If you cannot admit to failure, do not apply, was an underlying theme of a recent Corner Office Q&A in The New York Times, edited by Adam Bryant.

Bryant interviewed Tracey Matura, the General Manager of the Smart car division at Mercedes Benz USA, regarding her leadership style and how to peel back the onion of successful teams to determine what is working and what isn’t.

“If you’re going to tell me you’ve never failed, then it makes me wonder if you always hide your failures,” said Ms. Matura of job candidates.

In discussing what she asks candidates in interviews, Ms. Matura listed three questions as being very important to her assessment:

  1.  Who was your favorite boss and why?
  2.  Who was your least favorite boss and why?

From the answers to these two questions, Ms. Matura explained, she gets a good feel for the type of leadership style works for the applicant

The third question focuses on taking risks.  She asks candidates about the risks they have taken and failed.  “I have never hired people who have told me they never failed.  You don’t learn if you don’t fail.”

These are classic behavior and values (B&V) questions.  They are prominent in the

Topgrading© interview developed by Bradford Smart, PhD and his colleagues in the early 1980s.  These and other questions are part of a comprehensive structured interview I adapted specifically for healthcare.  They are the bulk of the in-depth face-to-face interview that we use at JohnGSelf Associates.  (Some of these questions, specifically as they relate to a client’s challenges, are revised and used in the video interview segment, a summary of which is provided to the client as part of the JGSA dossier.)

In what I like to call a noisy (read: competitive) job market for candidates, job seekers must be concerned with putting their best foot forward in every interview, working to answer the questions effectively while trying to differentiate themselves, and/or put their successes (and failures) in the best possible light. What is remarkable is how unprepared some candidates are for an in-depth interview.  What is equally surprising is how unprepared recruiters and interview teams are for critical interviews, which leads to far too many bad hiring decisions.

The best advice I can give to candidates — those executives who are currently looking for a job and those who will be in the future — is to be prepared, very well prepared. As reimbursement shrinks and the number of leadership openings declines, the competition for executive jobs is only going to get more intense.  You cannot afford to be poorly prepared for key questions, or come across, planned or inadvertently, as someone who is not candid because you were not prepared.

Interviewing is not a signature strength for most executives.  Knowing something about the client is good but far from true interview prep.  You have to be prepared to tell your story in an effective and authentic manner, and that takes more work than most candidates are willing to invest.

I strongly recommend Dr. Smart’s book, Topgrading©.  It not only shares some of the best and most challenging behavior and values questions, but it also provides some important underlying information concerning why those questions should be asked.  Moreover, it also provides some important insight into the B&V interviewing process.

If you are serious about improving your interviewing skills, consider Dr. Smart’s material a take home test.

© 2012 John Gregory Self