If you dread facing this question, you're in good company. But you have to answer it. Fear not—we can help
Posted on Harvard Business Review: March 18, 2011 8:30 AM
Most people have been asked that perennial, and somewhat annoying, question: "Where do you see yourself in five years?" Of course it is asked most often in a job interview, but it may also come up in a conversation at a networking event or a cocktail party. Knowing and communicating your career goals is challenging for even the most ambitious and focused person. Can you really know what job you'll be doing, or even want to be doing, in five years?
What the Experts Say
In today's work world, careers take numerous twists and turns and the future is often murky. "Five years, in today's environment, is very hard to predict. Most businesses don't even know what's going to be required in two or three years," says Joseph Weintraub, a professor of management and organizational behavior at Babson College and co-author of the book, The Coaching Manager: Developing Top Talent in Business. While it may be difficult to give a direct and honest response to this question, Weintraub and Timothy Butler, a senior fellow and the director of Career Development Programs at Harvard Business School, agree that you need to be prepared to answer it. And you need to treat any conversation like an interview. "Every person you talk to or meet is a potential contact, now or in the future," says Weintraub.
The first step is knowing the answer for yourself. "It's a very profound question. At the heart of it is 'where does meaning reside for me?'" says Butler. You have to clarify for yourself what you aspire to do with your career before you can communicate it confidently to others.
Figuring out the answer to this question is not an easy task. "The real issue is to do your homework. If you're thinking this through in the moment, you're in trouble," says Butler. In his book Getting Unstuck: A Guide to Discovering Your Next Career Path, Butler cautions that you need to be prepared to do some serious introspection and consider parts of your life that you may not regularly think about. "It starts with a reflection on what you are good at and what you are not good at," says Weintraub. Far too many people spend time doing things they are not suited for or enjoy. Weintraub suggests you ask yourself three questions:
1. What are my values?
2. What are my goals?
3. What am I willing to do to get there?
This type of contemplation can help you set a professional vision for the next five years. The challenge is then to articulate that vision in various situations: a meeting with your manager, a networking chat, or a job interview.
If you don't know, admit it
Even the deepest soul-searching may not yield a definitive plan for you. There are many moving parts in people's career decisions—family, the economy, finances—and you may simply not know what the next five years holds. Some worry that without a polished answer they will appear directionless. This may be true in some situations. "For some people, if you don't have the ambition, you're not taken seriously," says Weintraub. But you shouldn't fake it or make up an answer to satisfy your audience. This can be especially dangerous in a job interview. Saying you want P&L responsibility in five years when you have no such ambitions may land you the job, but ultimately will you be happy? "Remember the goal is to find the right job, not just a job. You don't want to get it just because you were a good interviewee," says Weintraub.
Know what they're really asking
Butler and Weintraub agree that while the five-year question is not a straightforward one. Butler says that hiring managers rely on it to get at several different pieces of information at once. The interviewer may want to know, Is this person going to be with us in five years? "The cost of turnover is high so one of my biggest concerns as a hiring manager is getting someone who will be around," says Butler. There is another implied question as well: Is the position functionally well-matched for you? The interviewer wants to know if you'll enjoy doing the job. Weintraub points to another possibility: "They are trying to understand someone's goal orientation and aspirational level." In other words, how ambitious are you? Before responding, consider what the asker wants to know.
Focus on learning and development
You run the risk of coming off as arrogant if you answer this question by saying you hope to take on a specific position in the company, especially if the interviewer is currently in that position. Butler suggests you avoid naming a particular role and answer the question in terms of learning and development: What capabilities will you have wanted to build in five years? For example, "I can't say exactly what I'm going to be doing in five years, but I hope to have further developed my skills as a strategist and people manager." This is a safe way to answer regardless of your age or career stage. "You don't want to ever give the impression that you're done learning," says Weintraub.
Reframe the question
Research has shown that it's less important that you answer the exact question and more important that you provide a polished answer. Enter the interview knowing what three things you want the interviewer to know about you. Use every question, not just this one, to get those messages across. You can also shorten the timeframe of the question by saying something like, "I don't know where I'll be in five years, but within a year, I hope to land several high-profile clients." You can also use the opportunity to express what excites you most about the job in question. "In any competitive environment, the job is going to go to someone who is genuinely interested and can articulate their interest," says Butler.
Principles to Remember
* First, do the contemplative work to develop a personal answer to the question
* Understand what the interviewer is trying to gather from your response
* Shorten the timeframe of the question so you can give a more specific and reasonable reply
* Make up an answer you don't believe in
* Provide a specific position or title; instead focus on what you hope to learn
* Feel limited to answering the narrow question asked — broaden it to communicate what you want the hiring manager to know about you
Case Study #1: Know where you thrive
Bob Halsey found out about the opening of associate dean of Babson's undergraduate program the same way everyone else at the school did—through an email announcement. He had been on the faculty as a professor of Accounting for 12 years and recently had taken on the role of chair for that department. Prior to his academic career, he had been in the corporate world, holding a CFO position at a retailing and manufacturing company and working as the vice president and manager of the commercial lending division of a large bank.
The associate dean job appealed to him because it was similar to the positions in which he'd thrived in the corporate world. Reflecting on his years of experience, Bob knew he most enjoyed being in a supporting role, rather than the top gun. While an associate dean position is often seen as a stepping-stone for those who eventually want to become dean, Bob wasn't interested in that. He didn't want to be the center of attention, now or in the future.
Plus everyone at the school loved the current dean, Dennis Hanno, and Bob knew it would be unpalatable for him to talk with the nominating committee about eventually unseating Dennis. When asked about his future plans, Bob was clear: "I said, 'I'm not coming in with any designs on becoming dean. And if Dennis leaves, I will keep the train going until we get a new dean. I have always been a terrific number two. I am the person who can make your number one a success.'" Joe Weintraub, the expert from above and a member of the committee, said it was clear that Bob was passionate about the role, and the committee was impressed with his candor. He said that under other circumstances Bob might have appeared to be lacking aspiration, but in this case his response simply told them he was the right person for the job.
"When people really want a job, they tend to overpromise. I figured it doesn't do me any good to get in under false expectations," says Bob. "My motivation in taking this job was to work alongside and learn from Dennis." He has been serving as associate dean for close to a year now and has found the satisfaction he was looking for.
Case Study #2: Be honest about the future
Three years ago Margaret Quandt was working as an HR generalist at Bristol Myers Squibb when a former colleague who worked at CitiGroup called to ask if she was interested in applying for a generalist job. At the time, Margaret wasn't sure she wanted to continue along the generalist track. She knew she eventually wanted more specialty experience. "I went into HR to be an HR professional, not to be a generalist," she says. But her contact told her there would likely be other more specialized opportunities in the future, so she decided to apply.
During an interview with Brian, the SVP of the division that she would be supporting, he asked her, "Do you want to run HR someday?" Brian was a highly ambitious senior executive; as the SVP of Commercial Payment Solutions, he held full P&L responsibility. Margaret answered, "I don't know." She could see Brian react immediately: "His whole body language changed and he sat back in his chair". She then qualified her response, "Aspirationally yes," she said, "but I also love teaching and research. I'm a young woman in my childbearing years and I've worked with enough women in HR to know that we don't always get to do what we aspire to. It's really hard for me at this point in my career to look more than three years out." Brian paused for a long time and then said, "That's one of the most honest answers I've heard." After the interview, Margaret was concerned she might have blown it, but she was happy with her decision to be honest. "I don't lie in interviews," she says.
Margaret got the job and soon after she was hired Brian confessed that he had been concerned about her answer at first. But as he reflected on it, he realized how much sense it made. It showed him that Margaret was both thoughtful and serious about her career. Margaret was the HR generalist to Brian's division for 17 months; then, as she'd hoped, she was promoted to her current, specialized role managing a global leadership development program for high-performing managers.