What are your weaknesses?
When I prepare clients for interviews, this is almost invariably at the top of people’s lists of questions that they are not prepared to answer. When they do have an answer, it is usually one of the “Top Three Answers” to the question or some variation thereof:
- I am a perfectionist (i.e., my own toughest critic).
- I work too hard (i.e., can’t take a break, vacation, disconnect).
- I am a people pleaser.
The problem with these answers is two-fold. First, that they are highly overused. Second, they don’t appear to indicate any self-awareness or reflection (even if one of them is, in fact, your greatest weakness).
It is important not to underestimate this question. While many interviewers do not bother to ask it because they believe the answer will be too rehearsed, others take the answer very seriously as an indicator of whether you will be a fit in an organization and your level of self-reflection. While you should strive to find a true weakness, it is also important to put a positive spin on it and explain what you are doing to work on fixing the problem, with examples of steps you have taken to overcome them.
While you should strive to find a true weakness, it is also important to put a positive spin on it and explain what you are doing to work on fixing the problem, with examples of steps you have taken to overcome them.
Here are sample answers about where your weaknesses may lie, in the hopes that they inspire an authentic response on your part:
- Over the years, I have found that I don’t delegate work as much as I should. I have always believed in the mantra, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” However, I am realizing that I need to spend more time training, mentoring and building my team. In the last year, I have made this a priority. [Be ready to give examples.]
- I was never one to pay much attention to so-called “office politics” [or, I am not one for small talk] but prefer to put my head down and do my work. At some point, I realized that this would only get me so far, so I am now actively seeking out leadership [or collaborative] opportunities and focused on building relationships [across departments]. I have headed up three important projects in the last year, and I am now part of a working group that includes the CEO and other senior management.
- For a long time, I was very specialized in one area, but in the last year I realized that I needed to broaden my experience in order to grow. Lately I have taken on projects from other groups and incorporated some volunteer work into my schedule in order to cultivate a wider range of skills. I never thought – being so highly specialized would be a weakness – but I can see now that although I have become an “expert,” a broader range of experiences are what I need to understand the big picture of what we are trying to achieve as a company and how I fit in.
- I have been lucky to have a very broad range of projects over my career, but I realized that I had become too much of a generalist. Sometimes you really need to get “in the weeds” on certain points, and lately I have realized the importance of having a specialty, which was frankly something I resisted. To do this, I first got certified in [X] – which was a six-month process – and I’ve also become involved in [name relevant organizations] and sought out projects that can deepen my knowledge in the area. [If prompted, have examples ready. Of course, this answer is only relevant if your specialty relates to the target position.]
- I have learned a tremendous amount by being the only person in my company who focuses on my area, but at times I have gone to conferences and other events and seen how much deeper my understanding would be if I had a team of people committed to the same goal. So I consider it a weakness that I haven’t had this exposure. I realize that the next step in my growth is to join a team with many people working on solving the same problems, so we can mentor and bounce ideas off each other, which is one of the reasons this role is so appealing.
- I have had great success managing smaller teams of people, up to eight employees as I do currently, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to manage a larger team as I would in this role. I know that I am ready for the challenge, and I have been actively seeking out other managers who do work with larger teams to discuss the challenges of scaling up. What I have learned is….
- Early in my career, I wasn’t very focused or quite sure what path I wanted to follow. I took a few different jobs, but none of them was the right match. I finally realized that what all of these roles were missing was that I didn’t have a chance to connect with the ultimate customer. As soon I moved over to the sales side, everything clicked. I sometimes wish I had known from the beginning what I wanted to do, but the truth is that all of these experiences have helped me understand various aspects of the company and become a better salesperson as a result.
- My biggest weakness is that I am completely deadline-driven. I don’t do as well with downtime, although I have learned to create my own deadlines to get things done. For example, I have found it very effective to break projects down into component parts, so rather than thinking of an overall deadline, I make a calendar for myself with interim dates that I need to finish certain points, so that I can keep on track.
- I consider it a weakness that I have never been very good at public speaking. Earlier in my career, it didn’t matter as much, because everyone liked my work product, and so I focused on that. At some point I realized that if I was going to become a leader in my field, I needed to interact with larger groups of people across all levels. So I started to take some presentation classes and also volunteer for panels with experts in the field. I figured that the best cure to my fear was to get out and do it, and I am frankly surprised that it is working out even better than I had hoped.
- Honestly, my greatest weakness is that I still don’t know my way around the corporate culture. I have had two great internships in college, but I haven’t completely settled in. The good news is that I am very open to learning more and a quick study. Also, I’m fortunate to have had some really good experiences that taught me how to work across generations and build good relationships from day 1. [Be ready with examples from volunteering, travel, family life, etc. As a younger employee, by the way, being able to bridge the “Millennial-Baby Boomer Gap” is huge.]
- I would consider it a weakness that, as I am sure you have seen, most of my experience is in another industry. I have spent the last few months getting up to speed on [name of new industry] in anticipation of the change, but there is nothing that replaces actual hands-on experience in the field. Fortunately, I have two good friends who both work in [name of new industry] who have been very gracious with their time, and I also have [name any other research, connections or background that is relevant]. I know that I can hit the ground running, because…. [If you have additional time, you can discuss leadership and other transferable skills that are cross-industry.]
- It could be perceived as a weakness that for over twenty years I have worked at the same company, especially now when job changes are much more common. And it’s true that I will probably never be as innovative as someone who has jumped from start-up to start-up, for example. But I have realized that I don’t always need to be an “ideas man.” I can hire people for that. What I have is a really strong grasp of the fundamentals, how to execute and how to grow a company. The other thing I have learned is that even the “same company” is a different company after twenty years, and having moved across different functional areas, I have certainly seen how business evolves. [Elaborate and give examples.]
These answers, as you may see, follow a certain formula: (1) identify a weakness that is specific to your professional trajectory, (2) discuss what you are doing to improve, (3) highlight something that may be obvious to your interviewer already, based on your resume, (4) are not roadblocks for you in the target role (e.g., not being a good writer in a job that requires extensive writing) and (5) characterize the “weakness” as a growing pain along the way to advancing in your career. All of these three points can be absolutely true, obviating the need to sound rehearsed, if you study your own career with some detachment.
Imagine that you were a third-party consultant evaluating your own career path to date with a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis. Everyone has each of these – S-W-O-and-T – and if you can see your own, you will be much further along in your career. At the same time, the more you consider “strengths” and “weaknesses,” the more you will see that they are often two sides of the same coin. Someone who thrives on being a “people person” may not do well in a job that involves a lot of solitary thinking and problem-solving, while an introvert may not take as well to a role that requires teamwork on a daily basis and does not allow for any “alone time.” These are generalizations, of course, and the goal is to figure out where you fall in this analysis, both to help your interviewer decide if you will be a fit and to help you sort out your best career environment, one that plays to your strengths and does not call on you to continually execute in areas of weakness.
In the context of interviewing, the beauty of a real answer to this question or others is that the true answer is not something you need to struggle to remember when you are in the interview room. If you have been actively managing your career, you will already have these insights and only need to work them into a few sentences, with examples, that you can present into the interview.
If you have not been in the driver’s seat in your career but instead treading water lately (which happens to the best of us), creating your “weaknesses” answer will not only be helpful for your interviews but also be a step in making a roadmap for where you would like to go next and how to get there.
This post is an excerpt from Master the Interview: A Guide for Working Professionals.
Anne Marie Segal is an executive coach, writer, resume strategist and former practicing attorney. She has conducted individualized interview prep coaching with scores of clients across law, business, information technology, marketing and other fields.
Anne Marie is the author of Master the Interview and the newly published Know Yourself, Grow Your Career: The Personal Value Proposition Workbook.
Image credit: Adobe Stock.