into a success midstream – “I was headed towards missing a huge deliverable, but I doubled down and talked to my manager and was able to deliver a great product within the new timeframe.” While this is a great story of almost failing, the person self-corrects before the mistake can occur.

In contrast, I use the failure question to test if someone is truly humble, takes ownership for his or her actions, and can learn from mistakes, which are an inevitable part of any career. I recently heard a *great* answer to this question while interviewing a woman for a senior leadership role at a national non-profit. (For the purposes of this story, we’ll call her Jane.)  Below is a brief synopsis of our conversation and what I found compelling and illuminating about her response.

Me: “So, tell me about a time you failed, Jane.”

Jane: “Wow.  I have a lot to choose from – let me think about what is most applicable here.”

This is the polar opposite of “I don’t have one” and shows humility when delivered authentically. Jane delivered this line with a smile and authentic chuckle.

Jane:  “When I first started managing people, I was young and had just been promoted into a new role.  I inherited a team of six, many of whom had more experience than me and some who had previously been my peers.  In addition to lacking experience as a manager, I felt tremendous pressure to perform in my new role.  I approached the challenge by taking a firm approach and setting very high expectations. I doled out tasks and set aggressive deadlines without first getting to know my team and what they expected.  I was disappointed when people didn’t meet these deadlines.  I expected people to work as hard as I did and to approach tasks in the same way.  Within three months, I had an unhappy, disgruntled team and we weren’t getting what we needed to get done. At this point, I knew I was failing as a manager and I was really disappointed.”

This answer is honest and meaty.  She talks about a real failure and doesn’t make excuses or try to blame the failure on someone or something else.  She uses “I” statements and takes ownership. Keep in mind that the type of failure you choose says something about your scope of responsibility and appetite for risk. Your answer should be right-sized for the role you’re considering. In this case, Jane was interviewing for a CEO position and her answer reflected the level of responsibility and decision-making required for that role.

Jane went on to say:

“When I realized this was happening, I sought the advice of a mentor of mine. I shared how disappointed I was in my team and myself.  She helped me see that I was not viewing my role as manager as one of serving my team and supporting them in their successes. She encouraged me to restart the relationships with all of my team members by sitting down with each of them to understand their ambitions, styles, and preferences.  This allowed me to assign tasks thoughtfully, support them in meeting their goals, and support them in developing professionally.  I also began weekly meetings with each team member where I could check in, ask questions, and listen.  While things certainly did not change overnight, I was able to repair my relationships and develop a strong team.”

Here, Jane demonstrates that she is solutions-oriented and able to learn from her mistakes.  She also shows me how she operates in a difficult situation, in this case seeking out and following the advice of a trusted mentor – not a bad resource for a senior leader to have. I went on to ask Jane more about her learning.

Me:  “So, what did you learn from the experience and what do you do differently as a result?”

Jane: “First off, I learned the concept of servant leadership and shifted my mindset about the role of a manager.  I also learned the importance of adjusting my management style for each individual on my team.  Finally, I learned the incredible importance of listening as a manager.  I now start off any new relationship with a direct report with a conversation about their goals and style.  I also build in ample time for group and individual check-ins.”

In these final words, Jane demonstrates that she is both self-reflective and able to incorporate learning into future practices. Overall, I gave Jane an A for her answer –she demonstrated depth, humility, a learning orientation, and vulnerability.

While the failure question may sound daunting and your instinct may be to quickly think of a mini-failure or a disguised success, I encourage you to tell a real failure story, one where you faltered, reflected, and then learned.

-By Sarah Grayson


filed under For Job Seekers   |  posted on April 21, 2015