It is inevitable to ask certain familiar questions during the interview when hiring employees. When I first interviewed at Sungard Availability Services, my future manager asked me to give him examples of my past successes. I gave him a couple. Then he asked me for some examples of my past failures. I asked him, “How much time do you have?”
He laughed and said, “That long a list, huh?” After he listened to my failure stories, and to the lessons I had learned from them, he said to me, “I’m surprised you are honest enough to admit your mistakes. Most people don’t. I respect that you are clear-eyed about your past screw-ups, and I think you can bring your lessons learned to your next company for their benefit.”
Honestly, I think being candid about my failures during the interview is what got me the job.
Many hiring managers look only for a track record of success. It features prominently in most job requirements: “A demonstrated track record of success in such-and-such and such-and-such.” In my view, that’s a problem, because success is not a fertile ground for self-reflection. Why bother doing a post-mortem, when everything has gone swimmingly? Failure, however, offers ample opportunity for growth, self-awareness, and personal development. Those who do take this opportunity emerge as better employees – they are humble, teachable, thoughtful, and more likely to succeed the next time they try something.
“In other words, I value a track record of failure in a potential hire, because I know what failure has done for me.”
What I Learned From My Own Failures
The biggest professional failure of my own life was the day spa business I bought with my best friend in 2003. It set me back financially to pre-college levels. Literally, I was worth more the day I graduated from high school than the day I closed the spa down in late June of 2010. We had made several crippling mistakes on Day One, and we simply never recovered from them.
Mistake #1: building overly optimistic pro-forma financial forecasts. It’s easy to show hockey-stick-like growth in a spreadsheet. But in real-life, you need working capital and the ability to spin off enough excess cash to invest in marketing. That didn’t happen, primarily because of Mistake #2: signing an onerous five-year triple net lease agreement that prevented us from making a profit in all but 5 of the 79 months we operated. In the spa business, you have to bring in 8x to 12x your rent in revenues just to break even…a small fact we did not figure out until AFTER we’d already signed the lease.
Mistake #3: being under-capitalized and deciding to pay ourselves too much. With my life savings in the business and my partner’s home serving as collateral for our small business loan, everything we had was tied up in the spa, and we needed to pull cash out of it…fast. As it turned out, we pulled cash out way too fast. My partner had quit her job to work at our business, so she needed to replenish her income in order to continue paying her mortgage. It was a real cluster of a situation, affirming the reality of the maxim: Cash is King.
We ran out of cash in six months. My partner left the business in nine months, and with more than four years left on the lease, I took full control of daily operations. Why didn’t we just belly up, you ask? Well, because of Mistake #4: putting my brother on the lease as guarantor. If I didn’t find a way to continue, he’d be on the hook for 52 months of rent.
I went on to commit more mistakes over the years. There were times I failed to lead well, expecting my employees to get on-board with my vision and strategy simply because I was the owner and “I said so.” There were times I didn’t communicate well, leaving bafflement and ill will among my staff members. There were times I didn’t listen, operating with the misguided conviction that I was always right. There were times I misjudged a candidate’s character and hired too quickly. There were times I let a toxic employee linger on too long and terminated too slowly (or didn’t terminate at all).
From these spectacular failures, I’ve learned to think ahead and weigh risk scenarios. I worked out the rough spots that a lot of managers struggle with when trying to lead. I learned to communicate better, and to have a smaller “transmit” button and a bigger “receive” button. I became humbler. I acquired a teachable spirit.
In other words, I value a track record of failure in a potential hire, because I know what failure has done for me.
Examining Past Failures Nets You A Better Candidate
I’m not saying you should hire someone who never gets anything right. Of course you’re looking for a competent, skilled individual to fill your position. But one of those competencies should be the ability to learn from mistakes. While interviewing, you can explore a person’s failures to discover:
- Are they candid and honest about their failures?
- Can they draw lessons learned to apply in future situations?
- Do they show a sense of humility and self-awareness?
- How have they grown and changed as a result of failure?
- Do they accept responsibility for their failures?
- Have they developed confidence and resiliency as a result of their failures?
I don’t need an employee who’s going to get it right all the time. I need someone who’s willing to admit when they’ve been wrong, learn from their mistakes, and get up and do it better the next time. That’s a person I can trust. That’s the person I want to hire.
This article was originally posted on Forbes.