Stumped When Asked “What are your Strengths & Weaknesses”?

Identify your Strengths through Obstacles & Failures

There is a lot of talk about knowing your strengths, leveraging your strengths and sharing your strengths toward career success.  If you have been interviewing for a new job recently, you were probably asked to explain your strengths and weaknesses, usually one of the hardest questions for job seekers to answer.

Several best sellers have been published which promise a method for you to identify your

ID your Strengths gained by past challenges

ID your Strengths gained by past challenges

strengths by answering a quiz or series of questions about yourself.  These are all quite good but you might still come up empty when asked the question during an interview and you cannot come across with a text book answer; you have to be authentic.  You have to be you!  When coaching job seekers, I ask them a question that results in a quizzical look on their faces.

“Let’s talk about the last huge obstacle or challenge you faced at work.”  But, they usually respond, “I thought you wanted to know my strength.” 

Melissa’s Story:

Melissa was a project leader and responsible for the outcome of work performance by people who do not always directly report to her.  She has little to no authority but is expected to successfully integrate new IT systems in mid to large corporations.  “Tell me about the latest crisis you handled at work” I asked and she told me of a major project involving the introduction of a new IT software system into a global nonprofit organization.  The CFO of the organization, with whom she would be working closely, was agreeable and enthusiastic about the change throughout all the pre-integration phases; however, his “true personality” showed when under stress.

It gets worse!

Melissa explained that he actually pounded his fist and shouted at the HR manager and benefits manager, both of whom reported to him, when they were discussing problems with the current system.  I asked Melissa what their responses were.  She said “they cowered but I could tell they were used to his outbursts and I could not be successful or comfortable working with this man in this toxic environment so I waited until the meeting was over and stayed to talk to him.  I explained that he was not only impeding the progress of the project but was embarrassing himself.  I appealed to his reputation and he simply melted before my eyes.  I was shocked.  He explained that he was trained by someone who showed power by intimidation and he didn’t know there was another way.  We talked for a while and he actually thanked me for confronting him.  I was shaking but proud of myself.”  Melissa explained that subsequent meetings were amazing and the CFO seemed like a changed man.

Voila – the Power of a Story

Obviously three of Melissa’s strengths were courage under stress, persuasion and influencing others – all critical to her success as a project team leader and manager of others.

Let’s Talk Failure

Continuing with our conversation, I asked Melissa to tell me about a time when she failed at work.  After thinking a couple of moments, she explained she recently almost had to fire one of her team members and considered it partially her fault.  The employee was well qualified to provide analytical reporting to an external client and, though his reports were flawless and analysis accurate, the client complained that he didn’t explain the interpretations of the reports.  “All I can read is numbers, numbers, numbers and even when I ask for more information, all I hear is numbers, numbers, numbers. I don’t know what I am paying you guys for.  He needs to speak my language.”  Melissa further explained she was busy managing six other projects so quickly shared that message to the employee.  She hoped the problem would be corrected by him hearing the client was unhappy but it didn’t improve.  The client complained a few more times to Melissa before ultimately breaking the contract with her corporation. Melissa’s manager wanted the analyst fired and Melissa was devastated, realizing she had not provided enough feedback to her employee in order for him to improve his performance.  She asked her manager for the opportunity to work with the analyst for one month more and she immediately implemented a system to have weekly check ins with her entire team of five in order to give them feedback as well as to listen to their concerns and allow them to vent.    Melissa role played discussions with the analyst and he changed his communication style, quickly becoming more successful in his role.  He understood the importance of not only accurate analysis but communicating effectively with the client and ensuring that the client fully understood the reporting.

Don’t You Just Love Happy Endings?

I commended Melissa for being so candid and thoughtful in her reply to this difficult question; however, shared that the negative situation had positive consequences for her and her direct report.

Now it’s Your Turn

In anticipation of an upcoming  job interview, prepare a few stories that demonstrate that you are human, can make mistakes but, more importantly, learn and become better for having experienced them.

Need help differentiating and marketing your unique strengths, talents and gifts to land your ideal career? Contact me –  Patricia Edwards, founder of  I have interviewed and selected top talent for Fortune 100 and 200 companies as well as non profit organizations. I now share that wisdom with you – from the other side of the desk. Contact me at and let’s discuss how I can help you.

Other related articles:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.