Question 4: When Have You Failed?

Here is the question that everyone loves to hate. It has many variations. Tell me about a time a project did not work out? What are you not good at? They are all getting to the same thing: some point in your career when everything – including maybe you – was not perfect. What should you do?

Let’s start with what not to do. Do not talk about a failure with no “but”. “I screwed up the Johnson account” is not enough, unless you want the interview to end quickly. Every story that you tell in this scenario has to have a “but”. This horrible thing happen, but I learned this from the experience. This plan did not turn out the way we had thought, but I and the rest of my team learned…

The point is that your interviewer wants to understand how you think. Can you admit the need for improvement and development, a trait that we all share? Do you learn from mistakes? This is your opportunity to show some humility and to demonstrate the wisdom that comes with experience.

Here is the formula. First, pick a story that describes a challenging scenario that shows that you were stretched. Second, give some detail to illustrate the complexity of the situation. Finally, explain the outcome and the learning.

Now, here’s an example. “I was asked to lead the Alpha project, something that had been in the planning stages for over a year but had not progressed. We knew that it would be challenging because the company had never worked on something like this before. We delivered 30 days late, but as a result I was able to identify some organizational limitations that had previously not been recognized. We took that failure and converted it into a success with the Delta project three months later.”

Keep it simple. Think about something that could have gone better, what you learned from the experience, and finally how you applied what you learned in that experience to a future project. If you have two or three of these stories ready to go, you will nail this tough question. Let your competition forget about but.

If you found this helpful, see some other stories to help you deal with common interview questions.

Question 1: Tell Me About Yourself

Question 2: Why Do You Want to Work Here?

Question 3: Tell Me About Your Greatest Accomplishment

What If There’s Just One Question?

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Three Reactions to No

Not all news is great in career searches. A seeker will feel that the résumé is perfect, the cover letter compelling, and the job requirements a perfect match for her experience. The call comes, the interview is scheduled and completed, and she waits for the offer. Instead, rejection follows. It happens. What is next is completely up to the seeker. Here are three potential reactions.

Assume the fetal position and whine. Alright, maybe not literally, but in every other way. Job seekers take the rejection at the most personal level and retract into their shells, unable or unwilling to see that the opportunity may not have been as perfect as first thought. Or it’s possible that there was some bad chemistry between the candidate and the interviewer. Or there was an equally strong candidate willing to do the job for a lower salary. Or, or, or. No means no, but nothing more than that. Unless Connie Candidate had a total meltdown in the interview or committed some egregious faux pas, the reason for the decision will likely never be known. Move on before the rejection kills confidence.

Get mad. Much like the “Woe is me!” reaction above, this is just another inappropriate emotion for something that is not entirely in the seeker’s control. Anger and the accompanying reactions – denial, obstinacy and bitterness – will not serve the seeker well. The job search is, in part, a numbers game. There may be one job and 10 qualified candidates, or 100. While anger can offer some emotional fuel, too much can lead to irrational and damaging decisions.

Learn from it. This is the best option by far. A detailed self-debriefing can pay huge dividends, especially if it is done immediately after the interview. Thoughts on which to reflect could include the following. Which questions caused me the most grief? Which questions allowed me to give my strongest answers? How could I have told my stories more effectively and concisely? If I could go back and answer one question again, which one would it be and what would I say differently?

Rejection will come to all but the most fortunate job hunters. Prepare yourself for it and give yourself a pep talk on what you will do when it happens. Which will describe you when it happens: quivering mess, ball of rage, or wiser and smarter professional? Your reaction is up to you and one of the only parts of the process that you control.

Easy Interview Tips: A Baker’s Dozen

I recently presented a class to a group of students to help them prepare for job and college interviews. Students are not the only candidates who can benefit from this pointers.

Understand the Company/Organization. Before you go for your interview, do your research. If applying to a college, read about the school and understand its mission and culture. If you are applying for a specific program, understand all you can about it so you can bring prepared, focused questions. If you are applying for a job, research the company online or talk with current employees. Start online with the company’s website.

Prepare the Night Before. Get everything ready so you will not have to be stressed in the morning. Have your clothes, directions, questions, pen and paper, résumé/application and everything else you need ready for the day.

Plan to Arrive Early. Give yourself time to get there, accounting for potential transportation problems. If you have a cell phone, have the contact’s number programmed in the event of a delay. Traffic happens, and a quick phone call will show professionalism and consideration. Of course, it’s a lot better if you just arrive early.

But Not Too Early. Recruiters and admissions officers have busy schedules. Present yourself five to 10 minutes before your appointment. If you are there earlier than that, find a quiet place (lobby, lounge, etc.) to review your notes. Too early could lead to an annoyed interviewer, or thoughts that you got the appointment time wrong.

You Turned off Your Cell Phone, Right? Vibrate is not good enough. Off! Ringtones and interviews don’t mix.

Be Ready to Say, “Hi!” When you present yourself to whomever you were told to meet, be confident and direct. Stand up straight, make eye contact, speak clearly and say, “Hello, my name is Sue Jones and I have a 9AM appointment with Ms. Weaver.” Every impression with every person is important. They will talk about you.

The Handshake Moment. Pretend you have announced yourself to an office receptionist. You may be told to take a seat while you wait a few moments for Ms. Weaver (remember, you arrived five to 10 minutes early). When Ms. Weaver comes out to see you, introduce yourself again (“Good morning, Ms. Weaver. I am Sue Jones.”) and offer a handshake as appropriate.

Starting the Interview. As you are getting settled, offer a clean hardcopy of your résumé/application. Take out your pen and paper to take notes and to have your prepared questions ready.

“Tell me About Yourself.” You will likely hear this from Ms. Weaver. It’s almost guaranteed. Be ready to talk for 30 to 60 seconds about yourself. Key points: your name, your purpose, one to three impressive facts about yourself, and why you are in Ms. Weaver’s office (why you want the job, why you want to be a student). Be concise.

Have Stories Ready. Think about your accomplishments and contributions. Maybe you have been in clubs, study groups, volunteered in the community or have had another job. Think about how you made a difference and tell your stories. It’s OK to brag about yourself. Nobody else is going to tell Ms. Weaver about you.

Have a Few Questions Ready. Most interviews will end with an invitation to ask questions. Have two or three good ones ready that show how you want to contribute. Great job interview question: “What advice would you give me to be successful here?” Take notes as Ms. Weaver gives you the answer.

Get Business Cards/Contact Info. That way you can follow up with a sincere “Thank you!”

Closing. Ask about next steps and what you should expect from Ms. Weaver. “When will I hear from you?” “What are our next steps in the process?” Make eye contact, offer a handshake one more time, thank Ms. Weaver for her time and say good bye.

Question 2: Why Do You Want To Work Here?

Every recruiter will want to know why you have gone to the effort of applying for a position with the organization. It is a natural question and one for which you need solid answers. If you sound uncertain and unconvincing, that could be the end of the road for this job prospect. Be ready with a great answer and you could engage your interviewer in a great discussion and a chance for the prize. The following are some tips to consider as you plan your answer.

  1. Include something about the employer. This is a terrific chance to demonstrate that you have done your research about the company. If you know your stuff, you can help the recruiter appreciate that you want to be there badly enough to have done your homework.
  2. Discuss how your skills will make a difference. This is the next logical step in your answer. After you have talked about the company, talk about how your skills are well suited to the organization and its mission.
  3. If you know somebody on the inside, talk about it. This can also help in that the recruiter will know that you have a better understanding of the company than someone without that relationship. Here are two words of caution about this point, though. Be sure that your insider knows that you will mention her name. Second, think about your insider’s reputation within the company. If you are endorsed by and have a relationship with someone who is not well respected, your candidacy could take a hit.

Here is a simple example of how you could handle this. Watch for points one and two.

“While researching career opportunities, it was important for me to find a position with a company that feels as strongly about great customer service as I do. I reviewed national service rankings and narrowed my target list down to just a few companies, including this one. I want my next position to be with a company that will best benefit from my superior customer service skills and where I can have the opportunity to demonstrate that skill every day.”

With an answer like this, you have shown an awareness of the company, your critical thinking skills about your job search process, and an understanding about how your skills match the organization’s priorities and culture. You could do a lot worse than this in answering this interview question in just a few sentences.

Question 1: Tell Me About Yourself

Question 3: Tell Me About Your Greatest Accomplishment

Question 4: When Have You Failed?

What If There’s Just One Question?

Question 1: Tell Me About Yourself

Welcome to the first in a new series addressing common interview questions and how you can prepare. If you have ever been stumped by a question, please share it in the comments and we can discuss it.

“Tell me about yourself.” This is the most common way that many interviewers begin, allowing the two of you to get comfortable with each other and to see what you have to say about yourself in an unstructured format. There may be variations, with the interviewer asking for something specific in the introduction, but you should never be challenged by this one.

Your answer should be one-half elevator speech and one-half “why I will be a great employee.” It is your opportunity to say what you want about yourself while also helping the interviewer know from the beginning why you are sitting in her chair and taking her time. If you combine those two elements, you will be off to a good start.

Here is an answer that uses the 50/50 formula: “My name is Jane Smith, and I am a career banker with a history of delivering top customer service scores and strong business results since I started in my career at Bank of America after completing my MBA at the University of Rhode Island. I hope that we can talk about how I can become a leader and important part of the team at Wells Fargo as you consider me for this new role.”

An answer like this is concise, clear and delivers on both parts of the formula. It tells why you are great and why you are interested in this job.

You will get this question, or one like it, so be ready. If you are interviewing over the phone, write it down and read it if you have to. If it is a live interview, practice giving your answer, asking a friend to critique your performance. Your first answer and first impressions will set the tone for the whole interview session, so don’t blow it – especially when you know it’s coming.

Question 2: Why Do You Want to Work Here?

Question 3: Tell Me About Your Greatest Accomplishment

Question 4: When Have You Failed?

What If There’s Just One Question?

This Isn’t a Legal Trial

Last night I ran a seminar called Optimizing Your Résumé for a New Year’s Job Search at the Edith Wheeler Memorial Library in Monroe, CT. The event was well attended and we covered a lot of ground in 90 minutes. There was one idea that several people had that is worth a blog post: “How do I prove my claims?”

The concern from a few people was that they were not comfortable making claims about their performance because there was no record of it having happened. In many cases the employers where the great work was done are no longer in business. The people who could confirm the claims are now difficult to contact. The performance data may be a distant memory with little more than recollection to support it. These are all valid concerns, but not a deal breaker.

It’s important to keep in mind the venue for these claims and how they will be used. If a job seeker states that as a Sales Manager she, “grew sales by 27% over 33 months and opened two new markets,” there may or may not be documentation to support the claim. If she does not have documentation, should she not include it in the résumé? Of course not! It has to be there.

Think about it this way: If a résumé were to only to contain claims that were supported by indisputable evidence, it would be a very short document. Are there things on your résumé that you don’t have evidence to support? Probably. Should you delete that information? No!

Your résumé is a marketing document. The standards are simple. Is it the truth? If yes, go for it. Can you discuss and defend it in a convincing and credible way in an interview? If yes, you’re all set!

Interviewers are looking for cultural fit and evidence of professionalism and potential. They are looking for transferable skills. If the sales increase performance from above leads to a discussion of how the candidate got the results – through market research, powerful leadership, cold calling, tenacious follow up, and other tactics – the interviewer will learn what she needs. The point is not the exact precision of performance claims, but evidence of the talent you bring to the new gig.

Remember that the standard of proof is not beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s just this: Give some stories that are credible and true that will lead to an in-depth discussion of your transferable talent and how you can help your next employer. Don’t worry that you past company got vaporized in 2008. Sell yourself!

BTW – Be sure to get your copy of 25 Résumé Tune-Up Tips, a brand new eBooklet ready for free download.