Tell Me About A Mistake You’ve Made In Your Career

What the head of HR at Amazon wants to know

The head of HR at Amazon is Beth Galetti and in an interview with Andrew Seaman, senior editor of LinkedIn News, Galetti shares that her favorite question to ask new hires is this one: Tell me about a mistake you’ve made in your career.

Dear Beth,

The answer to this question rises quickly to the surface like a powerful whale. The tail splashes down on the water in a force majeure that sends chills down my arms and feels like a giant spanking on the salty surface of my career. The costly mistake residing in those deep, dark waters came about when I ran a small residential painting business with my spouse. The year was circa 2007, give or take, and I’d come across a new technology that matched the visions in my head regarding employee timesheet management. In those days, we bought cell phones for all employees in order to be fair about the “not” unlimited talk and text plans eating up the employee’s plan minutes. 

A new app came on the market that promised to track employee’s movements throughout the day in real time and allow them to clock in and out of jobs, as well as communicate issues, etc. The GPS market was ramping up. The regional Hudson Map Books we’d issued every employee so they could locate the homes they were to paint were on the verge of becoming museum relics. I met Josh Hall, the son of the founder of the Hudson Map Company, when I returned to college in 2010. By then, he was a bystander watching global positioning systems crumple his family’s mini-empire into a quaint, historical ruin.  

The app worked on Blackberry phones and I would need to purchase 18 of them. The problem was Blackberry—expensive, not construction-worker friendly, and laden with additional software fees. I couldn’t afford them. Instead, the rep said one of the other cell phone models would also work because it could send and receive the required data, a reddish-burgundy flip phone with a small screen. This was the answer I wanted.

What followed was a large purchase for our small company. I spent hundreds of hours getting set-up for launch. I trained the employees, though I had no prior experience to draw upon. This was virgin territory for all of us.  

From day one, it was a total failure. The app didn’t work well on the flip phones. Only one employee could manage to send us the correct data; others couldn’t capture any functionality, much less a signal. We did everything we could to work out the kinks, but it was taking too much focus and time away from the real business of getting houses painted. I had spent about 25K, nearly a third of our revenue for any given month on this new system. 

I was angry. I bitterly cut ties with the app company. I was left with a slew of red cell phones that quickly became junk drawer paraphernalia as the recession encroached on our business. I felt demoralized and betrayed by the app representative. I felt guilt about the expenditure. There was no return on investment and I can still feel the pain of that mistake. 

I know what you’re going to ask next, Beth. What are the lessons and takeaways from a mistake that would measure up to a missing box of pencils at Amazon?

I’ve learned to temper my early adopter zeal. I was ready for cell phones to do more than they were ready to do, in an era before they became ‘smart.’ 

I’ve learned that while I’m good at due diligence before making a major purchase, I can be drawn into believing whatever the salesperson tells me if it’s what I want to believe. It’s called confirmation bias. 

I’ve learned to be cautious of new technology claims. Even though the app representative had examples of companies that were using the technology successfully, I should have been suspicious that I would be the only company in my state using it. 

But here’s the real conundrum, Beth. I’m wiser after this experience but there’s a good chance I’d still make the same mistake. I just don’t know if I can change that part of myself. Sometimes, my early-adopter zeal has cranked out a colossal failure, as in this example. Other times, my passion for adventure and sense of curiosity leads to amazing discoveries. 

Let’s suppose I’m still sitting in Beth’s office. How honest should I have been? My story has gone the way of a fish tail, I mean, tale—getting stretched a bit too far. Where did I go wrong?

Here’s some advice from Career Strategist and Coach Linda Raynier: Use a compelling and honest story, explaining why it was a mistake, what you’ve learned and any steps you’ve taken to show that you’re “working on it.” To help ground your story and keep from going off the rails, use the SAR framework — Situation, Action, Result.

Good advice. Use a framework to “ground the story and keep it from going off the tails (or rails).” I’ll just see myself to the door. 

Julie Ethan, Author and Consultant

Posted on: March 20, 2021, by :

Leave a Reply

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