Where do I want to be in 5 years? On a beach, with a nice cold drink in my hand. You?

More than just interview folklore, the “where do you want to be?” question happens. It’s happened to me. Frankly, when we were using “where do you want to go today?” as part of our brand message, how could we resist asking a version of that question during the interviews? Though I’d hate to think that anyone asks it verbatim. I think my version is something like “if you were hired for the position, can you tell me where you would see your career progressing from there?”.

Anyway, I know people get asked the question and it’s so broad and general that you could go anywhere with it. As someone who has interviewed thousands of people (I guess thousands…not sure), thought I could share some of the thinking that goes behind a question like that. And perhaps, this could help you think about how you would answer the question for yourself. We aren’t trying to trick the interview here…just structuring the answer so you are giving the interviewer something to take away from the conversation.

So first, you have probably heard the advice that you aren’t supposed to say “well, I’d like to have your job in 5 years”. You know the reason for that isn’t necessarily because the interviewer would feel threatened by that; though if they have been in their role for a number of years with no intention to leave it, they might. Actually, that answer lacks depth…it’s too easy. There are a number of ways to grow professionally and so answering “your job” is kind of a cop out. The question is intended to start a conversation…they don’t want to just know the job, they want to discover why that’s is your intended career path and what that choice says about you. Also, keep in mind, that you can describe what you would like to be doing down the road without naming the actual job. It gives you an opportunity to highlight to them what your passions and talents are. Here’s what the interviewer could be thinking while you answer the question:

* Has this person thought about their career progression at all? Since they are looking to leave their employer, they should have thought about it. If they are in demand, they should be desirous of it in their next move. If this candidate is struggling for an answer…why have they not thought about this already?

Hint: think about it. Big red flag if you haven’t.

* How flexible is this person? Do they seem so rigid in their career path that they might not be able to take on extra responsibilities or consider other alternatives based on business need?

Hint: be honest about where you can be flexible. I covered for a maternity leave once that definitely took me away from what I was passionate about, but we needed someone to step in and it was a good opportunity for me to try something different.

* Can we offer this person the kind of career path they are looking for? Does it exist at our company?

Hint: do some research on the company and understand the potential career path, roles posted on their career site and the verbiage they use to talk about their roles. Ask questions about career path. Instead of saying “I’d like to do X”, you could say “I really enjoy X. Can you tell me what kind of roles include responsibility for X at different levels so I can get a sense of how I could progress at your company?”

* Is this person’s assessment of their skills relative to potential career paths on target? Can we help them develop those skills? 

Hint: be honest with yourself. Look at past performance reviews, ask people you’ve worked with in the past. Take that into account when you are thinking about your career goals and again, do the research and ask the questions about roles at different levels of responsibility that could leverage your skills. And be honest about where you might not have significant skills but would like to grow.

* Does this person have some humility? Where do they see themselves relative to others in their field and will I have trouble managing (or working with) them?

Hint: I’d recommend not getting too far ahead of yourself in terms of an established time-frame if you can avoid it. I can’t tell you how many MBAs have told me they want to run a P&L in 3-5 years. That’s a red flag for me. Have a candid conversation about skills sets.

* How does this person value the different parts of their work (strategy versus people management versus execution) and their skills sets?

Hint: your choice of future roles should be a combination of what you are good at and what you like to do, with a little bit of personal growth opportunity thrown in. So again, the interviewer will learn a lot about what you like to do and where you think you are strong…hopefully it matches well with where THEY think you are strong.

*Does this person expect to be at their employer for a while?

Hint: have an answer that relates to career paths within the company based on your research.

* Is this person seriously considering my company?

Hint: once again,doing  the research and asking questions is important. Make it a dialog and be interested in your own career development.

So here’s an example of how the conversation could go if I was interviewing someone:

Me: Sue, if you were to be hired into this Marketing Manager position, have you given some thought to how you might see your career path progressing from there?

Sue: Yes, I have. I’ve always really enjoyed working on go-to-market strategy because there are so many moving pieces. I know that the open position is mostly focused on taking the product to market in the United States. In the future, I’d be interested in exploring roles involved with entering new geographical markets. I like the idea of breaking new ground, engaging with subsidiary marketing teams and learning more about customer behavior in different economies. Another option I’m also potentially interested in is growing into a management role, so I’d like to understand if there are roles that could leverage my go-to-market strategy experience while leading a team. Do you think that kind of opportunity would exist in this group in the future?

Me: Sure, we grow many of our managers internally and there are a lot of options for people wanting to take on management roles like setting up a mentor relationship with an existing manager. As far as looking at new geographical markets, I’m not sure what the product plans are for this immediate group, but we see roles focused on emerging markets opening up all the time. So you could even think of making a move to another product group at some point. Is that something that you would consider?

Sue: Yes. It’s important for me to feel like I am growing professionally and contributing to the team goals. So I actually like the idea of expanding my domain knowledge and making an impact on another part of the business at some point. Of course, my first priority would be to become an expert at the Marketing Manager position!

I’m liking Sue so much for this position right now. Seems that she has thought about her career, what she’s good at and what she enjoys. She has some areas for growth that she is interested in exploring without a rigid time frame and she seems to have some flexibility. Now I don’t need to tell you to come up with your own answers to the “where do you want to be” question (do I?). And I figure that if you are reading this, you are already thinking about your own career growth. I was just hoping that I could help you frame your answers and understand why, oh why, an interviewer would ask such a general question like that.

Good luck!

Comments (12)

  1. nate says:

    This "where do you see yourself in 5 years" question is interesting. I’ve given it a little thought, and it seems like the answer is a lot different at small companies vs. large companies. In addition, an okay answer may be vastly different at organizations with different structures, incentives and business needs.

    For example, large established companies often want a finance candidate to say something like "I aspire to progress as a financial professional. Someday it would be very cool to be a controller at a profitable, growing company that is widely recognized as an industry leader."

    A finance candidate should not provide certain answers at large-company interviews. For example, the finance candidate should not say things like "i like variety and want to try a position in marketing or product management". Finance people want to hire a finance person. They want to build a finance organization. They also look for loyalty and long-term returns. It also does not look good if you try to interview for a job other than the one at hand.

    A small company, on the other hand, may be changing more rapidly. Business needs are harder to predict. Variety and the desire to multi-task in different areas is more acceptable and even desirable. Organizations seem flatter with less hierarchy.

    Historically I have generally found myself able to forecast things like sporting events and stocks more accurately than my career, so I do not really enjoy the "where do you see yourself in 5 years" question (although I can see why it is a very good question to ask for the interviewer and interviewee.)

    Maui is nice. Central Illinois is underrated.

  2. HeatherLeigh says:

    Nate-I disagree, at least with regard to Microsoft. We have finance people that have moved on to other areas of our business. We’d rather have a happy, well-rounded, long-time employee than pigeon-hole someone in a functional space. Example: my co-worker Maria started out in telesales here at Microsoft. Lots of finance people here transition into business development roles. Other roles too.

  3. unpradeep says:

    Heather –

    Another one of my stupid qns coming up… (been a while hasnt it)

    I have quite a hypocritical dilemma when it comes to this qn for some marketing positions in small, growing groups/teams (and we have tons of such groups) where the business does need some really strong entrepreneurial thinkers who are willing to have big-bold-goals and take handsome risks and execute.

    Now with that in mind – a person who is being asked this qn – would he/she be really truthful when saying – "It’s important for me to feel like I am growing professionally and contributing to the team goals. So I actually like the idea of expanding my domain knowledge and making an impact on another part of the business at some point." … when a true entrepreneurial candidate would rather be starting/running their own firm …

    Or would the recruter/hiring manager even be redflagged when the person does NOT say they want to start a firm in 5/10 yrs from now and they know that in the interim they can leverage the person for some great work and hope to win them over – during that time for a longer career stint….

    Given that MS tries to get ppl for careers and not jobs – what should candidates say – what would hiring managers look for – when entrepreneurial spirit is a job requirement.

  4. nate says:

    The text below the dashed line is from the December 2005 Prof DeLong blog. It is a little long – apologies for my not being concise on Heather’s blog. I had a hard time copying the URL.

    Flexibility and mobility may be part of technology. So where you see yourself in the future may very well be "it depends – i am flexible and mobile". To think otherwise in today’s economy may be too rigid and unrealistic.


    Communities of Technological Practice

    Virginia Postrel writes about what I think of as AnnaLee Saxenian’s key insight–that Silicon Valley’s unique success and power arises not out of the hunger of its entrepreneurs and capitalists but out of its footloose, job-hopping, talkative engineers. The key productive resource–the rapid spread of news and information–is a sociological and not an economic factor:

    In Silicon Valley, Job Hopping Contributes to Innovation – New York Times : By VIRGINIA POSTREL: FOR four decades, through booms, busts and bubbles, Silicon Valley has maintained an amazingly innovative business environment. Companies and technologies rise and fall. Hot start-ups morph into giant corporations. Cutting-edge products become mature commodities. Business models change. Through it all, the area remains creative and resilient – and more successful than other technology centers, notably the Route 128 area around Boston.

    What makes Silicon Valley special? Thanks to some new data, economists have finally been able to test statistically some popular explanations. In her influential 1994 book "Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128" (Harvard University Press), AnnaLee Saxenian, an economic development scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, argued that Silicon Valley’s innovative edge comes from two unusual characteristics. First, talented employees move easily and often to new employers, far more so than people elsewhere. "The joke is that you can change jobs and not change parking lots," one of her interview subjects said. Second, instead of vertically integrating, Silicon Valley computer makers rely on networks of suppliers. They also design open systems that can flexibly accommodate all sorts of new components. "The system’s decentralization encourages the pursuit of multiple technical opportunities through spontaneous regroupings of skill, technology and capital," she wrote.

    Many people, especially in Silicon Valley, found Professor Saxenian’s argument convincing. But while her research was careful, it depended on interviews and had no large-scale statistical backing. Perhaps her subjects’ impressions were unreliable. After all, the argument that Silicon Valley’s job hopping fosters innovation contradicts economists’ common assumptions. "It didn’t feel right to me," James B. Rebitzer, an economist at Case Western Reserve University, said in an interview. When employees jump from company to company, they take their knowledge with them. "The innovation from one firm will tend to bleed over into other firms," Professor Rebitzer explained. For a given company, "it’s hard to capture the returns on your innovation," he went on. "From an economics perspective, that should hamper innovation."…

    In a forthcoming article in The Review of Economics and Statistics, Rebitzer and two economists at the Federal Reserve Board, Bruce C. Fallick and Charles A. Fleischman, empirically test the claim that Silicon Valley employees move more often than computer industry employees in other places. (The article, "Job Hopping in Silicon Valley," is available at http://www.federalreserve.gov/research/staff/fallickbrucex.htm

    The two Fed economists… use data from the Current Population Survey…. To Professor Rebitzer’s surprise (though not his co-authors’), it turns out that Silicon Valley employees really do move around more often than other people. The researchers looked at job changes by male college graduates from 1994 to 2001. During that period, an average of 2.41 percent of respondents changed jobs in any given month. But, they write, "living in Silicon Valley increases the rate of employer-to-employer job change by 0.8 percentage point." "This effect is both statistically and behaviorally significant – suggesting employer-to-employer mobility rates are 40 percent higher than the sample average."…

  5. nate says:

    one more

    although one never knows and it could be much worse… hopefully i will not be sitting in a dark corner cubicle, surrounded by no people and working on spreadsheets.

  6. HeatherLeigh says:

    See, Pradeep, that’s why I just used it as an example and said that people should come up with their own answer ; ) At the point of the interview, I assume the candidate would know that the team is looking for someone entrepreneurial and answer accordingly. What if the person could work with an incubation team at Microsoft? That could be entrepreneurial. I guess the key is to say what kind of work they want to be doing…because you can do start-up work here. And they should also thikn for themselves. I am just trying to give some people some understanding of what we are thinking on the other side of the interview table. I insist that everyone come up with their own answer! ; )

  7. J Donnici says:

    I like the question, for many of the reasons you’ve stated here. The specific answer of where you’d like to be is less interesting to me than whether or not you’ve thought about it and the more general direction you’d like to go.

    When I’m interviewing, I always like to ask a followup to it… "So now tell me how your answer changes if money is no object in your life."

    The answers are always interesting. Lots of times, the candidate will blow smoke and go with "Well, I’d still want to work so I have a place to go when I get out of bed in the morning." Yeah, right. I can think of lots of places to go if money’s no object, but most of them aren’t filled with office chairs.

    Some will give me some insight into their interests, such as "Well, I really enjoy [some sport or hobby], so I could see supporting and getting involved with local groups centered around [sport/hobby]."

    Most often, the answer is "I’d travel" or "go back to school and study [some personal interest]".

    My hiring is for software developers… and it’s a totally subjective thing, but the answer that I’ve liked the most is along the lines of "Whatever I do, it needs to involve building something. I have a passion to build things, whether it’s through software or with a trade craft. I want each thing I build to be better than the last thing. When I get out of bed in the morning, I get myself going with ‘What do I get to build today?’".

    That answer tells me that they’re passionate, that they love what they do, and that in hiring them I’ll have someone who’s more than just a clock-puncher. They want to work on something they believe in and they’ll spend lots of energy (even outside of the office) thinking about how to build it better. They’re not looking to blindly follow step-by-step directions and could bring some creativity and innovation to the table.

  8. Mike Clark says:

    Oh, my. If I had been asked that question at my last job interview six years ago, and if I had answered honestly it would have been something like:

    "I’ve been out of work for three months since my last contract ended and the market for mainframe contractors has more-or-less dried up around here. So my goal is to work here for at least year or so until the contracting market opens up again and then I’m out of here. But if I don’t get 40 hrs per week pretty darned soon I’ll be out of a house."

    That was my full intention — giving them a year of my expertise in gratitude for saving my nether end, and then sayonara. It turned out otherwise because they ended up providing lots of motivation for staying: a friendly work-environment; opportunity to cross-train over to VB6 development and then to .NET (from dead-end mainframe); sending me to VBITS and to other training I would likely never have gotten otherwise.

    On the other hand, where I want to be in 5 years NOW is exactly where I am. I don’t want to become some sort of manager. I’m a developer and get little joy out of anything else, so give me a decent development or maintenance project and let me CODE, dammit! You don’t even have to give me pay raises beyond cost of living increases. I’ve gone the entire six years I’ve been here without a promotion and by golly that’s where I will be in 5 years, too, if necessary (a promotion would make it necessary for me to do some sort of management tasks, like supervise somebody, and that would just SUCK).

    Odd duck aren’t I?

  9. Dennis G. says:

    I think I’d want to be in an organization where I’m learning something new every day, helping people accomplish what they want to accomplish, and loving the people that I’m working with.

  10. HeatherLeigh says:

    J Donnici…love that follow up question! grat insight. I like answers similar to the example you gave where they are talking about what they love to do because you could see that kind of person potentially fitting into a bunch of different kind of roles and being happy here for a long time (because they can grow).

    Mike-I am kind of glad you didn’t get asked that question too ; ). It’s nice to hear that after that you landed somewhere that sounds really great. I’m not sure I am with you on the part about being happy without promotion or pay increase. I don’t know if you are an odd duck or a more evolved life form ; )

    Dennis..sounds like Microsoft (ooh, more shameless self promotion on my part…sorry)

  11. ian says:

    does "open my own business" is a very bad answer? That’s what I could think of, which is the truth. I answer that instead of trying to make something up that I don’t know about the position development-not much after I think about it. (graphic design position)

  12. HeatherLeigh says:

    ian – that is kind of like telling the company that you will only be there 5 years. Of course in hiring, there’s no guarantees but at the same time, a company that invests in you wants a return on the investment. I think you could phrase it in a way that lets them know that you could also stay if your entrepreneurial needs are met. We get that a lot at Microsoft and we do find that people can move into a start-up business and feel satisfied.

    Hope that helps!