Former Amazon and Apple hiring manager, interviewer, senior Marketing and Sales leader. Co-founder of Day One Careers, mentor, interview and leadership coach.
If you are preparing for your behavioral interviews with Amazon, you will need to be comfortable answering Amazon interview questions about professional failures. While the fact that Amazon is keen to know about your professional misfortunes can seem odd, there are a few good reasons why these questions frequently pop up in interviews. And suppose you have the proper mental framework (especially if you have taken our signature Amazon interview preparation course – Amazon Interview Whizz). In that case, you will be able to respond in a genuine way that does not feel awkward. This article will give you a good primer on answering Amazon interview questions about failures.
Amazon interview questions about failures are not your classic “Strengths vs Weaknesses.”
First, let us make something clear. When faced with Amazon interview questions about professional mishaps, it’s not the same as the traditional “Strengths vs Weaknesses” question. Most of us would have been asked about them at some point in our careers. As candidates, we found those questions annoying at best. As Hiring Managers, we found them to be unhelpful.
The “Weaknesses” questions’ original intent was to probe for a candidate’s capability for objective self-reflection while hoping they don’t get too candid and share something that would adversely influence the hiring decision. Unfortunately, in reality, most human beings cannot objectively assess their strengths or weaknesses (hence, the popularity of 360-degree feedback). Therefore, the only capability for which “Weaknesses” questions end up testing is a candidate’s ability to lie during the interview, thanks to countless guides that offer canned responses to these questions.
When Amazon asks you to share situations of your professional misfortunes, they are not asking for a character reference. They are not asking you to evaluate yourself. Instead, they are digging for evidence that you demonstrated competencies that Amazon values (the 16 Leadership Principles) at some point in the past. With this evidence on board, Amazon interviewers will judge whether you will demonstrate the same competencies in the future if you get the job.
Amazon interview questions are usually precise about the misfortune’s specific nature and ask candidates to share a particular situation rather than produce a self-evaluation.
Why do Amazon interview questions include “failures” to probe for Leadership Principles?
Despite having an outrageously high hiring bar, Amazon is very down-to-earth and humble. Amazon’s leadership understands that everyone makes mistakes, and perfection is an illusion (hence, the line about great leaders’ body odour not smelling of roses in Earn Trust Leadership Principle). Perhaps, they got this idea from the many failures and blunders they have committed over time. Just think about Fire Phone, Amazon Auctions and Amazon Tickets, ambitious projects that no longer exist.
Amazon also understands that great leaders do not walk around with a crystal ball. The reason why they end up with excellent intuition and a relatively high professional “hit rate” is not because they never made mistakes. Instead, they demonstrated an exceptional ability to own up to the blunders, learn from them and quickly adjust how they operate. This is precisely why Amazon interview questions sometimes probe for professional failures.
What Leadership Principles does Amazon look for in “failure questions”?
There are a handful of Leadership Principles where answering Amazon interview questions about failures will offer the evidence supporting that you have what it takes. For example, “Are Right A Lot” LP expects leaders to have strong intuition and have a high “hit rate” of making the right decisions. However, today, anyone who makes good decisions must have learned from making a few bad ones in the past. Hence, a question that asks you to share when you made one of those bad decisions is looking for evidence of your learning from the error and deploying a permanent fix to how you operate.
Another example is “Deliver Results”. This Leadership Principle expects Amazonians to have a high bar on personal productivity, including achieving a lot under tight deadlines. It also assumes that you have to make trade-offs when you are overloaded and you won’t do some stuff. Hence, you can expect a question about when you could not achieve everything you planned.
How should you answer Amazon interview questions about failures?
Now that you know what Amazon is looking for by asking “failure” questions, here are some practical tips that will help you structure answers.
1. Always follow the STAR format.
Never forget that you are in a competency-based interview, and you are a storyteller. If the STAR method of responding to behavioural interview questions is new to you, our Amazon Interview Whizz training will help.
2. Offer a genuine response.
Do not try to wiggle your way out of responding by providing a canned answer. However, share an actual situation where things did not go as you expected. You are not expected to be perfect. Remember, a lot of Leadership Principles have the “reverse” side.
3. Focus on relationships, mitigations and learnings.
When things go wrong, there are three immediate adverse outcomes. First, relationships get strained and sometimes broken. This is because, in reality, you never fail alone — you drag other colleagues with you. Second, a negative fall-out will affect the customers, employees or the P&L of the business. Otherwise, it’s not a failure that’s worth sharing. And third, there are always learnings from every professional mishap.
Therefore, when answering Amazon interview questions about failures, you should focus on these three aspects. Specifically: how you protected trust in strained relationships across all affected parties, mitigated the nuclear fall-out, and learned and adjusted how you operate quickly.
What if you get a generic “Tell me about a career failure” question?
As Hiring Managers, we would have never asked this question because it is too generic to probe for any specific Leadership Principle. And yet, candidates sometimes get them. Our advice: treat it as an Are Right A Lot question and share a situation when you made a judgment error. We are confident we would have a few such cases to share so that you won’t be short of content. What will count in the end is how this experience shaped your behaviour in the professional experience that followed.
GG and Evgeny