Barbara's blog: You Were Born an Original

clock Released On 19 March 2024

Barbara's blog: You Were Born an Original

I started this year feeling like I needed a mindset reboot, after coming out of a challenging period of time. And although I have not yet managed to tie up all the loose ends, the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter, so I did what every professional life juggler looking to extend her range of spinning plates would do and applied for a new role.

The role is a secondment with an external organisation, to lead their net zero and sustainability programme across the regulatory sectors. It is not only a great opportunity to contribute to matters of national strategic importance, but also a way to challenge myself, while still being safely tethered to the mother ship. The new organisation is much smaller and more agile than my current place of work, and an ‘all hands on deck’ approach is not unusual when under the cosh. A sense of purpose and a chance to unshackle the mind from the corporate chains? Yes please.

While I was preparing for the interview, I was reflecting on how I could answer the dreaded question: ‘what is your biggest weakness?’. It is impossible to reply truthfully, so candidates generally resort to providing studied answers designed to show how the weakness could in reality be an asset to the employer: 

“I am a perfectionist / workaholic / people motivator and I deliver outstanding work… 

…at the expense of missing the deadline because I fret over tiny details / suffering from burnout / alienating all my colleagues… 

… um, thank you I’ll show myself out”.

I did some desktop research to see how professionals would tackle the challenge. The one that made me think the most advised to flip the question: “I hate surprises. Can you tell me something that might go wrong now, so that I’m not surprised when it happens?”. My first thought was that I hate surprises too (including birthday parties and trips away… bah humbug) so I immediately related to the question – and in turn empathised with the employer asking it. My second thought was that I should come clean on my imposter syndrome.

I occasionally and unexpectedly get paralysed by crises of confidence. Like surfing the waves, I crest on successes, but failures send me crashing down into the water. And although I come up for air unhurt, I end up reeling with self-doubt. Management theory encourages us to ‘fail forward’, that is embrace the opportunity to learn and reframe your thinking rather than see failure as a reflection of our self-worth. But it takes courage to be self-aware and women are particularly harsh critics.

Over the years I have become a better surfer and have learnt to starve the inner voice feeding my insecurity by being diligent, disciplined and well prepared. This is what the question is really about: being honestly authentic about the unexpected and demonstrating ways in which you are addressing the shortcomings. Disclosure and evaluation rather than criticism.

The good news is that the dreaded question – or any version of it – did not come up at interview.

And, I got the job. Here’s to knowing yourself, and then being yourself despite knowing yourself.

Barbara works as an environmental strategist for the aviation regulator and lives a stone’s throw from the South Downs, with her 18-year-old creative daughter, 16-year-old ingenious son and supportive husband.


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