Steve John – JD, ACC
Why the most successful applicants tell the stories of their mistakes, and how you can avoid sounding scared and defensive when asked to describe the low points in your career.
You get the call. An attractive professional opportunity has presented itself, and you’re invited to interview. Congratulations!
You’ve been here before, maybe often, or perhaps it’s been a while since you had to sell yourself in the market. Whatever your interview experience, you will probably feel anxious about the performative demands of the exercise. And if you’re recovering from a recent professional stumble, you’re likely going to carry additional insecurity with you into the interview.
We all stumble. Often more than once. It’s an important part of the human experience. And the more ambitious we are, the more likely it is that we will hit a big bump at some point along the way. That’s a good thing. In fact, it is axiomatic in business — and in life — that we learn far more from our failures than we do from our successes.
As you prepare to tell the story of your career, consider the hiccups. Rest assured, your interviewer will probe for insight to get as clear a picture of your track record as possible. You owe it to yourself and your potential future employer to be prepared for the hard questions.
So, you get the big question. You knew it was coming. Now what?
Remember: nobody dies of embarrassment or shame. It may sound obvious in the era of mindfulness, but the most important thing you can do to help yourself in the moment is to take a deep breath. Then another. Controlled deep breathing, even when brief, slows your heart rate, calms your nerves, and alleviates anxiety.
The person sitting across from you knows when your story is going off the rails. When they sense it, you’re in trouble. So, take a beat. Let the emotions roll on by, then focus. If there is only one thing you do to control your emotions during the interview, it is this: breathe!
“… take a moment before reacting, and you will find it easier to maintain control.”
— Epictetus, The Art of Living
With all the courage you can muster, put a smile on your face. Not only does smiling have a positive effect on your physical sense of wellbeing, but a smile will also inspire your interviewer to engage.
Better still, if you’re able, use self-deprecating humor to show your humility and your humanity. No matter how awful the story of failure, if your demeanor signals that you have graciously processed the experience, that you have reflected on it and have come through with your ego intact, the interviewer will smile with you. Everyone likes a good story of trial, error, and recovery. It’s the most human story.
“I have many problems in my life. But my lips don’t know that. They always smile.”
— Charlie Chaplin
And by that, I mean, be brutally honest. If you really screwed up, and there’s really no way around it, say so. Terminations are discoverable: through the rumor mill, or worse, through a careful web search. If your flameout was at all visible to people inside your organization, those people will gossip about it. And if your failures received a public airing, you’ll never be able to run from it. So, run at it!
If you get really candid and own up to the stumble you’re describing, your interviewer will respect your honesty, no matter the consequences. As my father says, it’s far better to be respected than liked.
While I’ve heard some good, if difficult, stories of failure, I’ve never had a client reject a candidate for answering the failure question honestly. On the contrary, they are nearly universally relieved by a good, honest story of a low point overcome.
“Honest people don’t hide their deeds.”
— Emily Bronte
You don’t get to own your failures on the one hand, then make excuses for them on the other. Accountability doesn’t work that way. As you recount the mistakes, the stumbles, the missed cues, and the squandered opportunities that are important components of any career, do so with sincere introspection and accountability. Honest, no-excuse accounts of the difficult learning moments in our lives draw your interviewer in, elevating both of you in the end.
“Real genius is nothing else but the supernatural virtue of humility in the domain of thought.”
— Simone Weil
As a rule, any response to a behavioral interview question should draw on specific examples of your experiences. Stories that are thin on detail sound insincere and contrived. If your interviewer comes to the end of your story and thinks: ‘Huh, I have no idea what this person is actually talking about,” you’ve failed. Sure, it requires some discretion as you navigate the minutia while telling your story. Share too much detail, and your answer will be longer than necessary. But if you don’t offer enough detail for the answer to be clear to a stranger, you’ve missed a golden opportunity to tell your story on your terms, and you’ve wasted precious interview time.
“The more specific we are, the more universal something can become. Life is in the details. If you generalize, it doesn’t resonate. The specificity of it is what resonates.”
— Jacqueline Woodson
Tell your story, not someone else’s. There are moments in the interview where you’ll get to talk about your relationships with colleagues and clients. This isn’t that moment, except in so far as the failure was relational. If you want to tell the story of a difficult relationship, you get to tell your story, not the other person’s. You’ll have other opportunities during your interview to describe the ways you’ve navigated professional relationships. This question is about YOUR recovery from a personal or professional stumble.
“Be discreet in all things, and so render it unnecessary to be mysterious.”
— Duke of Wellington
You stumbled. Who hasn’t? As you tell your story, focus on the lessons you learned about yourself as you acknowledged and recovered from your mistakes. If you are authentic in your description of your personal evolution, your interviewer will remember the positives. They’ll also be inspired by your courage and humility.
“A second chance doesn’t mean anything if you never learned the lessons of your first mistake. So if you’re lucky enough to be given one, make it count.”
— GK Dutta
Vulnerability is good in small doses. You’ll get a moment to reflect, and your interviewer will appreciate the trust it represents. But opening yourself up to strangers this way is hard no matter how well you’ve recovered. Get to the point quickly so that you and your interviewer can move on to less personally painful questions.
“Brevity is the best recommendation of speech, whether in a senator or an orator.”
Your stumbles do not define you any more than the individual successes in your career. You lived this thing that you’re sharing. You learned the lessons. You grew from the experience. No interviewer can take that away from you. Own it. It’s all yours!
“With confidence, you have won before you have started.”
— Marcus Garvey
If you know that you tend to fall apart when asked about your mistakes, practice telling the stories to someone you trust emotionally. Sort it out in advance by talking through it aloud with an empathetic friend or colleague. This warm-up exercise will give you the safe space you need to work out the language of your answers. The practice will be even better if you invite your sounding board to give feedback.
“I think that whenever you feel reactive or are being reactive as opposed to proactive, that inherently – consciously or subconsciously – creates a lot of stress.”
— Tim Ferriss
My advice to candidates who worry about tough questions is simple: expect them, embrace them, pause before you answer, then jump right in. It will be over before you know it. So, give yourself a break. Remember: you got the call because of all the good things you’ve done in your career. So be proud of those hard lessons learned.
Finally, your interviewer doesn’t have high expectations of the answers they’re going to get from the hard questions because so many of the people they meet respond in one of two ways: they dismissively bluster through an absurdly insincere, totally made-up non-response, or they become defensive and flustered, burying the truth in vagaries. By being completely honest about your mistakes, you set yourself apart from the crowd, establish trust with your potential new colleagues, and position yourself ahead of the competition.
You got this!