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Failure could be the key to your success

By Geoff Sims, Regional Managing Director of Hays East of England

We often find it hard to take a positive stance after failing as it’s so often a negative word that raises our anxiety levels. However, the most respected leaders around the world often talk about how failures teach you more than successes, and it’s a healthy move to try and apply this thinking to your job search.

Failure is an unavoidable part of working life, and even the toughest interviewer will know that. Whilst you’ll want to focus on the times you have achieved success (and how you managed it) the interviewer will be equally keen to see how you approach failure. Essentially it’s a case of working out whether you step back from it all and can turn mistakes into lessons, or prefer to sweep things under the carpet and move on swiftly.

It’s a simple difference, but hiring managers will always look for evidence of the former. Mistakes are inevitable, but the ability to identify how and where you went wrong is a valuable attribute.

So, whilst you don’t want to be the one bringing it up, failure is highly likely to surface as a subject at interview. As such, you need to be prepared to answer that dreaded question; “Tell me about a time you failed” in a way that shows your qualities.

Pick your example ahead of time

This is a bit of a balancing act. You don’t want to pick a thin example for your story that doesn’t really count, because you’ll come across as dodging the question. Rest assured, the interviewer will see straight through this. At the same time, avoid using a huge example where the issue led to too much time or money being wasted.

Play the middle by thinking of a genuine example where you made an oversight or error in judgement. Ideally you want something that caused a ripple as opposed to a tidal wave! This could be something like missing a deadline, failure to close a deal, or not hitting one of your KPIs for the month or year. Once you have your anecdote ready, practice telling your story ahead of the interview and remember the advice the follows.

1. Explain how it happened

When telling your story, make sure you’re comfortable and clear in articulating exactly where you went wrong. Try to recall the situation as it happened, taking care to pinpoint the obstacles which hindered your success. This demonstrates that you know the root cause of the problem, and will be able to prevent it from happening again. Having said that, your reasons can’t sound like excuses or it’ll look like you can’t take ownership.

2. Give the reasons why it happened

Try not to attribute your failure to things beyond your control. For example, market fluctuations or a shortage of staff might feel like ‘reasons’ to you, but often come across as ‘excuses’ to someone else. What’s important here is how you identify what was within your control, and take ownership and responsibility for the times that you didn’t manage that. Anything less will present you as defensive and unaccountable to your interviewer.

3. Don’t blame others

Closely linked but not the same thing, you need to ensure you don’t blame other people as you convey your story. This is genuinely one of the worst things you can do at interview, as no manager wants an employee who’s always looking to shift the blame. Aside from a lack of integrity, this also comes across as a threat to the team dynamic, morale and overall productivity. Talk about what part you played and what you could have done (in hindsight) to prevent it from happening. This shows the required degree of self-awareness that all managers respect.

4. Don’t be too hard on yourself

The other side of that coin is making sure you don’t go completely overboard and beat yourself up! As you tell the story, be careful not to insult yourself or make any sweeping generalisations about your character or attributes. Stick to the facts and tell it objectively. This will show that you can take these situations on the chin, rather than being overly sensitive.

Make sure you show that you learned from it

Henry Ford famously once said that “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” With that in mind, be sure to finish up your example with an outline of what you learned and how you have since applied this to your working life.

Mistakes and disappointments are inevitable in your career, but there’s no need to fear the subject at interview. Just be sure to choose your story wisely, and tell it in a way which depicts you as an accountable, self-aware candidate. This will present you as someone who strives to learn from your mistakes and prioritises lessons and improvement in their work life.

For more information or to discuss your employment needs, please contact your local consultant.

About this author

Geoff Sims has over 30 years’ experience in the recruitment industry and is currently the Managing Director for Hays in the East of England. After seven years working as an accountant in places such as Unilever Geoff made the move into recruitment.

As well as being instrumental in the success of Hays’ UK business, during his career with Hays Geoff also established the Hays business in Sweden and was actively involved in early ventures in the Netherlands that led to the acquisition and growth of the business there.

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