Rowan Manahan at Fortify Your Oasis has started a new project, "The Definitive Guide to Clearing Job-Hunt Hurdles," in which lots of bloggers are contributing advice on various parts of the job-seeking process. Here's some advice from me on a topic that seems to stymie even savvy job-hunters: the weaknesses question.
Some variation of "what are your weaknesses?" is going to come up in every interview. How do you talk about weaknesses when you're trying to sell yourself?
First, here's what not to do: Don't try to offer up a strength taken too far -- perfectionism, you work too hard, you can't leave the job at the office, etc. This is widely recognized as disingenuous b.s. and you'll be seen as evading the question.
What should you do? Well, I'll warn you up front that my approach to this is unorthodox, but I believe it's the right one.
When I'm interviewing you, I'm not your adversary, so don't treat me like one by trying to snow me. If you're a good fit for the job, I want to find that out and hire you ... and if you're not a good fit, I want to find that out so that I don't put you in a job that you'll struggle with and even risk getting fired from. Assuming you want to land a position where you'll thrive, this should be your goal too -- and honesty is more likely to get us there.
So that means you should come clean about weaknesses. I'm not going to be shocked to discover you have some; we all do. The question is just how they'll fit with this particular position, something we should both be interested in.
Here's part one of formulating your answer: Think seriously about your weak points. What have you struggled with in the past? What have past managers encouraged you to do differently? If you could wave a magic wand over your head and change something about your work skills or persona, what would it be?
And here's part two: What are you doing about it?
Your answer in the interview should consist of both parts. It might sound something like this: "When I first started in the work world, I found that I wasn't as naturally organized as I wanted to be. Without a system to keep track of everything I was juggling, I had trouble keeping all the balls in the air. So now I make lists religiously and check them every morning and every afternoon to make sure that nothing is slipping through the cracks and all my priorities are correct. I'll never give up my lists, because I know that without them, my natural state is a less organized one."
I like this example because it takes a weakness -- disorganization -- that normally would raise a huge red flag for me, and instead shows how the person is neutralizing it as a problem.
[Now, occasionally your interviewer might follow up with (as I sometimes do), "That's a great description of how you overcame a weakness. Tell me about one you're still struggling with." If this happens, you should still use the two-part formula -- follow up the weakness with what you're doing to work on it. It's okay that you're not perfect yet; no one is. The question is just how it will impact the job.]
I know this goes counter to a lot of the advice out there about not showing any real weaknesses. But I think that plays to the wrong goal. Your goal shouldn't be to get a job, any job. It should be to get the right job for you.