Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My Greatest Failure

I have been conducting a number of job interviews lately for senior leaders in my organization. One of the questions I use frequently is, "What is your greatest failure, and why?" I am interested in seeing how candidates think by identifying where they came up short, and what they learned from it. I'm looking for risk takers and people who understand that failure is so often an opportunity to learn and grow.

What I have been hearing far too frequently is something like this: "Wow...I didn't see that coming. I don't know that I've ever really failed at anything. I'm not sure how I'd answer that."

I have a big problem with this answer. Are they suggesting that they've never taken on a major challenge with significant risk? Do they think that they have performed as well as they can...every time, that there is not another level of performance. Do they really think that they can do no better? Are they not committed to constant improvement and continuous learning? Have they never put themselves in difficult positions or taken on big projects, some of which inevitably come up short?

I'd have no problem answering this problem. I've made plenty of mistakes. I've failed more often than I likely would have time to address were I asked this question. I'm not perfect. Ask my bosses, my subordinates, my family! I've had plenty of opportunities to learn from my shortcomings.

I've hired someone that I later regretted. I failed to keep superiors informed of looming problems -- that they later learned of from someone else. I failed to recognize excellence in my subordinates when they did well. I did not anticipate problems. I did not complete a mission on time, on budget, or with the quality that was expected of me. I have aimed high...and landed low!

Shall I go on? I have failed plenty. But I believe that each of these was an opportunity to learn. I'm better now because of these personal and professional setbacks. I have increased my leadership muscle density through multiple repetitions of trial and error. And now...I'm bigger, stronger, faster than I might have been had I never failed!

So how would you answer this question? If you think you've never failed, are you taking on big enough challenges? And if you are, either personally or as an organization, are you taking the time to learn (see After Action Reviews -- AARs), to identify how you can take your performance to the next level? Are you lifting heavy enough weights to take your leadership to the point of failure?

No leader should struggle identifying where they have came up short. It is clear that whether personally or professionally, failure is the seed of future greatness. That makes it Leader Business.


Steve Harper said...

Excellent post my friend. I am going to be forwarding this one I can assure you.

Failure is a reminder that I am in fact human. Can you tell I get to feel human a lot? :-)

Ripple On my Hooah Brother!


Tom Magness said...

Steve -- In that're hired! I'm looking for people that "feel human...a lot!"

But knowing you Ripple Man, you "failed" only because you were going after the high fruit...not the low ones! So with a nod to my Air Force brothers...Keep aiming high, my friend! Hooah!

runner7 said...

Interesting timing for your topic. I've been thinking a lot recently about a failure of mine from years ago. I seem to keep learning new things from it as I get a little bit older and wiser. I just wish there was a way to learn those lessons faster.

runner7 said...

Interesting timing for your topic. I've been thinking a lot recently about a failure of mine from years ago. I seem to keep learning new things from it as I get a little bit older and wiser. I just wish there was a way to learn those lessons faster.

Mitch said...

I'm going to take a different tact on this one. I think there are questions interviewers sometimes ask people that are set up questions.

For instance, I'm someone who hates the "where do you see yourself in ____ years" question because you're basically encouraging someone to lie to you. It's like trying to answer your wife's question when she asks you if something she's wearing makes her look fat.

Sure, everyone has had failures. But would I dare tell anyone my biggest failure in life? No way, because it's no one's business. Would I tell my biggest failure in business? No, because I wouldn't want you using it against me if it somehow violated some goofy principle you had (such as Khloe Kardashin being fired by Donald Trump because she had a DUI months before he brought her on his show).

Anyway, that's kind of how I see it; I never want to invite anyone to try to pander to me in that fashion. But I do tend to see things differently at times. :-)

Tom Magness said...

Good stuff, Mitch. I guess what I am getting at focuses less on how you failed and more on what you have learned from it. I have gotten some great answers on this question in recent interviews (that demonstrated the ability to take risks and learn from shortcomings) and still believe that those who can't answer this question just are not trying! I see what you are saying an employer...I need to hear this one answered! Thanks for your comments. Different or now, you always add value to this site! Hooah!

Mitch said...

Thanks Tom. I am a former employer myself, or at least as a director I hired, and therefore had to interview people. But the skill level I was hiring for wasn't all that high, which may be why my beliefs are somewhat skewed. However, I think my greatest failure would be in not knowing how to answer such a question.

Good thing I work for myself!

Tom Magness said...

Mitch -- that is hilarious! My guess is you would have no problem answering this question. You sound like a risk taker. Most self-employed / entrepreneurs are! I am sure there have been stumbles along the way that have made you who you are today! Keep up the good fight, my friend! TM

Maria Payroll said...

Interesting post. And that is a very good question to ask. It may be embarrassing to share a mistake you've made, but it is okay for you to share it, especially if you've done something great to correct that mistake. It's always better to share experiences, because people learn from it and they would know that they should not make the same mistake. Asking this question to your applicants would give you an idea about who they are and how they work.