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How To Answer What Is Your Biggest Mistake?

Career coach Caroline Ceniza-Levine reveals how to answer tough interview questions like “what is your biggest weakness?”

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Career coach Caroline Ceniza-Levine reveals how to answer tough interview questions about your mistakes and weaknesses.

Most job interviews include at least one tough interview question: What is your biggest weakness? What was your least favorite job? What is the biggest mistake you made? The interviewer is probing for vulnerabilities that might hinder your ability to do the job. At the same time, the interviewer is looking for improvement – everyone comes with deficiencies; are you self-aware enough to acknowledge yours and coachable enough to improve them? As with all job interview questions, the objective is to assess whether to hire you. Prepare your mistake or failure story in advance of your next job interview using this two-step process:

Pick the right story. As an experienced professional, you have multiple stories to choose from – hopefully not too many mistakes, but certainly more than one. If you don’t pick a mistake in advance, you will default to the one that you remember – an emotional story, perhaps something that is still raw and unfinished. This isn’t a good choice because you don’t want to get rattled during the interview. More important, you don’t want an unfinished story because you need a clear mistake with a clear resolution. What did you learn? How did you turn the situation around? Also, you must have the right role in the story. When I was a recruiter, a candidate who was a project manager told me about a client that cancelled a project but eventually began working with his firm again. Yes, this is an example of a project gone bad and then turned around, but there was no direct involvement by this candidate or specific lesson learned, so it wasn't a good example to use.

Share the right facts. Remember that the value of the story isn’t in the mistake, but in your ability to share vulnerability and demonstrate improvement. Therefore, as you relay the story, focus on these aspects – clear mistake, clear resolution. Don’t drone on and on with elaborate background. Don’t enumerate every step of the project. Share just enough to give appropriate context for the situation. Be specific in sharing your mistake and how you resolved it. Answer the question concisely and move quickly back to the rest of the interview.

I once coached a job seeker whose mistake story revolved around inventory reporting. Her mistake was falling behind during her inventory audits. Her resolution entailed figuring out why certain departments gave late and incomplete responses and refining her survey tactics around people’s concerns. It was a great story that showed good problem-solving, communication skills, and flexibility on her part. But before we could get to the mistake and resolution, this job seeker gave me an in-depth tour of inventory management! Had I been a recruiter, I would have been turned off by the minutiae and stopped listening. Because I was her coach, I listened long enough to tease out the mistake and the lesson, and help her cut the other 80% of her story.

You will be asked about past mistakes and failures -- things that didn’t work and how you managed crisis situations. You need stories to share that reveal tough situations, outright mistakes and the lessons learned. Do not leave this to chance: Pick your story in advance. Practice your delivery till your story is concise and clear for this tough interview question. Don’t let your interview mistake story become your latest mistake!

Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career expert with SixFigureStart®. She is a former recruiter in management consulting, financial services, media, technology, and pharma/ biotech.

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