Being prompted to discuss a career mistake may catch you off-guard during a job interview, but employers want to know more about you than resume highlights — so be prepared.
Bestselling management author and CNBC contributor Suzy Welch says many interviewers ask the question not because they want to hear a great comeback story, but because they want insight into your character.
"They're trying to figure out if you own your mistakes," she tells CNBC Make It, "or if you're the kind of jerk who passes blame around."
Welch adds that hiring managers also want to know how you react when things don't go as planned.
"Will a mistake knock you for a total loop?" she asks. "Or, do you have the grit and resilience, and maybe even the sense of humor, to get up and say, 'OK, how do I fix things?'"
Welch warns that it's important to pick the right mistake to highlight. If you pick a trivial error like, "I once ordered catering for the wrong day," she says you'll come off as evasive. But if you discuss a significant mistake, like, "I lost a key client," she says you'll come off as a risk.
"This is not the time to humble brag by citing a mistake that can actually be seen as a virtue, like a time you worked 'too hard' on a project or didn't delegate because you wanted to keep a close eye on quality," she says. "Please! Too phony!"
Instead, Welch says to choose a mistake that's "big enough to show you've got the bumps and bruises of real experience, but small enough to convey you are generally highly competent."
Even with the right mistake in mind, Welch says your delivery can ruin your chances of landing the job if you focus on the negative for too long.
"Spend the majority of your answer to this question on the aftermath of your mistake," she says, "what you learned, the ways you changed and how you grew."
To truly stand out, Welch says, the key is to make your recovery "one worth cheering for."
Suzy Welch is the co-founder of the Jack Welch Management Institute and a noted business journalist, TV commentator and public speaker.
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