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How to Answer “Tell Me About a Time You Failed” In a Product Manager Interview

Failure is an inevitable part of life; we have all faced it at one time or another. Especially in a professional setting, the ability to handle failure and turn it into a win —falling forward— is an invaluable skill for any successful Product Manager. The “tell me about a time you failed” question is therefore a pivotal one in any product management interview. Your answer can make or break your chances at turning the interview into an offer. 

What Is the Recruiter Looking For?

When a recruiter asks you to talk about a time that you failed, they are generally trying to get a feel for a few things. First, how do you deal with failure when it happens? How do you handle setbacks and challenges? As a Product Manager, failing is a big part of the job. Just like how learning to cope with rejection is foundational to a career in sales, your willingness to roll with the punches and get back up will define your success as a Product Manager. 

More importantly, recruiters are wanting evidence to back up your claims. Nowadays, everyone has the ability, through research and preparedness, to interview very well. Potential employers may be impressed by your answers, but you need to be able to back them up with results. What does your track record look like for dealing with problems successfully?

How to Give a Winning Answer to “Tell Me About a Time You Failed”

With these points in mind, you can start to flesh out your answer. This is a great time to make use of the ’STAR’ framework: situation, task, action, and result. An effective answer to the question “tell me about a time you failed” will require you to establish the situation and the timing of the failure.

What Failure to Talk About

Choosing the right timing is critical. Make no mistake, this question can be a trap if not handled properly. The key is to make sure that your example is based in a situation that is sincere and forgiving. Try to focus on situations that compel patience and understanding. For example, you might pick a failure you experienced while brand new at a job or in the early days of COVID. Setting up your answer this way works to get the interviewer on your side.

How to Position Your Failure

Next is the task. Too often, Product Managers are caught off guard by this question in an interview and end up answering with a irredeemable failure of theirs. Often, that only ends with making them look incompetent. As a rule of thumb, you want to avoid any real stories of harsh failure. Instead, try and talk about a time when you had an opportunity to work on a shortcoming or learn something new on the job.

Think in terms of winning and learning rather than winning and losing. This approach is helpful not just in answering interview questions, but also in staying motivated and willing to learn on the job. 

The goal is to accomplish what recruiters sometimes call ‘making the problem your friend.’ For example, you could cite a time where you started a new job and realized you didn’t understand the way they managed their roadmaps. By taking this anecdote and carefully using group oriented language like ‘the team’ and ‘the company’, you are able to avoid ever making yourself the focus of the failure. 

How to Highlight Your Problem-Solving Skills

Now you have your situation and your task, it’s time to cite a confident and impressive action. This ties back into the second reason recruiters love to ask this question. This is all about your track record and what you have already done in the face of failures. For this part of your answer, it’s great if you can approach it from the perspective of the company. Some Product Managers may tend to talk about a failure they had and then list a course or certification they took that helped them with it: this is not the way to go. As admirable as courses or certifications may be, they can give the wrong message to potential employers when offered as a solution.

Most of the time, a company (and therefore, a recruiter) wants to hear about efficient and effective responses to failure. Show them that you solve even complex problems within a 30 day window. You want to make sure that you are demonstrating a proven approach of solving the problems you present quickly. That’s not to say that there won’t be problems that take longer to solve, but at this point in the process it’s about getting in the door. Find the balance between sincere honesty and what the company wants. 

Where Did Your Failure Lead You?

Finally, the result. There’s only three results that companies want to hear about when you are talking about a failure you have had. One, how much money did the solution end up making the company? Two, how much money did it end up saving? Or three, how much time did it end up saving? It could even be a combination of all three.

No matter what, your ‘failure’ has to lead somewhere. There has to be a very clear map drawn between the point of failure and the point of resolution so that you can give metrics on what the company gained as a result, whether it’s a revenue increase, higher web traffic, or greater screen time. The results need to be able to take the entirety of your ‘failure’ and wrap it up in a clear and concise conclusion.

The Key to Acing the “Tell Me About a Time You Failed” Question

Understand that in an interview, you are selling yourself and you are also selling stories.The candidate that has the more confident and engaging interview is going to be the person that’s going to get offered the job — it’s often that simple.

It can be challenging to manage the delicate balance between the unfiltered truth and what recruiters want to hear, but you can set yourself up for success in your Product Manager job hunt by being prepared. If you’re struggling with how to answer this or other common Product Manager interview questions, schedule a free 30 minute call today with one of our senior coaches so they can help you be prepared and confident in the face of any interview question!

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