Don't make this mistake in your interview
I was interviewing a candidate for a position. He seemed very friendly and nice. His resume indicated he had the required experience for the role. Everything was going well until I asked him about a career pivot he had made at the beginning of his career. He explained that he started down one path but decided that the area in which he wanted to work with my company was a better fit for his personality. Ok, sounded reasonable. Then he did something that surprised me. He told me that his plan was to go to law school in a few years and become an attorney. He was very excited about the prospect and explained that type of work he wanted to do. In my mind, I thought, ‘did he just tell me that this really isn’t what he wants to do, and he won’t be with my company for all that long?”
I am going to tell you a secret. You may think the interview is all about you. Actually, the interview is all about the employer. The employer has an opening and is looking to fill it with the best-qualified person that can meet their budget. The opening is because there is a problem that must be addressed, such as too much business (a good one) or someone to fix processes, culture or people issues (a bad one). They are buying your service. While the hiring team will ask questions to get to know you as a person, the bottom line is that the hiring criteria will be whether you can do the job and are you the type of person that can be successful at that company. Your personal aspirations, while interesting, are generally not at the top (and not even in the middle) of most hiring managers criteria for selection. The hiring manager may ask the traditional “where do you see yourself in five years?” question, but you should not be fooled that this a question where you should pour your heart out about your goals and aspirations. Instead, know why the question is being asked and know how to answer this question to show yourself in the best possible light.
So what should you say when asked about your career goals? This is where doing your homework about the company before the interview will come in handy. Is it a company that is known for having long tenure among its employees or are people moving in and out of the company quickly? Is the company good about moving people around the organization to provide development or do people stay in position for a long time? You can certainly get some of this information from Glassdoor as well as the company’s social media presence. Another great source is talking with anyone that works or has worked at this company or knows of someone that has worked there. Bonus points if you can find someone that has worked with this particular hiring manager.
Once you have some of this information, you can get an idea of what is valued at this company. Knowing what is valued (job mastery, wanting to take on new projects, moving up the corporate ladder) will help you craft a good answer that is consistent with the expectations of the hiring team. Let me show you how you would best answer the question about your career goals in different situations.
What about an employer that has a lot of turnover? To start with, you should be cautious about wanting to work there as there could be serious issues that are resulting in high turnover. If after your investigation this employer still looks like a good fit, you need to understand if the management is encouraging high turnover or are trying to change this pattern. Some employers may want high turnover (such as in a sales environment), as it weeds out the good performers from the bad. Most companies, though, fall into the not wanting people to leave category, as high turnover is disruptive and causes issues in many operational areas. So here is how you might answer the question in these two cases.
High turnover that is desired
It is hard to say where I see myself in five years. I am a believer in taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented to me. I know that I will work hard and learn everything I can. I want to be successful and believe I am a good fit for this role. I hope that this will lead to many interesting challenges and opportunities here at (interest company name). I am interested in (insert functional area such as marketing, business development or supply chain) and want to make a career in this field.
High turnover not desired
When I think about my career, I want to make a positive impact on whatever company that I work with. My plan is to find a home where I can continue to grow and be challenged. I understand that each job has its ups and downs, and I don’t shy away from this, because I know that this is the way that I can continue to develop as a person.
What if you find out that the company is known as a great place to work but because of a flat organization structure, employees stay in the same position for a while. Then this would be how you answer the question.
I read that people stay at (insert company name) for a long time. That is very impressive and is somewhat unique in this world. Important to me is finding a place where I can contribute and develop. Be that involvement in interesting projects or even how to make this position as effective as possible, I want to be considered a valued member of this staff because of what I offer. If this means I would be eligible for other opportunities down the road, great. I am less interested in a new title, though, then in having work that interests me and where I can contribute to the company’s success.
If the company is one where moving up in the organization is valued and wanting to stay in the same role is a detriment, you would want to answer the question this way.
I see myself moving up within the organization. I have a lot to offer, and I would anticipate that my results will speak for themselves and will be noticed within the organization. I don’t have any specific role in mind, but I would like to continue to take on bigger challenges. What that means in five years, I don’t have any set trajectory. I would think, though, that if I haven’t moved up, my skills are probably not the right fit for this organization. I don’t believe that is true, though. I think I have what it takes to make an impact.
One thing you will notice is that I do not name a specific position in any of these scenarios. That is on purpose. Once you state a title, you anchor that is the hiring team’s mind. Will this person be happy if they never get to this position? What if the position cited requires skills that this person does not appear to possess and may not readily develop? You do not want to put out into the universe anything that potentially could cause the interviewer any pause. That is why it is never, ever a good idea to say, “I want your job,” where you might immediately put the interviewer on the defensive.
You spin your answer to address the concerns of the hiring manager and company, not necessarily your true feelings. You may ask if this is dishonest? No, I don’t think it is. Your goal is to find employment that meets your needs. Those that are successful in their job search know that they have to address what the hiring team needs---on the resume, cover letter and in the interview. Smart candidates do this, those that do not understand this dynamic often miss this important step. Now I have one big caveat here. You should not be on an interview with a company if you are not willing to deal with the reality of what you might face there. If you know that you are expected to be in a position three to four years before you can get promoted, don’t go on an interview with this type of company if you really are not willing to wait this long. Many people will say to themselves that their situation will be different. Maybe yes but probably not. Why not instead find a company and a role that better meets your needs and aspirations. In the long run, you will be happier and feel more career contentment. It will also mean that you will not be back in the job market so quickly.
What if you can’t find out that much about the company culture before the interview. Perhaps it is a smaller company with really no online presence. What do you do? Well, you should first be aware of the way you are treated through the hiring process. Is the company good about follow up or do you have to always reach out to find out the next step? If a company has a good recruitment process, that says a lot about how people are treated. When you come in for an interview, how does the place look? Do the employees seem happy? Do people try to make a “home” out of their work space with pictures and personal items? Spend a few minutes talking with the person that greets you. Inquire how long s/he has worked there. What do they like about the company? You can even ask how they would describe the culture. Use the answers as a guide on how the company operates and thus what is valued.
So what about the person that I interviewed that wanted to be a lawyer. We had a very interesting conversation about it, and it seemed very well thought out on his part. Had he been the most qualified of the people that I interviewed for this position, I would have spent more time exploring how the position I had fit in his goals and specifically, how long he reasonably thought he would be working at my company. I was looking for someone I could grow and develop, so if his plans were to take this job so that he could earn enough money to pay for his law school tuition, it would not have been a good match with what I needed. At the end of the day as the employer, my needs, not the candidates, will always be paramount.