The Failure Question

Sticking with the failure theme from earlier this week, I would like to address why recruiters who interview junior military officer (JMO) candidates ask the failure question, and how to respond with a successful answer. 

Recruiters ask the failure question for the same reasons I outlined in my previous blog post about the importance of failure.   Recruiters want to know that you set tough challenging goals for yourself, and most importantly they want to see you have the confidence to admit failure, learn the lesson, and apply it.  Understanding the recruiter’s view point will help you effectively answer the question.

Here are the steps I recommend:

1.  State the failure bottom line up front (BLUF).  State in one or two sentences what you did, and why it was considered a failure.  This will answer the recruiter’s question immediately and make it easy for him/her to follow your explanation, which is step 2.

2.  Explain the failure – what you did, what mistakes you made, and how it ended in failure.  This step should be a few sentences, painting a brief picture of your failure for the recruiter.  Be careful not to give too much information.  This is not the most important part of your answer, but rather just the set up for the lesson you learned.

3.  Describe the lesson you learned.  This is the most important part of your answer where you explain what you learned.  Be specific with your lesson.

4.  Apply the lesson. Describe how you applied the lesson throughout the remainder of your time in the military so that the failure was never repeated.  This is the second most important part of your answer, the application of the lesson.  It doesn’t need to be long, the recruiter just wants to know that you recognized the lesson and applied it.

When selecting a failure, the recruiter wants an operational failure rather than a personal failure.  In other words, they want to hear about a time you went over budget on a project, a project did not meet results, your team did not reach its goal, deployment  timelines were missed, your team failed an inspection etc. 

When you deliver the failure, be genuine, honest and confident.  I find when candidates deliver an answer they feel the recruiter wants to hear, or give an answer that merely answers the question without truly helping the recruiter understand who they are, it is obvious that the candidate is just trying to “get by” the question, and this could end up in the recruiter ruling the candidate out. 

Like all interview answers, developing a quality answer to this question requires self-insight, reflection, writing out the answer and practicing the delivery. 

Joel Junker