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Developing a Leadership Team: One Question You MUST Ask When Interviewing

WRITTEN by: Bill Sterzenbach |
categories: Business Growth

Jun 2014


If you are developing a leadership team within your company, you know it's a marathon, not a sprint - and it takes a long time to test the mettle of your leaders. Identifying key leadership characteristics early is critical to help to ensure you have the right material to work with for a long-term investment. I've found a few key questions help quite a bit when interviewing, and I'm going to share one of them with you today:

The Answer Isn't Important

Don't get too hung up on the answer. It doesn't matter what the mistake was, or how they responded to it. We're not interested even in whether they resolved it. What's important is how they feel about it now.

The Question Isn't Important

We've all seen this question in one form or another in lists of "top interview questions".  The question doesn't have any magical properties, this isn't one of those "zinger" questions that everyone worries about during interviews. There really aren't any right or wrong answers. It doesn't need to be THIS question, it just needs to be a question that shows how they reflect on the answer. Does their body language, tone, and overall "vibe" indicate that they are introspective? Dale Carnegie believed that leaders should point out their own mistakes first, citing it as a critical component of leadership. I like this question because it gives the candidate the opportunity to talk about their own mistakes first.

How Do They Answer? That's the Key

As with most interview questions, the key is in how candidates answer questions. Otherwise, we'd just read their information on their resume and make a decision. This question in particular seems to evoke very interesting responses from the great candidates.

This is going to sound a bit strange, but I've found that my best leaders took an almost gleeful joy in sharing their huge blunders. It's not that they enjoyed the pain that they inflicted upon others or the cost they inflicted on their employer, but there is a form of cathartic joy in revisiting a previous mistake - if you learned something. Candidates that answer this question boldly and honestly have learned something enormous from their big mistakes and take no shame in the retelling. They openly address their naïveté, over-optimism, or their other shortcomings as shining waypoints towards professional development.

I've learned to get better at how I ask the question as well. I'm always trying to improve at disarming candidates so that I can see who they really are during an interview. I generally tell a story about a huge mistake I've made, then I share that if you haven't made any huge mistakes you probably haven't been doing this very long (and I've had a few candidates who hadn't bungled anything too big yet).

Create an environment where it's OK to admit to past mistakes, in fact, where it's a positive if you can really paint a tragic picture, as the telling of those stories illustrates more about a candidate than the words they say.

I'd LOVE to hear about your huge blunders! Feel free to change the names to protect the innocent, and comment below to let the healing begin!


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