In my book, “What’s Your Story?”, I ask people to consider telling four different types of stories to ignite performance and be more successful; success, failure, fun and legends. You already know these types, and in fact you tell them all the time.
Success stories describe situations where things went exactly right and the goals were met. Bada-bing!
Failure stories are the ones where nothing went right, or it all looked good until the wheels came off. (These stories are NOT “look what a moron I am!” stories. Those tend to be Fun stories.)
Fun stories recount those situations where something goofy or unexpected happened.
And finally, Legends are stories that come from history, spirituality, or culture. (These are your classic “Once Upon A Time” stories.) Legends also have another definition: we all know stories about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates because we swim in the same business culture.
These are the four types of stories that I believe powerful leaders use to connect with and inspire people. And as you already know, we must tell all four types in combination. But what if I asked you to tell only one type? And further, what if I said you only have one type to tell in your job search and interview process? Which type would you choose?
Success stories! Of course, right? You think that success stories are appropriate in your job search efforts because “I want these employers to know how good I am, and so I’m going to tell them about my best successes!”
If I could wave my magic wand and choose for you, I would choose your failure stories. “Wait”, you say, “are you &@#&%*% mad??” Maybe, but let me make my case.
First of all, realize a couple of things. An employer will not talk to you in the first place if you don’t have some basic qualifications (some successes like: schooling, previous employment, references). Second, most employers use the interview process to determine “fit”, not basic qualifications. They assume that you have the knowledge and skills to accomplish tasks, but that doesn’t mean that you are the right person for the job. They need something more from you.
So, let’s just imagine that you and I are both interviewing for the same position on the same day with the same person. I go first. And, like every interviewer in the history of man, the interviewer asks; ”Tell me about a time you failed…” And I tell, like every interviewee in the history of man, a story about when I “failed” but where I really saved it at the end, demonstrating, of course, that even in a failure I am a success!
It goes like this: ”A time when I failed? Good question. Several years ago, I was running a project for a client and I had brought the team together, crafted the deliverables, determined the right budget and gathered the resources we needed. About 3 months in, it became clear that I had under-estimated the budget and the team was not the right one for this project. The client started to see the seams and the wheels really started to come off. BUT…with only two weeks to spare, I was able to figure out what had gone wrong, correct the budget and move several people around. After working countless hours, we were able to deliver on time and on budget. The result was a delighted client and a successful project. Whew!”
Your interviewer has heard a version of this story many times.
Now, it’s your turn. You get the same exact question; ”Tell me about a time you failed…”. And you tell the exact same story, but the conclusion is very different. You end it this way instead: ”…The client started to see the seams and the wheels really started to come off. They were not happy, and I had a mess on my hands. And you know what? I own that.” End of story. Crickets. No ”…and-then-I-saved-the-
There are two reasons why your failure story is more effective than mine.
First, the interviewer will think you the better fit. Why? Because you have demonstrated that we all make mistakes. You have demonstrated humility. You have demonstrated maturity. You have demonstrated confidence, and 7,012 other things that we don’t have room to discuss here. I told a success story that was masked as a failure story and failed to actually answer the question.
Second, you will have the chance to tell them what you learned and how you changed your approach after failing. If you are brave and confident enough to share a true failure story and allow it to “sink in”, your interviewer will always ask, ”Wow. What did you do?”. You now have the ability to admit that failing creat a big mess but that you became a better employee because of it.
There’s no contest here. You win. I lose.
Craig Wortmann is the CEO of Sales Engine, a sales consulting firm that helps others build and tune their sales engine. He is also the author of What’s Your Story?: Using Stories to Ignite Performance and Be More Successful and an entrepreneurship professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. You can connect with Craig on Twitter @SalesEngine.
Category: Interviews & Resumes