Tell me about a time you failed.
One of the toughest questions that you will encounter in a behavioural interview is about failure. The question gives interviewer a fantastic insight into the individual's approach, mindset, behaviour, reaction towards failure. An interviewer also wants to understand whether an individual is willing to admit mistakes and learn from them. Given these facets, this is one pf the favourite question of the interviewers. Let’s delve into these aspects.
Before we dive into the nuances of answering this question, we need to understand why the interviewer wants to ask this question. In corporate life, failure is inevitable. There is hardly anyone who would not have failed atleast once in a project, task etc. Many projects inevitably end into failures. Interviewers are looking for candidates who can take failure in their slide, pivot or even learn from them.
“ Toughest question ”
Here are some of the Do’s and don’ts to be followed while answering this question
Focus on learning: It is important to focus what you learnt from your mistake. So, focus on the key lessons from a failure and show how applied you this learning in another scenario. It is understandable to fail but it is more important to learn from mistakes and apply these in a new situation. Once bitten, twice shy!
Acceptable stories: Focus on a skill gap, functional inefficiency or learning from experience. Also, address the means adopted to address the skill gap.
Adopt a STAR- Situation, Task, Action and Result framework: Refer article on STAR framework to have a coherent framework to answer this question.
Do not try to mask your success story as a narrative for failure: Some candidates try to showcase one of their success stories as a failure. A failure is when you have fallen flat on your face, defeated comprehensively and left with nothing much to salvage. Candidates who refuse to admit failures are perceived negatively. These candidates in their corporate life don’t accept failures, play blame game or try to cover up. No one wants to have such candidates in their team. Adept interviewers may even try to lure you into the trap of shifting the blame to someone else. Please don’t fall for it!
I have never failed! Please do not say that you never failed in any pursuit. We all experience failures in our life. Saying that you have never failed implies that you have not retrospected enough on your experiences and reflects badly on your preparation or indicates you do not want to admit your mistakes.
Avoid non-negotiables: Avoid mistakes around the areas of legal issues, ethics and integrity.
Example of an answer to failure question
There was an incident in which I attributed the failure of a JV to myself, as I was unable to factor in the external variables that were instrumental in determining the viability of the venture. Through my research, I observed that the growth of the online game industry in India was more than 20% and if our JV could secure 10% market share over the next 7 years, then we would be growing at 30% and recommended that we continue the business despite initial setbacks. However, I had failed to understand the ground realities and was only focused on facts and figures.
Ninja was the technology partner in this venture, while Funskool had the role of strengthening the existing distribution/client network to tap the market; and I had not factored in on the latter’s capacity to leverage the customer/distributor base. Additionally, I did not have a contingency or remedial plan that could have helped us overcome the inability of the Funskool Management, as they were mainly into the children business and did not have strong connections in the online game business.
After hearing me out, the Global Business Director stated that it was not feasible to change the current business operations and he decided to fold up the joint venture but this incident also questioned my capabilities and business acumen. I realized my weakness in decision making at top management level.
However, this failure was not completely futile as it instilled valuable learning for me and since then, I have always prepared business plans in conjunction with the business realities. In fact, I applied my learning later when I came across an issue of piled up intercompany creditors. I segmented the overdue based on the reasons for non-payment, and one of the primary reasons was the non-payment of goods purchased on high sea sales. I worked with supply chain to clear these dues and also had detailed discussions with business, supply chain and customer service representative to identify the reasons underlying the failure. I put a new process in place with timelines for providing the documents and aligned it with the stakeholders and their leaders. I also set up a monitoring mechanism in place to ensure there wasn’t a single overdue related to high sea sales in future.