Tell Me About A Time You Failed

published on 15 September 2021

The Amazon Interview Question So Many Get Wrong

In hundreds of interviews at Amazon and before when I’ve asked candidates the mistake question, I’ve very rarely been impressed by people's answer to that question.

In Amazon, the question is aligned to the Are Right A Lot Leadership Principle and one of the facets of the Are Right Lot leadership principle is good judgment.

The time you failed question is trying to understand the decisions that you made that led to this failure. But they're also then trying to understand the decisions that you made to get yourself out of the failure, or at least to recover from it.

The next thing they're trying to understand is the decisions that you make to try and make sure that that type of thing never happens to you again, or never happens to anybody else.

Generally, I see three approaches from candidates in terms of how they tackle this question.

Example #1 Time You Failed

The candidate tells me about a failure. They tell me all about how it happened, what the experience was, maybe the choices that they made that took them to that failure. And then that's it.

They don't then tell me about their recovery. They don't tell me how they managed to save the day. They literally tell me the entire answer about the actual failure.

I don't recommend that strategy because a key part of the assessment is about how you recovered. Everybody fails at some point that's not really the issue here. The issue is how do you make good choices to pull back and recover when you've made a mistake?

Example #2 Time You Failed

People tell me about a kind of run of the mill failure. Some the kind of everyday mistakes that we all make in our everyday lives.

Maybe they tell me about a deadline that they've missed and how they managed to explain away the miss of the deadline, how they managed to save time and catch up. Or how they managed to de-scope some stuff and deliver a couple of days late. Then how they explained to the people involved that they would just fix it very, very quickly.

Those examples are okay. It's not going to wow, me, but neither am I going to be particularly concerned that you can't actually recover from a mistake. But I'll probably not remember it once I've walked away from your debrief. It's not going to blow my mind.

If those are the types of examples that you have. Fine. Go ahead with that. It'll be okay. You'll get some merit for it, but you're unlikely to blow the interview at away with your brilliance.

Example #3 Time You Failed

The third example is where a candidate is really brave. And they tell me about a catastrophic failure that happened, that failure can come from really, really bad judgment on their part or momentary laps. It can often come from little things that you would never have imagined would have such catastrophic unintended consequences.

They tell me about a failure that was really a major issue for their business. But then they go on and tell me about the incredible things that they do to try halt the disaster. Or if they can’t halt it, what they did post the disaster to pull it back. Who they talk to, what actions they took, how bold and creative they were in terms of coming up with their solutions.

Then they tell me what they did in terms of reflecting on the disaster and how they considered what they could do to protect themselves, in the future. So they never make that mistake again, and even better so that no one ever makes that mistake again, no one in the company now and no one in the company future.

The Winner

This third example are always the ones that are hugely memorable and impressive.  As long as they have a really impressive recovery that's the bit that the interviewer will remember, not the failure at the beginning.

Most people can be forgiven for a one off laps, big mistake. What matters is how you recover and how you protect the organization and yourself from making those mistakes in future.

So when you're thinking about the version of your example, you're going to come up with, don’t use #1. You can use #2, it’ll be a fine answer. But if you have a #3 you’ll really impress.

How to Structure Your Tell Me About A Time You Failed Answer

Consider where you put your time investment in telling the story. I recommend you don't spend too much time dwelling on how you got into the situation in the first place.

Lots of candidates spend far too much time focused on how they got themselves into the situation in the first place, the bad bit. My recommendation is that you only use a few sentences in your Situation part of your STARI answer to set that up and move quickly to the recovery.

Then you need to focus your Task on how you're going to get out of it but only very high level.

It’s your Action where the meat of your example should be. Explain exactly what you did to get yourself out of that situation or resolved the issue. Give lots of details.

Then the result and then finally, what was the improvement? What were the changes that you identified and implemented as needed to make sure that thing never ever happened?

You want to stand out at an interview and the “Tell me about a time you failed” question is a great way to do it. Leave an impression, that even in the most challenging of situations you can rise to it and be a great leader.

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