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Interview Advice: Tell me about a time when you made a big mistake?

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Published on Nov 23, 2010

Interview Advice: Tell me about a time when you made a big mistake?

A good example would involve the candidate saying something like:

"I'd been with my previous company for about 3 months when I lost a major client. I felt devastated. I really thought that I was going to lose my job. However that didn't happen because I was determined to win the client back, and I did. Firstly I examined what went wrong by talking to a number of people and examining the steps in the process. I talked to my colleagues, my boss and the client. From this I found out that our delivery schedules weren't what the client was expecting. I talked to the client and I talked to our operations people and I found out that if I took the order earlier in the month, then we could send the products to the client by the end of the month. This way we would always be on time. I got the client's permission to fill a few ad-hoc orders using this new system and I won back their confidence. The result is that we have won back the entire account and we have grown it over the last 3 months by 20%."

By being upfront about their mistake and talking openly about their feelings shows that the candidate really cares about their job, and their contribution to the company. Taking responsibility for fixing the problem demonstrates pro-activity, resilience and tenacity -- all attributes of strong candidates.

When asking the question: "Tell me about a mistake" interviewers want to hear phrases such as: "I examined the situation..."; I talked with people..."; "I found out that..."; "The result was..."

In this example the candidate has demonstrated how they turned a failure into a success.

To the same question: "Tell me about a time when you made a big mistake?" another candidate could respond with:

"I once lost a major client but it wasn't my fault. I'd only been with the company for 3 months and I wasn't really trained properly. The client just phoned up one day and said they were using another supplier. They all blamed me you know. Everyone. My boss especially. "Why didn't you know what was happening" he yelled. That's a bit rich coming from him. He should have been meeting with the client also. You just can't leave it up to one person. That's what teams are for, aren't they -- so you all take the blame together. If you want my opinion there was a lot of fuss about nothing. Another rep picked up the client and got them back. So it wasn't as though we lost them forever."

Candidates who make excuses are not accepting responsibility for their actions, and minimizing the failure shows lack of insight.

Interviewers don't want to hear words like "It wasn't my fault", nor do they want to hear 'blaming language'.

These unfavourable impressions will result in the candidate not proceeding to further stages in the interview process.

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