Dominating the Most Difficult Interview Question: What Is Your Greatest Weakness?
UPDATED May 2019 – I originally wrote this blog a few years ago, but I decided to revisit it and make some updates and changes. I feel it’s important to reopen this conversation as it’s still very relevant in today’s market whether you’re interviewing for a leadership position or much earlier in your career as an individual contributor.
Several years ago, I arrived in the office one morning, and our rockstar Marketing Manager at the time stopped by to ask me a question before I even got a chance to get my first cup of coffee. She shared with me that WCCO radio had just asked a question to its listeners during a live program about interview questions and she felt that I could provide helpful insight. She then gave me the phone number and told me I’d be speaking with Jordana Green.
My immediate response was to ask, “When is the call?” To which she replied, “Now!” So I called.
Without giving it much thought and not really knowing what to expect, I dialed the number and the person who answered asked my name and put me on hold, which lasted for no more than 10 seconds. A very cheerful, articulate voice came on the line, introduced herself as Jordana Green, asked my name, and proceeded to tell me that we were already “on the air.”
I had injected myself into the middle of a conversation and we were live. After introducing myself, she asked, “So what’s the answer to the question?” To which I replied, “So what’s the question?” She jokingly asked if I was trying to sabotage the show, then asked the question, “In an interview, how should a candidate respond to the question: ‘What is your greatest weakness?’” (Feel free to listen to the live recording – it’s pretty amusing.)
As an executive recruiter with more than 16 years of experience in the industry, this has to be one of the most common questions with which candidates struggle. It also happens to be one of the most often incorrectly answered questions, regardless of the level of position being pursued.
When I’m asked for advice on this question, my initial response is to ask the candidate for an example of how they’ve responded during an actual interview, or how they plan to respond during an upcoming interview for which they’re preparing. The more frequent responses include:
- “I’m a workaholic and sometimes put in too many hours at the expense of family and friends.”
- “I’m a perfectionist and am never really completely satisfied with my performance.”
- “I’m too detailed oriented and often spend too much time on a project and put in too many hours at work.”
- “I’m impatient and expect my employees to prove themselves in their first assignment.”
- “I have a tendency to say ‘yes’ to everything and become overcommitted.”
- “I have a tendency to get hyper-focused when I’m on a project at the expense of lesser priority items.”
The Problem: Most surprising, many of these responses have been suggested to candidates by executive search professionals, advising them to employ the strategy of using a possible strength and presenting it as a self-perceived weakness during an interview. I’ve also heard of candidates being advised to mention a weakness that is totally unrelated to the position, like an IT skill that is not a requirement of the role. This last one surfaced while deprogramming a CFO candidate in preparation for an interview. This is not only bad advice, but it’s also the best way of NOT continuing in the interview process.
Deflection Is Not An Option
An experienced interviewer will spot any of the above or similar responses for exactly what they are – an attempt to avoid answering a legitimate question with honesty, and merely trying to get past it by presenting a canned response. Remember, the whole point of an interview is for both the prospective employer and candidate to find the best fit, from both a cultural and required hard-skills perspective. Once employed, your strengths, as well as weaknesses, will become blatantly apparent. If you truly have a weakness that could even eliminate you from contention, it’s much better to know about it sooner rather than later.
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So, at this point, if you don’t accept my perspective as even a possibility, you can stop reading and get back to work. However, if you have an important interview on the horizon, you should be thinking, “Ok, you have my attention. How do I answer this question?”
The solution is quite simple. The important part is not found in the content, but in the manner in which the content is presented. We first must establish what is really at the heart of this question. Often, when an employer asks a question about your greatest weaknesses, what they’re really asking is, “We’re looking for a specific set of skills and personality profile to be considered for this role. In what area(s) do you have any shortcomings?” The answer is found during the preparation for the interview.
A critically important part of your interview preparation should be an exercise referred to as a “Relevant Skills Outline (RSO).” Begin with the position description and add whatever else you’ve discovered during your due diligence of the firm and opportunity. Following that step, the first item on your RSO should be the first item from the position description, then followed by a few examples from your work history that are specifically relevant to that item, including where, when, and for how long. Proceed in the same fashion with each and every item on the description, adding and responding to anything else you feel may be relevant to the role, including soft skills. When finished with this exercise, many great things happen, including:
- You’ll know first-hand the extent to which you’re a fit for the role, or not.
- You’ll be more confident and will perform better, because you’re prepared.
- You’ll be able to answer any question from a position of strength, knowing why each question is being asked.
- You’ll have specific examples from your work history relevant to the requirements of the role.
- And, equally as important, you’ll discover any areas of weaknesses or shortcomings.
If and when you’re asked about your greatest weakness, your response should be consistent with the RSO exercise and be specifically relevant to what the employer is looking for in the role. In addition to identifying the shortcoming, you can turn it into a positive by recognizing it as a reason for being attracted to the role, as it represents an opportunity to develop an important skill that you’re now lacking.
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Real Life Examples
Let’s say you’re interviewing for a CFO role and one of the specific requirements calls for experience working for a company with a private equity ownership, which is not a part of your work history. When responding, include any possible work experience that might compensate for this shortcoming, which could include preparing and reporting directly to boards, working with and reporting to any outside investors, or being responsible for maintaining relationships with banks and/or outside creditors. More importantly, turn it into a positive by including in your response that you’re very interested in pursuing this role because it represents an opportunity to eliminate this shortcoming.
If you have an interview on the horizon, good luck and remember that being honest with a prospective employer is a much safer approach than couching a possible strength as a perceived weakness. It’s better for true shortcomings to be fully vetted and evaluated sooner rather than later. And if you’re offered the role, it will be because it’s a great fit for both hard skills and soft skills, which is a win, win for both you and the employer!
And if you’re an employer, asking this question and the response received can potentially be very insightful into the integrity and honesty of the candidate being interviewed. In today’s market of disruptive technology and constantly evolving roles, continuous improvement should be a component of everyone’s core values. Identifying relevant shortcomings and presenting them as an opportunity for improvement is a characteristic of genuine self-awareness, a positive attribute of anyone you want as an employee.
If you’re looking for your next position or looking to find the perfect candidate to join your team, contact Versique today and learn how we can find the perfect match for you.
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