If you are preparing for your behavioural interviews with Amazon based on the 14 Leadership Principles, you might have learned that some interview questions will ask you to share a story about a professional failure. While the fact that Amazon is keen to know about your professional misfortunes can seem odd, there are a few good reasons why these questions frequently pop up in interviews. And if you have the right mental framework (if you’ve taken my training courses, Amazon Interview Bootcamp to STAR Method Bootcamp, you know that I’m big on mental frameworks!), you will be able to respond in a way that is genuine and does not feel awkward. With this article, I hope to give you a good primer on answering Amazon interview questions about failures.
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It’s not your classic “Strengths vs Weaknesses.”
First, let me make something clear. When Amazon asks you about professional mishaps, it’s not the same as the traditional “Strengths vs Weaknesses” question. Most of us would have been asked about them at some point in our careers; I am sure. As a candidate, I found those questions annoying at best. As a hiring manager, I found them to be nothing but a recruitment vain.
The “Weaknesses” questions’ original intent was to probe for a candidate’s capability for objective self-reflection while hoping that they don’t get too candid and share something that would adversely influence the hiring decision. In reality, most human beings are incapable of objectively assessing their strengths or weaknesses (hence, the popularity of 360-degree feedback). Therefore, the only capability that “Weaknesses” questions end up testing for is a candidate’s ability to lie during the interview thanks to countless guides that offer canned responses to these questions.
When Amazon asks you to share situations of your professional misfortunes, they are not asking for a character reference. They are not asking you to evaluate yourself. They are digging for evidence that you demonstrated competencies that Amazon values (the 14 Leadership Principles) at some point in the past. With this evidence on board, Amazon interviewers will make a judgment call whether you will demonstrate the same competencies in the future if you get the job.
This is why Amazon interview questions are usually precise about the misfortune’s specific nature and ask candidates to share a particular situation rather than produce a self-evaluation.
Why does Amazon include “failure” questions to probe for Leadership Principles?
Despite having an outrageously high hiring bar, Amazon is a very down-to-earth and humble organisation. Amazon’s leadership understands that everyone makes mistakes, and perfection is an illusion (hence, the line about great leaders body odour not smelling of roses in Earn Trust Leadership Principle). Perhaps, they got this idea from the multitude of failures and blunders they have committed over time. Just think about Fire Phone, Amazon Auctions and Amazon Tickets, ambitious projects that no longer exist.
What Amazon also understands is that great leaders do not walk around with a crystal ball. The reason why they end up with excellent intuition and a relatively high professional “hit rate” is not because they never made mistakes. It’s because they demonstrated an exceptional ability to own up to the blunders, learn from them and quickly adjust how they operate.
What Leadership Principles does Amazon look for in “failure questions”?
There are a handful of Leadership Principles where a situation detailing a professional misfortune can still offer the evidence supporting that you have what it takes. For example, “Are Right A Lot” LP expects leaders to have strong intuition and have a high “hit rate” of making right decisions. However, today, anyone who makes good decisions must have learned from making a few bad ones in the past. Hence, a question that asks you to share a time when you made one of those bad decisions is looking for evidence of your learning from the error and deploying a permanent fix to how you operate.
Another example is “Deliver Results”. This Leadership Principle expects Amazonians to have a high bar on personal productivity, which includes achieving a lot under tight deadlines. It also assumes that when you are overloaded, you have to make trade-offs and some stuff won’t be done. Hence, you can expect a question about a time when you could not achieve everything you planned.
How should you answer Amazon “failure” interview questions?
Now that you know what Amazon is looking for by asking “failure” questions, here are some practical tips that will help you structure answers.
1. Always follow the STAR format.
Never forget that you are in a competency-based interview, and you are a story-teller. If the STAR method of responding to behavioural interview questions is new to you, my STAR Method Bootcamp training will help.
2. Offer a genuine response.
Do not try to wiggle your way out of responding by providing a canned answer. Do share an actual situation where things did not go the way you expected. You are not expected to be perfect. Remember, a lot of Leadership Principles have the “reverse” side.
3. Focus on relationships, mitigations and learnings.
When things go wrong, there are three immediate adverse outcomes. First, relationships get strained and sometimes broken. This is because, in reality, you never fail alone — you drag other colleagues with you. Second, there is a negative fall-out that will affect the customers, employees or the P&L of the business. Otherwise, it’s not a failure that’s worth sharing. And, third, there are always learnings to be had from every professional mishap.
Therefore, when answering “failure” questions, you should focus on these three aspects. Specifically: how you protected trust in strained relationships across all affected parties, how you mitigated the nuclear fall-out, and how you learned and adjusted how you operate quickly.
What if you get a generic “Tell me about a career failure” question?
While I would have never asked this question because it is too generic to probe for any specific Leadership Principle, candidates sometimes get them. My advice: treat it as an Are Right A Lot question and share a situation when you made a judgment error. I am confident that all of us would have a few such cases to share, so you won’t be short of content. What will count in the end is how this experience shaped your behaviour in your professional experience that followed. And this is where, I’m afraid, my coaching ends. It’s time for your expertise to shine, and for the chips to fall where they may.