Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Why Employers Look For Candidates Who Have Failed

When I first heard this as a recruiter, I asked the hiring manager to please repeat themselves.

Later I learned that many savvy hiring managers often look to hire someone who has failed at a past job or project.

Ok, everybody out there that has hidden failures on their resume, raise your hand …

I was intrigued as I heard more and more hiring managers seek those who have failed at something, because it’s counter intuitive. And based on the number of people out there with their hands in the air, most candidates don’t realize just how valuable failure is.
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Employers find failure valuable because:

  1. Failure demonstrates innovation: In order to innovate, you have to accept that your idea might fail.

  2. Failure demonstrates willingness to take risks: Employees who take intelligent risks create more value than employees who are don’t take risks. That doesn’t mean to go base jumping off your building with a parachute or take reckless business risks. Businesses that don’t take risks don’t grow, and they need employees to help them decide which risks make sense.

  3. It’s a huge learning experience: Failure means that you get to look back on it, and think “what could I have done to avoid this?”, “How could I have made this turn out better?” But you’ve learned on someone else’s payroll, and had a valuable learning experience on someone else’s budget.

  4. Failure teaches success: No one likes to fail…it might be one of the worst feelings out there. Humans naturally avoid failure – Humans who have already failed are better at avoiding failure a second time.

  5. Failure teaches faster and better reactions: Failure teaches us to “know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em”, because it hones our reactions. Experience with failure teaches an employee to fail fast and inexpensively.

Companies who seek to build innovation, VC backed firms, firms trying to develop new products, and firms in changing industries are more likely to seek a candidate who’s failed than say … a CPA firm. Not every company values failure equally, so know your target. Examples of companies that aren’t likely to be receptive to failure: Banks, government agencies, stable firms in non-changing industries, firms that have a pervasive Six-Sigma culture.

How can candidates demonstrate failure in a positive light on their resume?

Disclose failure selectively to companies that are seeing innovation, after you’ve fully researched their problems, challenges, goals and roadblocks. When one of your targets has goals involving innovation, new ideas, or new products embrace your failure.

Turn failure into a positive, by giving a very brief description on your resume of what a failure taught you. Be prepared to elaborate in person to discuss the innovation and risk you took, what you did to assure yourself that it was an intelligent risk, why you failed (showing post failure introspection), and what you learned from the experience.

Be selective in what you discuss. Just because you think a company is looking for candidates who have experienced failure, don’t make the mistake of listing every failure. More is not necessarily good, as it may unintentionally give the impression that you haven’t learned from past mistakes. Better to choose one really good one, and back it up with a solid story.

When companies need innovation, they look for someone who has not only succeeded, but who has also failed.

Don’t be afraid to demonstrate selective examples to these companies, but only after you’ve done extensive research to understand their problems, goals, challenges, and opportunities. Turn your failure into a positive, by demonstrating what you’ve learned, but don’t overdo.

One of the best examples of failure comes from someone we identify with success. That’s the reason this quote was so shocking, but also so telling about the man who spoke it.

I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
 - Michael Jordan

How have you failed?

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