“Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” is one of the most infamous interview questions, yet it’s difficult to answer without resorting to dreaded cliches like “I just want to be doing something I enjoy”, or “I’m not really sure”.
Why are employers so keen on asking this? Probably because it’s one of those sneaky interview questions to which your answer can reveal much more than you might imagine: from whether you’ve got a solid career plan and know what you want to do, to how well you understand the position you’re applying for and how you define success.
For all these reasons, this question has a tendency of throwing interviewees into panic mode. Here are some pointers on what interviewers really want to hear:
Be ambitious, but realistic
Employers will always be attracted to ambitious candidates – after all, nobody wants an employee who feels apathetic about their job. That said, you need to be realistic in terms of how quickly you can rise through the ranks. For instance, if you say that you want to be leading a team of 20 within three years’ time, and this would only usually happen within a 10-year period in the company you’re talking to, you risk being perceived as a little arrogant and unprepared.
To avoid voicing wildly unrealistic aspirations, do your research. Search the company website and the LinkedIn profiles of current employees before your interview to look for any hints about how long members of staff have taken to progress.
Talk in terms of achievements and responsibilities
Another common mistake candidates make when answering this question is to talk about money or company perks. For example, “I want to be earning £50,000 or more, have a company car and a life-insurance policy.” In the vast majority of careers, perhaps with the exception of recruitment or sales, motivation to make large amounts of money or get company perks isn’t always going to be seen as an attractive quality. It will make an employer think you’re more interested in the things that come with the career they can offer, rather than the career itself.
Instead, your answer should focus on your professional development. Speak in terms of skills you’d like to acquire or ones you’d like to be using, qualifications you’d like to have completed or responsibilities you’d like to have.
Be specific, but flexible
Giving a vague answer to is another familiar faux pas. For example, “I’m not sure, five years is such a long time away. I could see myself working my way up in marketing, but I’m also interested in finance.”
Employers want to know that you know what you want. After all, hiring, training and developing people is an expensive business – if you’re going to leave in six months, your employer will have lost both time and money.
While you certainly shouldn’t lie about your plans, you can be less than candid if you’re considering several career options – only ever speak about your interest in the industry in which the company you’re interviewing with operates.
Although specific aspirations will be well received, rigidity in your ambitions won’t be, so choose your phrasing carefully. Rather than saying, “I need to have been promoted within a maximum of three years and I’ll be really disappointed if I’m not working with high profile clients in five years’ time”, you could say, “I’d like to have more responsibility in the next three to five years, ideally I’d be working on some of this company’s fantastic high profile accounts.” The first answer implies that if the company can’t fulfil your ambitions, you’ll be dissatisfied, while the second answer suggests a little more compliance on your part.
Talk about your professional, rather personal, ambitions
Unless an interviewer specifically asks you to comment on your personal ambitions, the safest option is to avoid mentioning them altogether. Saying that you want to be captain of your local tennis team, to have visited Japan or that you hope to be married with two children may not be well received. Employers want to hear about where you see your work self in five years’ time, anything else is irrelevant and can make you seem unprofessional and ill-prepared.
Emphasise the value you can bring to the organisation
While at first glance the five years question seems like it is probing your ambitions and wants, you should never miss an opportunity in an interview to subtly emphasise what you can do for your potential employer. It can be shrewd to end your answer with something like: “Overall I want to be making a marked difference to X of your company, helping to secure and add to its current reputation as a leader within Y and contributing to the company’s overall growth and success.”
Jenna Allcock is a marketing executive at graduate recruitment agency, Give A Grad A Go.