Embrace your failures.
For some career transition coaches, that advice is counterintuitive. They like to use words like pivot – as in when asked about your failures or your weaknesses you pivot to a more positive subject. In a job interview, these coaches say, avoid anything negative like the plague.
For most senior executive recruiters, not answering that question is a yellow, if not red flag for the candidate. Here is the rationale: everyone makes mistakes. Trying to avoid the subject makes the candidate seem less authentic, and a lot more disingenuous. Besides, many senior executives are not very adept at making that kind of verbal transition.
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Here is what I suggest: own it. Do not waste your time and hurt your image by trying to dodge this or similar questions. Be prepared. You know this question will be coming, along with the one asking about your weaknesses, another knee-buckling inquiry that seems to throw far too many candidates in the job market off their game.
As I have written in the past, being prepared for an interview is one important way you can positively differentiate yourself from other candidates. Take some time to select your two biggest mistakes — there, more than likely, have been more than two — and then construct a factual, authentic response for each situation that acknowledges the issue. Then you can pivot or transition into the positive part of the answer, explaining what the situation taught you. Smile, engage the interviewer(s) eye-to-eye and don’t be defensive, you are among fellow mistake makers. Make it sound like the lessons learned were the most wonderful experiences. Sell it. Be happy.
That approach will earn you far more points than trying to twist away from the subject in search of being positive with a response that doesn’t answer the question. Besides, it is hard not to sigh when a candidate, confronted with this question, begins a series of verbal and physical contortions that would make a break dancer look proud.