Along with “what are your strengths and weaknesses?” another common question asked by prospective employers is “where do you expect to be in three to five years?” Skilled interviewers ask it to get a feel for what your goals are, but many novice interviewers ask it without any real forethought about what type of answer they hope to get — thus making it a potentially tricky question.
The trick to answering this question is making sure that your goals are in line with that of the company and the hiring manager. “In three years, I’ll have your job and I’ll have your boss’ job in five years!” is usually not an acceptable answer and can often prevent the interviewer from taking you seriously (although it did work for a friend of mine). Yes, it can show that you’re motivated and goal-oriented, but even if you say it confidently and sincerely, it might not be what the interviewer wants to hear.
If you don’t believe that this question can help or hurt your chances, I can tell you from personal experience that it can. A few years back, I was asked this question during an interview and provided an honest answer, but it wasn’t what the interviewers wanted to hear. The job was an individual contributor role and I said that my three year goal was to move into management. The organization was quite mature and didn’t have many opportunities to grow beyond a technical role, so they were looking for someone that was interested in growing technically. Although they had interviewed several candidates, it was down to me and another candidate and the other person ultimately ended up getting the job. The recruiter that represented both me and the other candidate told me afterwards that the interviewers were concerned about whether or not I’d get bored with the lack of opportunities to move up.
So how should one answer the question? Here are some tips:
- Prepare for the question. Look for clues from the job description, phone interviews or conversations with the person setting up the interview. What type of person are they looking for? What goals would their ideal candidate have?
- Confirm your assumptions during the interview. Probe for clues to what type of candidate the interviewers are looking for.
- Don’t spit back the interviewer’s words when you answer the question. For example, if they say they’re looking for someone that can take on a leadership role, don’t just say “I want to be in a leadership role.” Instead, state that you want to be instrumental in growing the company/department/organization. If you’ve done any training in areas of management or leadership, you can say that you want an opportunity to use these new skills.
- Be sincere and confident. If the interviewer feels you’re just saying something because you think that’s what they want to hear, it may turn them off. The same holds true for you providing an answer that you obviously don’t believe you can achieve.
- Be realistic — from the interviewer’s perspective. I hate when people tell others to be realistic because I don’t believe we should limit ourselves based on what others think we can do. However, our goal here is to get the job and the interviewer may not share our overwhelming optimism — or worse, feel threatened by it. So choose your words carefully to ensure that you don’t intimidate the interviewer. You can still keep your goals, you just want to share them with people that will support you.
- If multiple people interview you, make sure that your answer is consistent between all interviewers. You don’t want to come across as someone who will say anything to get the job — unless you’re a politician.
So the next time you’re asked this question, make sure your answer is sincere, confident, realistic (from the interviewer’s point of view) and an in-line with the interviewer’s goals.