For some of you, this is the most painful interview question of all time. I have seen the flush faces. I have seen the beads of sweat. I have witnessed the stammering and stuttering as you butcher your way through an answer.
For others, you have prepared for the question and have the answer, or at least you think you have the answer. If you fall into this camp, I bet I can tell you what your answer is.
Then there are the cocky ones. For you, there is no answer because you simply have no weakness. If you don't believe there are such people out there, consider a question I once received while appearing as a guest on a CNN program.
During a viewer call-in segment, an executive phoned to ask me how he should answer the weakness question. He told me, in all earnestness, that as a senior manager with more than 20 years of experience, he was frustrated by that question because he had no weaknesses.
I believe my response was, "Interesting that you say that, because I think I may have just found one."
Most people answer the weakness question by taking a strength and trying to disguise it as a weakness. Believe it or not, about 75% of the people I interviewed (and I interviewed well over 1,000) answered the question with one of these two responses:
- I work too hard
- I'm a perfectionist
When recruiting directors ask this question, they want to know how you see yourself and how you can work through a tough question. In some ways, it is very similar to your job. Think about it. Marketing and advertising are all about coming up with insights to solve a problem. If you are introspective and have the ability to generate some perceptions about yourself, it only stands to reason that you can do it for your clients or your customers.
The best interviews I had were those where the candidates talked about an actual weakness, why it was a weakness, how they were working on it, and why they felt it was important to correct.
Here is an example of how you should think about answering the weakness question:
One of the things I'm working on right now is becoming a better manager. I've been a manager for a while, and I'm constantly striving to improve. When I first started leading teams, I thought it would be fairly easy. I was the manager, they reported to me, and all those working on my team would do exactly as I said. It didn't take too long to figure out that's not how it works. What I've realized is that different people need to be managed differently -- not based on how I want to manage them, but on how they would like to be managed. A day doesn't go by where I don't think about my team and if I'm managing them as well as I can. For every project on our team, I try to think about what support, guidance and direction I can provide, and then act accordingly. Sometimes I need to be hands on, and sometimes I need to lay off a bit. I know I'm not perfect at it yet, but I'm hoping with even more practice I can become a better manager.
What I'm sure you noticed is that it's not just what you say, but how you say it. Had this response been "I suck at managing people," I'm not sure it would have sounded quite as strong. This type of response can work for just about any weakness you have. Of course there are exceptions. If I were an art director, I don't think I'd say for my weakness that "I'm not very creative."
The key is to think about this question in advance, and be ready for something a bit more insightful than "My main weakness is that I'm just perfect, and it can be a burden for me to work with mere mortals."
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Brad Karsh is president of JobBound, a career consulting and corporate training company. Author of "Confessions of a Recruiting Director" (Prentice Hall Press, 2006), Brad spent 15 years at Leo Burnett in Chicago. He left in 2002 as VP-director of talent acquisition.