Can you tell me about a time when you have failed to achieve a goal?

  | James Innes

Can you tell me about a time when you have failed to achieve a goal?

Alternative and related questions:

What’s the biggest failure you’ve experienced in your career?
Can you tell me about a time when you’ve failed to meet an important deadline?

The meaning behind the question:

As well as pinpointing a particular ‘failure’ in your career, the interviewer will also be gauging your overall attitude to failure – how you deal with adversity. Everyone experiences some failures during the course of their careers but not everybody bounces back and learns as much from the experience as they perhaps should.

Your answer:

You might think this is a tough question because there’s no way to answer it without admitting failure. But it’s not really that tough. The secret is to avoid picking too major a failure and whatever example you choose, to subtly blame the failure on factors outside of your control. You should be very wary indeed of laying the blame at the doorstep of a former boss or colleague; this can backfire on you spectacularly. However, you can certainly dilute some of the blame by saying that you were working “as part of a team” at the time.


In my last job we were given the opportunity to pitch for a major contract – at relatively short notice. I was part of a team that spent a good couple of weeks working very hard on the tender and it was clear that our company was undoubtedly the best choice for the contract. Unfortunately, the client had employed a rather inexperienced individual to review the tenders and they fell for a competitor’s sales pitch – which had a lot less substance but a lot more spin. It was a major blow. I was naturally very disappointed at what seemed a very unfair decision, especially having put so much effort into the tender – but I wrote it down to experience and got on with successfully bidding for other contracts. The following year, the client having been very dissatisfied with our competitor’s performance, we were asked to re-tender for the contract. This time, we won it. We did of course learn some lessons from our previous failure but, most of all, we were fortunate that the individual responsible for reviewing the tenders this time was a lot more experienced.

Word of warning:

Don’t be tempted to say you’ve never failed. The interviewer won’t believe you!

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