How To Explain a Blip in Your Career — Most People Have Made a Career Mistake

career strategy interviewing recruiting
How to explain a career mistake in interviews

So you've had a misstep at some point in your career, and you're getting ready to interview for a new job. How do you explain it?

Whether your "career mistake" was a poor job choice (or choice of boss for that matter) or a project or professional relationship didn't go as well as you might have wanted, most of the people I've worked with as a coach and as a former executive recruiter have experienced some kind of setback in their careers.

And the euphemisms for those setbacks are many: A bump in the road. A rocky period. A rough patch. To name a few.

When I was catching up with my friend, colleague and online reputation authority Molly McPherson, we were talking about how you recover from a career misstep. She called it "a blip." I'm always a fan of using slightly silly-sounding names for things that are actually quite serious, so let's go with blip. It's approachable.

What do you do when you have a blip in your career and you feel you have some explaining to do to an executive recruiter or a potential employer?


Step 1 — Recall the motivation that led to your blip

No one takes on a job, an assignment or a project intending for things to go badly.

In other words, if something's gone wrong in your career, it wasn't the potential for a bad outcome that motivated you to take on the challenge. Just the opposite. You hoped and expected to have a positive impact.

Consider this example: You weren't motivated by the possibility of launching a product that would fail. You were motivated by the potential of making an unproven but promising technology accessible to millions of people in order to improve their lives.

Nothing to be ashamed of. And most likely true (and that's important).

So if you've found yourself in a tough spot at some point in your career and you're going to have to explain how you ended up in that position, recall your original well-intentioned motivation. Ideally, the motivation that led you to your career blip will be core to your personal brand and mission and will reinforce the positive aspects of you as a leader and potential candidate for a role. In my example, that failed product launch may have been just one in a string of otherwise successful introductions.

And who doesn't want to root for the person willing to take a risk now and then to achieve something new and meaningful? This particular story might not be yours, but I think you get the idea.

After you've done some reflection and identified the motivation that led to your own career blip, take a few notes. Save them for Step 3.


Step 2 — Own your blip

Don't try to avoid talking about a career blip. So many people do, and it doesn't work.

I can't tell you the number of times I've heard someone in a coaching session say, "But why would I want to point out a weakness in a job interview?"

I can sense that they often want to follow that up with "you idiot." But up to now, no one has gone quite that far!

Two reasons you'd want to be the one to bring up your career blip:

First, as I pointed out above, it's an opportunity to highlight a strength or positive quality that's characteristic of your personal brand.

Second, there's little chance your interviewers won't ask you about it. So why not show a little courage and bring it up yourself? That's surely the sign of a self-aware and self-confident leader.

Enough said.


Step 3 — Put your blip in context

If you have even a hint of a blip in your career — especially if you're interviewing for a senior leadership position — someone on the recruiting team is going to do a little investigating. And that blip is going to be on their mind and ultimately on the mind of everyone involved in the recruiting process. And it's going to distract them.

That's a problem.

It's a problem because it will be hard for you to get your interviewers and the recruiting team fully focused on your strengths and potential positive impact until you've dispelled any underlying concerns they might have about you as a candidate. As an executive recruiter, I saw this happen over and over again.

Let's call it the But-What-About-That-Blip Syndrome. Meaning that until you've addressed your career blip and put it in the context of your strengths, the people evaluating you for most career opportunities are going to get hung up on their curiosity and doubts. And until they're convinced that the blip, whatever it may be, isn't a disqualifying event in your career but actually a sign that you're the right fit, they're going to have a hard time committing to you as a candidate. They may also feel less pressure to make you their most competitive offer if they do decide to commit to you.

After all, you have that blip.

So you need to own your career blip, address it proactively, and then put it in the context of your personal brand and motivations.

To do this, you'll need your notes from Step 1.

A career blip is only a blip when it's placed in the larger context of a more successful career trajectory. Following up on the example in Step 1, now would be the time to highlight the blip (the failed product launch), put it in the proper context (your willingness to take calculated risks to introduce meaningful advances in your industry), and then tie it to the goals and aspirations of your potential employer (the industry breakthrough product they're hoping to introduce someday soon, potentially under your visionary and inspirational leadership).

You don't let career blips get you down. You learn from them and move past them.

 


 

Ideally, the motivation that led you to your career blip will be core to your personal brand and mission and will reinforce the positive aspects of you as a leader and potential candidate for a role.

 



Only after you do this will you be able to move on to an undistracted conversation that focuses exclusively on your strengths and your potential to have a positive impact.

If doing this sounds a little awkward to you, it might be at first. But you can handle it. Early on in the recruiting process or an interview, say something like, "You might be wondering about..." or "If I were you, I'd probably want to know about..."

The person that you're speaking with will be relieved. Not only because they don't have to ask the awkward question (you've, thankfully, saved them that discomfort) but because you'll be providing the explanation they need to relay to the rest of the recruiting team in order to dispel a key doubt and move you forward in the process. And you'll score a few personal integrity points in the process.

Nicely done.

And if your career mistake or blip was a dealbreaker, they probably wouldn't be talking with you in the first place.


Step 4 — Get backup and offer it early

You may have noticed that up to now you're the only one speaking out on your behalf, trying to deactivate that grenade that is your career blip. And if you've done it well (please practice what you're going to say a few times), you'll have gone a long way toward solidifying your position.

But you can't go it alone.

Earlier in my career, I worked in consumer products for about ten years. If there was one thing that I learned, it's that you can't make a claim without providing a reason to believe. When you speak up for yourself, own your blip without hesitation, and thoughtfully place it in the larger context of your career, you're essentially making a claim. About yourself. And that will only get you so far.

You need some backup.

You need to provide the people who are evaluating you a reason to believe. And that reason to believe will ideally be the testimony of people who know you, have a sense of your work and your career trajectory, and have some credibility in the eyes of the recruiting team that you're trying to win over. In other words, that backup is your references.

Good references are typically an important part of any sound recruiting process, especially when an executive search firm is involved. But when you have a blip in your career that you need to explain, references are critical.

Lining up your properly prepared references is an essential step in addressing a career blip in any recruiting process that you may take part in. Proper preparation involves reaching out to your references early, explaining the basics of the recruiting process that you're taking part in, and highlighting the positive themes about your work and character that you think will best support your candidacy.

Among those themes should be the sincere motivation leading you to pursue the opportunity. The same motivation we identified in Step 1. The one that helps explain your career blip or mistake.

If your reference doesn't already know about your career blip, then you should get them up to speed and also explain the connection you'd likely make between your career blip, your motivations, your more successful overall career trajectory, and your ability to have a positive impact in this new job. While your reference will be free to say whatever they like about your blip, if they know how you're positioning that episode in your career and they think that the positioning reflects the truth, they're likely going to repeat it when asked.

If you've considered your references carefully, they'll want to support your career aspirations, and if you've provided a reasonable explanation for your career blip, they'll probably want to use it for one simple reason: It's easier than trying to think something up themselves.

And they'll likely sense that it's the truth (always important, as noted above).

If your carefully-chosen references are now backing up the narrative that you've been sharing about your career blip, then the claim you made about that blip being an indicator of your sincere motivations and potential for positive impact will likely be accepted.

Reason to believe provided.

While it's not guaranteed that the reference will get you the job, it will certainly help remove a potentially major obstacle in your way.

 

 


Conclusion

If you're interviewing for an important job, and you're worried that a career mistake (AKA a blip) might derail your effort, consider taking the following four steps:

  1. Reflect on the positive motivation that led to your career blip. Chances are, it was a motivation to do something positive. It just didn't work out well that time. Take note of that motivation and put it in the larger context of your career trajectory when things worked out better.
  2. Don't shy away from talking about your career blip. Take the bull by the horns, exhibit the self-confidence of a leader, and address your career blip early on in an interview or a recruiting process so that it doesn't cause lingering doubts and distracting thoughts in the minds of the people who are evaluating you.
  3. Present your blip in the larger context of your successful career. Help the people evaluating you see how your career blip is an indicator of the motivations and personal characteristics required of the leader they need to help them achieve their goals.
  4. Line up your references as backup. As in any recruiting process, think carefully about who your references will be. Choose a couple or more who have insight into your career blip and would likely position it the same way you would. Just to be sure, tell them how you're thinking of doing it. If they see it the same way, they're very likely going to back your story up.

While this approach may not be the solution to explaining every career misstep or mistake (if you're situation is more serious or complex, let's talk) it can help you get past at least a few nagging doubts that the people standing in between you and your next big role may have.

And if the misstep you made just happens to be online and public, you should probably talk to my friend Molly McPherson, M.S., APR. She inspired this post and is a nationally recognized expert on crisis public relations management in the age of social media. Her book Indestructible: Reclaim Control and Respond with Confidence in a Media Crisis needs to be in your ‘In Case of PR Emergency Break Glass’ kit. And if you haven’t subscribed to Molly's podcast Indestructible PR with Molly McPherson, what are you waiting for? It’s one of my favorite listens of the week. It’s like a combination of Entertainment Weekly (for the fun), Twitter (for the ripped-from-the-headlines response time), and Harvard Business Review (for the keen insight and analysis). I never miss it. You can follow Molly on Twitter @mollymcpherson.


 

Doug Lester, the author of this post, is a career strategist and coach who has helped over a thousand people find meaning at work, craft their work-life narratives, and advance their careers. He is the Founder and Principal of Career Narratives and is on the coaching staff at the Harvard Business School. He also leads an executive coaching program for the corporate strategy group of a Fortune 100 company in Boston.

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