How do you answer dreaded interview questions like, “What’s your greatest weakness?” Here’s some advice.
Before I start this story, I need to make a confession. I never wear watches. Not because I don’t find the correct time an incredibly useful piece of information, but because I keep losing them. Watches are a distraction when I’m working, and so I take them off and they disappear. Or worse, I forget to take them off, launch into my latest DIY project, and they get ruined.
So, now the story. Fifteen years ago I attended a week-long intensive on Strategic Planning, hosted by the Executive Development Program at Queen’s University. One hundred plus senior managers and business leaders from a wide range of industries came together to learn about best practices in strategic analysis, competitive positioning, and corporate visioning. In preparation for the seminar, we each completed a 20 page psychometric test to evaluate our individual teamwork style, the premise being that a strong team has a balance of styles.
The weekend before the intensive, I made a deliberate effort to buy and wear a watch. I was meeting with executives, we would be on a tight schedule, my Administrative Assistant would not be there, I needed a watch, and I found one. It was a beautiful piece of art, dark blue face with planets and meteors, hand-tooled leather band, the kind of watch that, when you see somebody wearing it, you can say “hey, that’s a cool watch.” Unfortunately, it had no numbers, a serious defect in watches as it turns out, and so an unreliable indicator of time. But still, a really cool watch.
On the first day of the Strategic Planning intensive, I was late (see above, about the watch), and walked in as the seminar leader was describing the four quadrants of teamwork style: Visionary; Analyst; People Person; Routine Keeper (actually, in truth, I can’t even remember the proper title of the last category, but it was along these lines).
He was using pictures of watches to make a point about the personality differences of the various styles:
The Routine Keeper: straightforward watch, no nonsense, no embellishments – black band, exactly 12 numbers in the appropriate places, three hands, precision set.
The People Person: colorful watch, guy with big ears and white-gloved hands pointing out the passing minutes and hours.
The Analyst: digital watch with all the bells and whistles – built in calculator, multiple time zone indicators, (today it probably would include a GPS).
The Visionary: If they even wear a watch, which is unlikely, artistic, out-of-this-world embellishments, probably no numbers.
This is where I walked in – the seminar leader was showing a picture of my brand new watch. Well, not exactly my watch but enough like my watch that I felt compelled to pull down my blazer sleeve as I slipped into the vacant seat between two clear Routine Keepers: six pencils each lined up at exact half inch intervals, no nonsense watches.
The seminar leader handed out the results of our psychometric tests, and we each received a circular seismic graph with readouts of our scores in all four quadrants. I was literally off-the-chart on visionary, my score recorded outside the boundary of the graph. I also came in very strong on People Person and Analyst.
It turns out, though, that I had zero natural capacity for routine. I mean zero – it didn’t even register on the chart – not even a blip. Now, I can’t say that the results came as a complete surprise. One week sorting Christmas mail for Canada Post when I was sixteen was enough to convince me that I would need a career with a lot of variety. And without my detail-oriented Administrative Assistant, my daily schedule would all-to-easily go off track.
But it did provide me with an “aha moment.” I now had the answer to the dreaded interview question, “What do you consider your greatest weakness?”
Later that evening, while the Analysts sat in one corner discussing the latest gadgets, and the People Persons organized the social calendar for the balance of the week (I believe the Routine Keepers had all gone to bed early because ‘we have a busy day tomorrow’), the Visionaries in the group pondered the implications of our test results.
Almost uniformly, we all turned out to be routine-challenged, and it was reflected in how we managed our day-to-day lives. We had filing systems that could best be described as archaeological digs (most recent layer on top). We were procrastinators with our taxes (yecchh, paperwork!). And we kept losing our watches.
Visionaries don’t sweat the small stuff, so we quickly turned the conversation to more interesting things. Our projects. Each of us had at least half a dozen personal and professional projects on the go, and we quickly came up with at least a dozen other great ideas for new products, marketing strategies, fix-its, and anything else that crossed our conversational path. Unfortunately, without the benefit of a good Routine Keeper in our midst, there was nobody taking notes, and so our great ideas stayed as vaporware.
And that was the point of the psychometric exercise. A good team needs a balance of skills and aptitudes:
Routine Keepers who track the details, monitor the deadlines, organize the paperwork, and keep minutes of the meetings.
People Persons who can communicate on multiple levels of language, build relationships, and broker solutions for stakeholder conflicts.
Analysts who can evaluate the costs, risks and ROI of various options.
Visionaries who can see the art of the possible, create compelling business visions, anticipate what’s coming down the road, and come up with various outside-the-box ideas to tackle issues and capitalize on new opportunities.
Any group – whether a project team, a corporation, or a marriage – that is short-skilled in one of these quadrants is likely to run into problems.
When I got back to the office I took a renewed look at our team to see if we were balanced across the four quadrants. I became much more aware of recruiting strategies to keep team balance, and I made a point of checking out people’s watches. I also made every effort to build bridges with the Routine Keepers in my midst, who were both my bane and my safeguard.
On a personal level, I took a good look at how my “greatest weakness” was affecting my productivity, and developed strategies to close the gap. To Do lists became my greatest friend, as did notebooks. I could write down the great ideas that popped into my head in the middle of the night.
My electronic calendar became my lifeline to the scheduled world, because it meant that I could commit myself with abandon to the person or project at hand, and know that an alarm would ring when it was time to be somewhere else. I made sure that all the clocks, dashboards, computers and cellphones in my range of influence were set to the correct time.
I married an accountant (well technically, I married somebody who later became an accountant), so there was the tax issue addressed. And I made a concerted effort to start listening more attentively to the details, the dotted i’s, the crossed t’s, so that I wouldn’t be blind-sided by them.
As a career coach and resume strategist, I enjoy the process of helping my clients map out their strengths, but I also commit time to exploring the dark side. Your greatest weakness is only a liability to the extent to which it goes unacknowledged and unaddressed.
A little self-awareness can be immeasurably valuable when assessing whether a new career opportunity is right for you, and it can help you understand exactly how you can be of value to a new organization.
Moreover the exercise of self-discovery can give you a really interesting and authentic story to tell when the interviewer asks about your greatest weakness. Because really, they won’t believe you when you say “I work too hard.”
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