Patching Your Tires: Speaking to Mistakes Along Your Career Path

December 2019

There are many things to prepare before heading into an in-person interview. You want to make sure you have enough time to speak to your qualifications and how your experience makes you a great fit for the new role. You want to be well-dressed, caffeinated, and ten minutes early. Recruiters expect these things to be universal among top candidates that are presented to hiring managers. Intuitive candidates can research anticipated questions based on the job description. But every interview has at least one question that catches even the most prepared candidates off-guard.

The in-person interview is designed for assessing the human factor of hiring, as well as the technical. Hiring teams can get an understanding of how a candidate thinks, speaks, and reacts to certain situations and lines of questioning. While there are some questions that are meant to cause candidates to think, there is one area of preparation that is often overlooked. Candidates are always prepared to speak to their positive qualities (leadership, team building, customer service, etc.). They are often prepared to a fault if this is their singular focus in telling the story of their career. That is why candidates must be prepared to present themselves as a complete being, including their negative traits and experiences that complement their positive characteristics and accomplishments.

Nearly every interview I have been a part of has at least one question dedicated towards recounting a negative trait, a challenging situation, or an incorrect decision. Candidates often stumble through this question while rushing through their past to find something (sometimes made up on the spot) to fill the silence. It makes sense that candidates are not ready for these questions because it is human nature to ignore and forget the negative and turn it into a negligible part of the past. One recent question that was asked in an interview was worded: Tell us about a good decision you have made, and then a recent decision that wasn’t good. What would you do differently in making those decisions? While candidates had the good decision example on-hand, they struggled to describe a bad decision. They were not prepared.

The best advice for preparing for these questions is to learn to accept past failures. Not every negative experience has a rosy outcome or needs to come full circle. Sometimes bad experiences and decisions are just that. And that is the human aspect of the interview process; learning from mistakes and being able to articulate what you have learned. Prepare to speak about stumbles from mistakes and how you will prevent those errors from occurring again. Talk about the concrete actions you should have taken back then and how you’ve incorporated those corrections into your career. It also helps to remember that everyone you speak with during the hiring process has also failed. Prepare yourself to fail upwards.

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Koff & Associates