How to Succeed While Talking About Failure

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How Not to Follow Up After a Job Interview

A rogues' gallery of infamously inappropriate follow-ups.

My husband loves the episode of "The Simpsons" where Mr. Burns tells Smithers to bring in some strike breakers, "The kind they had in the '30s." Then in comes Grandpa Simpson and his old cronies, with Grandpa explaining that they don't bust heads like they used to, "But we still have our ways." Now they just tell looooong, pointless stories.


The mention of "looooong, pointless stories" has become a family joke for us, since my husband has quite the proclivity for storytelling. When friends were organizing a party for him with his former co-workers in Arizona, they put out a flier with a caricature of him saying, "I remember the time we took a load of farm animals to the drive-in in Farmington ..." That wasn't far off the mark.


That all came to mind the other day when I interviewed Lyla Perrodin, VP and CIO for Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City. She said she tends to leave technical interviewing to her managers, but likes to do behavioral interviewing herself. She recommended taking some ideas from the book "Topgrading," about behavoral interviewing. She said:

One of the questions I always ask is, 'What's the biggest failure you've been associated with?' It's hard enough to get anyone to talk about their weaknesses, but getting someone to be honest and to think about their failures? When you ask them to talk about a project that was a failure, you can really get some insight into how honest are they, how thoughtful are they.

I'm showing my ignorance here, but I had to look up the term "behavioral interviewing." I'm new to this careers beat. And what did I find? It's storytelling. I've encountered that in interviews, I just didn't know the term for it. This Palladin Career Resources page is a gold mine of questions you might be asked, such as:


  • Tell me about a time when you took over an under-performing team.
  • Tell me about a time when you adopted new technology.
  • Tell me about a time when you led a project that fell behind schedule.
  • Tell me about a time when you changed a process.


Storytelling is truly an art-and a potential land mine if you tend to ramble. Remember, you're not trying to bust heads here. Probably worse than rambling, though, would be to go blank. Saying, "I can't think of one," would be just too lame. So looking through some of these questions and rehearsing your stories certainly will pay off. Ask friends and family to candidly tell you whether your stories are too long, don't provide enough detail or that you nail them.


And heed a point made by Matthew Rothenberg, editor-in-chief of the job site The Ladders, when I interviewed him last summer: Know your audience. Tech pros tend to use tech talk. An HR person or someone in a non-technical role likely won't be able to follow that, so try to match the level of technical detail to the interviewer's level of knowledge.


Just like that wretched question, "Tell me about your weaknesses," by getting you to talk about difficult situations or even failure, the interviewer wants to know that you've thought it through and made some effort to learn from it. Palladin actually provides a structure for talking about failure:


  • Situation-provide background on the example.
  • Actions-what did you do in this situation?
  • Results-review the outcome and admit the failure.
  • Growth-discuss what you learned from the experience.
  • Adjustments-explain what you would do differently.
  • Success-give an example of a recent success in a recent similar situation.