Here’s a familiar scenario: You find a job you like and decide to apply. The first step says to upload your resume. So, you upload your resume. Then, you’re asked to re-enter the same information in a helpful online form. You really want the job, so you grit your teeth and begin cutting and pasting lines from your resume into some wonky form that will inevitably give you error messages. When you get an interview, the recruiter sits with your resume in hand and says, “Looks like you achieved [fill in the blank].” You’ll say, I sure did and talk about your success a little bit before moving on to the next bullet point on your resume. At the end of the hiring process, the potential employer doesn’t know much more about you other than a more detailed version of your resume and what you physically look like.
At Two Barrels, we like to know our candidates a little better than that. And one of the best ways to do that is to ask about failure. It’s not uncommon for our recruiters or one of the managers who interviews you to ask about your greatest failures—the things you expressly did not include on your resume.
Your resume likely lists all your achievements. We like people who have achieved things—project deadlines, growth benchmarks, educational milestones, etc. Those are great things to brag about and, yeah, you got our attention by listing them on the resume. But when you sit down with us, we don’t need a recitation of the information you already gave us. You can safely assume we read and understand your resume, which is why you’re meeting with us about a potential job. Instead of resume bullet points, we’ll want to know about failure.
How a person handles failures tells us more about a person than how they handle success. It’s easier to be a gracious winner than a gracious loser. Modesty is easy when you’re at the top of the field. Victory speeches are easier to deliver than concession speeches. You can be confident in a job interview when the topic of conversation is all the good work you accomplished. We want to hear about the times when things didn’t work out. We want to know about a time you screwed up, where you missed the mark, where you failed. If you haven’t failed, get a little more experience in the world and apply once you have a few bumps, bruises, and war stories.
We like failing fast. We care that when you made a mistake, it made you smarter, better, and it provided insight. More importantly, we look for accountability and determination—that you owned up to whatever the catastrophe was and how you solved it.
What Is Failure?
Don’t confuse our interest in failure with the age old, “What are you weaknesses?” interview question. We all know when someone asks about your weaknesses in a job interview you need to pretend like one of your strengths is actually somehow also your curse. “I work too hard,” one candidate kvetches. “I guess I’m sometimes too punctual,” another candidate confides. “If I’m not early, then send out the hounds.” Ha ha ha. Or, our favorite, some form of I’m a perfectionist.
We don’t blame people for giving us disingenuous answers to a question that practically goads the person into playing spin doctor. We want to know about those moments when you opened an email and your stomach dropped, when you felt that prickly heat across the back of your neck and considered quitting or locking yourself in the bathroom. We want to hear about the crushing defeats, the disastrous experiments where you watched the results come back in big flashing letters that might have said WRONG WRONG WRONG. We want to know about the humiliation of being wrong in front of your peers, the times when you swallowed hard and said to a supervisor, “I’m sorry” and “I’ll make sure that never happens again” and hoped they didn’t see you sweating too badly.
These are the harder stories to tell, the tougher questions to ask and even tougher to answer. But when answered well, they give us a clearer indicator of who you are and how determined you are to succeed.
Putting Failure in Context
What are we looking for when we ask you to talk about failure?
• Accountability: Practice using first-person pronouns. This isn’t the Iran-Contra Affair; mistakes were made is not taking responsibility. “I made mistakes.” See the use of the capital I in there? That’s a good thing. It’s called being accountable, and it’s a quality we value at Two Barrels.
• Details: Be specific about what went wrong. A story of failure that includes details signals that you aren’t minimizing the issue and that you have thought about how the experience stuck with you.
• Consequences: What happened when you failed? How did it affect your peers and the organization? Did you give up? Did the boss pull you off the project? How did you move forward? But most importantly, what did you learn?
• Honesty: We operate as a team at Two Barrels, and we foster an atmosphere of trust between our coworkers and departments. We don’t care for crap excuses or corporate speak that obscures what is being said. If a project launched poorly because it went out at four p.m. on a Friday, we don’t want to hear some line about “sub optimal calendaring.” We respect when someone says, “Yeah, at four o’clock on a Friday, I’m mentally already halfway out the door, and my attention to detail just isn’t what it is at noon.” At the very least, that answer gets points for honesty.
• Reflection: Think of this as demonstrating what you learned from your mistake and how you changed your behavior accordingly. For example, “I don’t try to push project launches at the end of the work week.”
• Determination: The person who is not failing is not pushing themselves. They aren’t going to grow or do anything innovative. There are plenty of job opportunities for people who are risk averse and don’t step outside their comfort zones. Those jobs are not here at Two Barrels. We have a determined workforce full of people who make mistakes, learn from them, and move forward.
We hire people, not egos. When you come into the interview, be prepared to tell us about your most human of moments and maybe we’ll share some of our failures with you too.
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