This is one of those tricky interview questions that can strike fear in the heart of even the best job seekers.
The key is understanding what you’re really being asked and have some strong answers prepared ahead of time. Like “What is your greatest weakness?” this question is intended to assess your self-awareness and test your problem-solving skills and resilience. Here, potential employers want to know how you manage adversity, whether you recognize and take responsibility, and your ability learn and improve.
It’s a behavioral interview question. To answer it, use the STAR technique: Briefly outline the Situation, your Task, the Actions you took, and focus on the final Result, highlighting how you grew professionally from the situation.
Don’t say you haven’t failed. Everyone fails, and insisting otherwise makes you appear oblivious, disingenuous, or risk averse.
Choose an incident
Reflect on your career to identify an appropriate situation to discuss. It should be true (because interviewers often can see through an insincere response), specific, and tailored to highlight qualities relevant to the position you seek. It should be significant enough that there were consequences, but nothing catastrophic, illegal, or immoral. Choose a one-time mistake that occurred in the relatively distant past. Examples might be an instance of not meeting others’ expectations, missing a (not too consequential) deadline, failing to delegate, or taking on too much or over-promising.
A good example for a lateral law firm partner candidate might be when, as a newly minted partner, you fell short of your business development goal. In an interview, you can explain that you bounced back by asking several of the prospective clients to describe why they chose not to go with you. Then, you can detail how you used their feedback to inform your new marketing strategy which has made you the successful rainmaker you are today.
Interviewers really aren’t interested in the particular situation you narrate, though everyone enjoys a good story. Rather, what matters is your attitude — whether you can recognize and admit making a mistake, take responsibility, get over your failure, consider it a learning experience, and act on it in a positive manner.
Emphasize the positives
Your entire answer should take less than two minutes. Briefly describe the circumstances, what happened, and why you consider it a failure. Take full responsibility, not making excuses or blaming others even if you were acting as part of a team. Quickly quantify the details, which gives the interviewer context and makes your answer feel more real, but don’t ramble.
Spend most of your time discussing the specific steps you took immediately afterwards to remedy matters (did you also apologize, if appropriate?) and what you learned as a result. Explain how you analyzed the incident and determined why you failed, and which few things you identified that you could have done better. Most importantly, describe how you incorporated those lessons moving forward and how it has improved your performance today, thereby making you a stronger candidate for the job.
Have several examples prepared so you can choose a story that best fits the interview situation and the particular question as it is asked. Practice until you’re comfortable with the question and your answer, but not to the point that it sounds stilted or memorized. You want to be able to respond without fear and, in fact, welcome the question as an opportunity to highlight your resilience.
Failure is part of life and can be a learning experience. There’s no progress without it. Done right, your answer to the question, “Tell me about a time you failed,” should make the failure look like a blessing in disguise.