Thursday, October 1, 2009

Q&A Panel Questions - Weaknesses

I thought it might be handy to provide some follow up on some of the questions that were posed by Carleton University students at last night's panel.  I didn't take copious notes, so much of this is running from memory.  The analysis I'll give is a blend of my own insights and thoughts from other panelists.  I won't bother to attribute each idea to a particular person.

The first question I'll mention is a pretty basic one: how do you answer a question about your weaknesses.

This is a "typical" interview question.  I put that word in quotation marks because I don't know how often it actually gets asked any more, but it is one that interview trainers always prepare people for.  Even if it is falling out of favour with hiring managers, it is good to prepare.

First, some don'ts:

Don't be a suck up.  If I ask you this question, I do not want to hear, "I'm a perfectionist; I just work too darn hard for my own good; I put the needs of the company ahead of my needs."  This is weaseling out.  You're being too cute by half, and you're trying to avoid actually answering it.  Worse still, you're insulting my intelligence by thinking that you'll be able to fool me.  If this is the effort that you'll display on the job, I don't want you on the job.

Don't be brutally honest.  You're going to need to answer this question but still get the job.  If you suggest that you're lazy, openly hostile to authority figures or generally incompetent, you're not going to get the job.

Don't give me your strengths.  I've actually had a candidate answer this question by listing her three greatest strengths rather than her three greatest weaknesses.  And I'm not talking about saying she's a perfectionist and claiming it as a weakness.  She actually said, "My three greatest strengths are...".  Although, on reflection, I guess this did demonstrate three of her weaknesses: inability to listen, inability to complete a task, self-obsession.

Okay, how about some do's:

Be honest.  Don't be brutally honest, but be honest.  No one is perfect and demonstrating that you are sufficiently self-aware to identify any shortcomings is an attractive quality.  Further, if you lie about your strengths and weaknesses, you are potentially setting yourself up to disappoint your manager.  Considering that most jobs have probationary periods where it's pretty easy to sack a new employee, you don't want to give them any ammunition.

Turn it into a positive.  I do not mean that you should masquerade a strength as a weakness, but you should demonstrate that you can take steps address problems.  Everyone is going to mess up at some point in their career, so managers want people who can fix any issues that arise.  When I was in school, our interview-prep person taught us to answer most questions about work using the CAR framework - Context, Action, Result.  In this case, take a weakness you have, put it into a work context, tell the interviewee what you did to alleviate the problem (or what you learned from it) and tell them how that will guide you in the future so as to not fall into a similar trap.  This sort of answer also has the benefit of ending your response on a positive.  It's always good to end on something positive.

Address it head on.  This goes with the previous point.  Don't try to evade or deflect the question.  Take it, answer confidently and let the interviewer know that you can handle uncomfortable or undesirable situations.  This is why we will often ask these tough questions.  We want to know how you will react under pressure.  We want to know if stress or confrontation will debilitate you.

There's a lot more that could be said (and I welcome anyone reading this to add more advice in the comments of this post), and there was probably a lot more that was said last night, but I'd say this is a good place to start.

By the way, if anyone ever asks me, I'll just tell them that my weakness is writing long-winded blog posts.

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