Failure and Your Job Search

Failure is a part of learning and growth.  It is important to fail and learn from the experience.  Despite this, few people are comfortable talking about their failures – especially in a job interview.

If you have failed in your career, you may have the tendency to avoid talking about the situation.  This gets tough in interviews with a lot of questions about times you have failed or your weaknesses.  The truth is a failure is not as bad for your career as you may think.  If you accept responsibility for the failure, can clearly explain why the failure occurred, can describe what you learned from the experience and know what you would do differently in the same situation, you can make a very positive impression.

An example of a failure comes from Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman and CEO of GE.  Below is Immelt’s discussion of a major failure:

In 1992, I was running all the commercial operations for the plastics business at GE. We had a product called Nuvel, which was a sheet product that would go over wood to try to create the poor man’s Corian countertops. Turns out the thing just didn’t work. Any time you dropped a coin on it, it would leave a mark that you couldn’t get out unless you buffed it with sandpaper. It was a classic case of just not asking the right questions up front.

This one was my mistake. I let the need for speed overwhelm doing enough upfront market research and testing. It was a $20 million mistake. We caught it after about three months. Customers would complain. At first, you go through this denial phase: “You don’t understand” the product, and stuff like that.

It made me learn about listening better. I’m more disciplined on the upfront stuff now than I was then. I wanted to do something big and exciting, and I wanted to do it now rather than wait a year. I ‘fessed up: stepped up, made up for the financial hit we had to take on it by exceeding sales targets on other products, and made good to the customers. I think that I got better at understanding the need for research and more thought up front, so you don’t have to redo things.

You’re never allowed in GE to make the same mistake twice. You’re allowed to make the mistake once. If you try something and it fails, but you went about it the right way and you learned from it, that’s not a bad thing.  (From Businessweek:

Most people have never lost a company $20 million.  Even worse, Immelt explains the failure occurred because he tried to move a project forward too fast and didn’t respond to customer complaints.  The failure was not caused by outside influences – Immelt made a mistake.  Despite this, the failure did not end his career.  He continued to progress through GE and replaced Jack Welch as Chairman and CEO.

Immelt dealt with the failure very well.  He was honest about the cause and took responsibility.  He did not blame others for the mistake.  He showed the impact of his mistake – $20 million.  Although this emphasizes the magnitude of the mistake, it also shows how Immelt was aware of how his actions affected the company.

Immelt explained clearly what he learned from the experience.  The lessons learned did not include a way to make this project successful.   There are projects that cannot succeed and the product being developed in this case could not be fixed.  The lesson learned was Immelt’s new ability to assess a project and address issues much earlier (before they cost $20 million).

In your career, consider the failures you have had.  Prepare to discuss them in an interview.  You should try to talk about your accomplishments, but don’t shy away from a significant story about failure.