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What's Your Biggest Weakness?

Wednesday, 7 Jul 2010 | 9:37 AM ET

The Killer Question—"What's your biggest weakness?"

I got asked that recently—to my surprise—at the end of a podcast interview with a well-known business web site.

I'll tell you my answer, but first let's talk about tough questions.

The weakness question is a test: how well do you handle yourself? It presents an elegant, damned-if-you-do, or-don't trap.

What, really, are your options?

a) "I'm wanted in three states for grand larceny." (Too big; if you have to go this route, stick with "larceny," delete "grand." Grand sounds like a boast.)

b) "I have no weaknesses." (Too defensive.)

c) "I'm a perfectionist." (Too cute.)

d) "I'm highly critical of other people's footwear." (Too odd—though intriguing.)

The ideal answer is: 1) job-related, 2) already known, and 3) fixable.

(My podcast answer, of course, ignored all three.)

For example, if you've only worked for Fortune 500 companies, and you're applying for a non-profit job, mention your lack of non-profit experience.

But also mention: You're a fast learner; you've done extensive volunteer work; you've had a lot of experience in the airline industry, and none of those companies ever made a profit either.

Here's the larger point: when asked a question, you have options.

Suppose, for example, you're giving a presentation and get asked something you can't answer.

Young Employees
Young Employees

One option: defer.

"I'd like to do some research on that," you say.

"Would it be ok to get back to you in 48 hours?"

That sounds reasonable, doesn't it?

And here's what you've just communicated:

1) You're a serious person, and you take this question seriously.

2) You don't bluff.

3) You keep your commitments (because, of course, you will follow-up).

So your influence is actually enhanced—much more than if you tried to wing it.

Well, back to that podcast ("10 Ways to Sharpen Your Presentations"). We were at the end when the host asked about my biggest weakness as a speaker.

Although I often disclose, when leading a workshop, what I'm working on ("working on" is a better phrasing than "biggest weakness"), a recorded podcast is a different animal, where things get frozen in internet eternity.

So, having just explained the defer tactic . . . I promised to get back.

Tip: When asked a question, you have options. Use them.

More Career Strategies from Paul Hellmen

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Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

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