When I was a senior in college completing my year-long stint with four colleagues as a summer orientation coordinator, we were tasked with interviewing and hiring the next crew of five students who would replace us. We’d spent the last year putting our time and hearts into a program that was very special to us, and we wanted to leave it in the right hands.
One of the most promising applicants, Neil, also had some spotty portions of his college history. He’d accomplished a lot in his three years on campus, leading important organizations, initiating necessary change on campus, and doing the kind of difficult work that gets you noticed. But he’d also had some very public fallouts with fellow leaders and even a few campus officials. The program needed his talents, but it didn’t need the baggage and chaos we were concerned might come with him.
There was no way around it—we had to express our concern and ask him to tell us more about those events.
He could have gotten defensive. He could have made excuses, tried to spin it, or blamed someone else. But instead, Neil just sighed, looked right at us and said,
“I’ve done a lot wrong while I’ve been here. I’ve made a lot of mistakes…”
I don’t even recall the rest of his answer. I know it involved what he’d learned and what he would do differently in the future. But honestly, those lessons weren’t as important to us as was the assurance that he didn’t blame anybody else, took ownership of his fault in some (though likely not all) of the experiences, and expressed regret that led to learning.
So we hired him. And he did a fantastic job.
“Everyone makes mistakes” is one of those clichés that’s true. Billionaire investor and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, was asked in this interview:
“You’ve gotten fired from or quit multiple jobs. When people go through that and then have to explain it in their next job interviews, what should they say?”
Cuban’s answer? “The truth.”
Nobody, from high schools, to colleges, to employers, expects you to be perfect. But they do expect that you’ll accept and acknowledge your mistakes. If you’re asked about them, own up to your role. Prove that you recognize what you did or did not do that caused things to go badly.
The far more positive discussion about what you learned and what you would do differently next time will almost certainly ensue. But your audience will be a lot more open to hearing and believing it once you’ve put the truth on the table.