Ah yes, failure. A topic ripe with emotion and implications, it has become an area of focus, study and reflection in recent years. This is due in large part to the rise of growth mindset thinking, Lean practices and the overall cloud of uncertainty that hangs over the seemingly ever-changing business landscape. It would only follow that the topic of failure would come up in a job interview. Specifically, people want to know about a time where you failed in your professional or personal life.

Although probably the last thing you’d want to bring up in an interview where you’re trying to sell yourself on how awesome you’d be for the job, the failure question does serve a valuable purpose. But how do you gracefully answer this question without shooting your chances of being hired in the foot?

Start with the Why

As with every interview question the answer to, “Tell me about a time you failed?” reveals several very important things – things that you should convey to the interviewer. The first of which, is Have you ever failed anything in your life? I know it’s hard to believe with everyone’s curated social media personas, but we have all crashed and burned at some point. No, this isn’t “I got a C in my Thermodynamics course one time.” This is a time where you screwed the pooch. If you don’t have a great answer to this question, the hiring manager may question whether or not you can handle failure or if you’ve ever challenged yourself.

Furthermore, it benefits you to describe the actions you took that led to the failure in as much detail as possible. This way your interviewer gets a good sense of what role you played. Remember, this is your failure, not the team’s. The scenario you discuss should not have a happy ending. If your response ends with, “but in the end we were actually able to accomplish our goal” or something to that effect, you’ve answered the wrong question.

The second implied question the interviewer wants answered is, How do you respond to failure? Do you learn from it? Do you get down on yourself?

This is the most important part of your answer.

They key to nailing this question and differentiating yourself from the herd is to concisely explain: a) what you learned from your actions; b) how you’ve improved and c) what you would do next time you were put into the same situation. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve coached, have glossed over this vital component of this answer. Without this section, all your interviewer knows is that you’ve royally messed up something in your life and now they have some juicy details about it.

Clearly, this does you no good if you don’t follow up with the three points above. This is the opportunity where you’re able to demonstrate your value-add from the rest of the candidates. Go through the 3 points above in methodical detail to show that your thought process is repeatable for when (not if) another failure occurs.

Failure in the Military and How You Can Apply Your Knowledge

After every military operation, large and small, you can count on conducting an AAR (After Action Review) when it’s over. Whether or not the mission succeeded, you’re sure to go over what went wrong and what can be improved for next time. This is how I would recommend tackling the task of searching for meaning in a failure that you have had in your career.

There are countless AAR formats and templates out there. But applying even a simple format to your failure analysis will show the interviewer that you can think in a critical and structured manner about failure in general. This is a tremendously valuable skill to an organization and one you can easily demonstrate in your response. Furthermore, this type of thinking can help you in your job performance when negative feedback is not always clear. You’ll be able to assess failures that occur in your company and be able to draw lessons learned and action items out of them. This is a skill any company would be glad to have.

Embrace your failures. Learn from them, and Charlie Mike.

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