Career Diversity

Real talk about diversity and careers: The things you want to talk about at work but can't...and probably shouldn't.

By: GottaMentor.com





QUESTION

Can you give me an example of a time when you failed?

Weak Answer
During my internship last summer, my manager asked me to analyze the attractiveness of launching a new sales channel for our product line that would complement our existing sales efforts, and then present it to the functional heads of our group. I gathered all the data I could internally and externally as quickly as I could to meet an aggressive timeline my manager gave me. I did a thorough analysis of the profitability of our current sales channels and the potential incremental revenues, costs and implementation issues associated with the new venture. When I presented what was a really rigorous analysis and set of recommendations, the sales director (who was not my manager) challenged every assumption I made, hammered me for not understanding the people issues well enough, and turned what should have been a big win for me into an unexpected setback. I kept hoping that my manager would come to my defense in the meeting, especially after she gave me such a short timeframe to finish the work, but she never did.

Strong Answer

During my internship last summer, my manager asked me to analyze the attractiveness of launching a new sales channel for our product line that would complement our existing sales efforts, and then present it to the functional heads of our group. I gathered all the data I could internally and externally as quickly as I could to meet an aggressive timeline my manager game me. I did a thorough analysis of the profitability of our current sales channels and the potential incremental revenues, costs and implementation issues associated with the new venture. When I presented what was a really rigorous analysis and set of recommendations, the sales director (who was not my manager) challenged every assumption I made, hammered me for not understanding the people issues well enough, and turned what should have been a big win for me into an unexpected setback.
I should have foreseen that presenting data showing that the sales director could be managing his existing channels more profitably could create problems that even my boss might not be able to solve during the meeting. I should have found the time to pre-wire the sales director and position my recommendations in a way that would have gotten his support in the meeting. I learned that no matter how sound your analysis may be, what is often as important are the qualitative people issues that are critical to getting support for your recommendations.

Commentary
There are four keys to answering questions about failures, setbacks or weaknesses:

1. Provide legitimate examples of failures, rather than veiled attempts at communicating how good you are (e.g. The classic “I am a perfectionist” answer to the question “what are your weaknesses?”) The examples you use should clearly communicate that you did something that contributed directly to the failure and were accountable for it, rather than leave doubt as to whose fault it was.

2. Communicate what you learned from the situation and how you will handle it differently going forward

3. Communicate why it is relevant - how learning that lesson has made you a better person/ professional.

4. Include just the right level of detail about the example so the audience understands the situation clearly but does not get distracted by too many details. Do not waste time sharing all the details about what happened, as what really matters is what you learned from it.

The weak answer describes the situation, action you took and result. However, it is leaves the audience unclear as to whether the failure was yours or largely your manager’s. Most important, the weak answer does not address what you should have done, what you learned and how this experience will make you more effective going forward.


2 comments

  1. Anonymous  

    I really enjoyed this lesson. I definitely saw a substantial difference in the two responses. I now feel prepared to answer an interview question about a situation that involved failure. I believe the key point that set the two answers a part was the statement of the lesson learned. Immediately after reading the first response you could tell that that person didn’t focus on how that situation shaped him into a better person/professional. He simply concentrated on the negative outcome of the situation, which I believe caused him to miss out on the underlying point the question was intended to tackle.

  2. Joel T  

    Great example! Also very pertinent to MBA application essays (i.e HBS "Mistake" question).

    Thank you,

    Joel

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