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Career Adversity

January 5, 2012
by Tim Tolan
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Why it's best to deal honestly when asked about how we handled bad job experiences

Most of us have “been there” and “done that” when it comes to dealing with adversity in a former job or organization. I see far too many candidates that have a blemish on their resume hoping somehow that the topic never comes up. None of us want to go back in time and open old wounds and relive a bad experience. Let’s face it—it’s not fun to talk about for most of us.

I happen to be in a different camp altogether. I really appreciate hearing how a candidate had a bad working experience in a former life and, more importantly, how they overcame the obstacles, removed the barriers, and made things happen before they moved on. Hiding behind the employment dates on a resume without fully explaining what happened in a bad situation or organization does you no good.

In fact, I will submit to you that by reliving the details in an open and honest conversation, you may find out something about yourself that you take for granted. You may also find that by telling your story, the person on the other side of the desk will give you high scores for how you handle adversity as much (or more) than for your career achievements and accomplishments. A very famous person once said “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” I could not agree more.

Talk about how you handled your situation, what the outcome was and what you learned from it. In today’s world, that’s all that really matters. We all learn through adversity and failure, and that is what helps shape us into being the best healthcare CIO we can be. If we choose to, we can drink our own Kool-Aid and steer the interview back to our comfort zone  of career success metrics. It’s human nature to shed the best light possible on why we feel we are the best candidate for the role.

This concept is also true as you interview talent to join your organization. You should try it! Add a few questions to your next interview to get a better picture of how an individual dealt with adversity. Here are a few you may want to add to your arsenal:
• Tell me about a very difficult decision you had to make where the outcome did not turn out the way you planned. Tell me why you made the decision and what you would do differently if you could do it all over again.
• Give me a situation where you were asked to compromise your integrity. What was the outcome?
• Tell me about the worst boss you ever worked for and how you were able to be an effective employee. How were you able to maintain your focus on the goals and objectives of the job?

I have many more, and I’m sure you can think of a few questions yourself that will help you understand how a candidate dealt with adversity in a prior role. You will get a glimpse into how they are wired and perhaps their future behavior. Adversity and failure make us stronger and that’s been proven over and over throughout history.

Anyone who has read about Thomas Edison knows what I’m talking about. The story goes that Thomas Edison failed more than 1,000 times when trying to create the lightbulb. The number of times he tried is up for grabs and depends which version you read. When asked about it, Edison allegedly said, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a lightbulb.” Adversity can be our friend if we learn from it. ◆

Tim Tolan is a senior partner at Sanford Rose Associates Healthcare IT Practice. He can be reached at or at (843) 579-3077 ext. 301. His blog can be found at