MBA Career Advice: Mistaken Mistakes People Make, Part 2

In this weekly series, our friends at MBA Career Coaches will dispense invaluable advice to help you actively manage your career. Topics include building your network, learning from mistakes and setbacks, perfecting your written communication, and mastering even the toughest interviews. 

We recently discussed topics that can and cannot work when responding to a question about a mistake/error/setback. Remember, you need to leave yourself exposed to some criticism, while also showing that your mistake was human and certainly not inconsistent with the values of your target firm. Simple enough? Not that easy, but again, as we noted in our earlier post, interviewers ask this question because it is tough for people to answer and a remarkably efficient sincerity meter. You cannot fudge an answer to this question without the interviewer seeing through it.

One execution piece that you need to keep in mind is to ensure that you reveal learning. Yes, learning is key, because we all know how important it is to show that we are smart enough not to make the same mistake twice. In part 1 on this topic, we gave an example of an individual who struggled to manage a friend (post before), who was a contractor on a project that he was managing (and we should note that this example is truncated for ease in illustration):

“I needed a design project done in a hurry and instead of asking for proposals, I hired a friend. In hindsight, it is clear to me that I should have set a professional tone for our working relationship, but I maintained a casual ‘vibe’ and thus struggled to get the project across the finish line….”

Our interviewee cannot just acknowledge the mistake but must show that he corrected the mistake.  Let’s take a look at two possible examples of his learning.

1)       “On my next project, we were again under a time crunch, but I told my supervisor that I did not want to be hasty in hiring a designer and asked for some breathing room to get proposals for our design work.

2)      “At the end of the day, my team loved my friend’s work, despite the trouble I had getting him to meet our deadlines. I was surprised when they pushed me to hire him again. I approached him about another project but told him that I would be managing it as his boss and that if he was uncomfortable with that, we should not proceed. Further, I told him that I would pay him a bonus for early completion, three days before our deadline, and….”

So, which is the right answer? If you said that both work, you know our blog well—we love a trick response!! In the first response, our interviewee learns to push back and request proposals to get the work done properly. In the second, even if we disagree with the firm’s decision to go back to an unreliable contractor, our interviewee shows that he managed his friend far better by asserting himself and creating an incentive structure to ensure deadlines were met. In both instances, learning is revealed, and the interviewer should thus be satisfied, knowing that his interviewee can grow.

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