MBA Career Advice: Mistaken Mistakes People Make Part 3

In this weekly series, our friends at MBA Career Coaches will be dispensing 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. 

Failures, mistakes, and setbacks are a critical part of professional advancement. You need to leverage each mistake and setback you encounter with an eye to your personal development. We have a whole series about this on the MBA Career Coaches blog so check it out. In our interview series, we’ve covered choosing the right mistakes – ones that are honest but not in conflict with your target company’s culture – and then framing them in the context of what you learned.

We cautioned against naming strengths and trying to disguise them as weaknesses. Interviewers will see this as a dodge and you will lose authenticity points and fail to make a true human connection with your interviewer. “I’m a perfectionist,” or “I take on too much,” are not authentic weaknesses. Unless they are. Sometimes your best choice answer to “Tell me about a weakness or mistake” is in fact a consequence of a quality that is ordinarily one of your strengths. This is true because too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. To know if this is true for you, you will need to do some honest self-reflection. Something we always recommend doing more of.

For example, your perfectionism gives you a high level of detail-orientation, integrity, and quality work product (all good things), but it, at least occasionally, causes problems for you. Think about times when your tendency to perfectionism actually hurt your overall performance. Was there a time when you locked yourself in your office for a week trying to nail a model only to learn after five days that you had made rookie mistakes that your boss could have helped you correct in a day two if you had sought his input? How about that time you skipped dinner with friends to stay late and perfect a presentation that ended up being scrapped the next day? Or the time you micromanaged a subordinate’s work product and limited her creative contribution and development because you were too concerned with perfecting the final outcome to your own specific expectations.

There is a another side to every coin. Perfectionism’s ugly twins are obsessiveness, inability to prioritize and micromanagement. These are certainly weaknesses. Only you can decide if your strengths also represent weaknesses under certain circumstances. If you choose one of these to talk about in an interview, then you have to reveal honestly and specifically show how this strength manifests as a weakness. Some examples…

  • “Ordinarily my desire for perfection helps me do better work, but on one occasion I caused a huge delay for the team by belaboring my part of the case without seeking my manager’s input….”
  • “I take on too much, and although I know that is usually a good thing, it has actually caused my performance to suffer at times because I did not have an accurate sense of my own capabilities. A wake-up call for me was when I submitted work late and below the quality level I expected of myself, because I had taken on too much…”

And although we are always advocating for more self reflection, there is even such a thing as too much of that:

  •  “My tendency to reflect has really helped me grow throughout my career, but it sometimes paralyzes me and causes me to put off important decisions because I am trying to predict all the possible externalities. I can get myself caught in a doom loop of thinking….”

Of course don’t forget the redemption part of the story. How are you striving to improve in this regard, what have you learned and how have you changed? Any competent professional who has identified a weakness should also be able to show how he/she has worked at improving.

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