The dreaded “Where will you be in five years?” question. Really, can anyone actually answer that with any degree of certainty? If you asked a business where they will be in 5 years do they know? Makes you wonder why it ever comes up.
Yet, it does come up. What’s more, there’s a lot more to the question than meets the eye and taking some time to answer it can provide you with some real insight. Much of the eye-rolling that goes on when people hear this question is because they’ve never taken the time to actually think out a reasonable, well-articulated answer. You might not be able to predict where you’ll be in 5 years, but it provides you with a chance to pause and reflect where you would like to be. From there, you can decide what steps you need to take to get there.
A recent article by Amy Gallo in the Harvard Business Review blog tackled just this kind of question and we thought it had some great takeaways that we wanted to summarize and share.
Reflect and be honest
Ask yourself the following:
1) What are my values?
2) What are my goals?
3) What am I willing to do to get there?
This can help you start to narrow down exactly what it is that’s important to you – what makes you tick. The key question is the third one – what am I willing to do to get there? Let’s say your goal is to start your own company – are you willing to get paid peanuts for the first few years and give up some if not all of your free time to get there?
If you want to run a new department at your company, are you willing to learn a new language/re-locate/go back to school to make that happen? Be very honest about what it takes and what you’re willing to do.
Don’t know? That’s ok.
If you get asked this question in a social setting or perhaps more importantly in an interview and you don’t know, admit it say Gallo. There’s no sense making up an answer on the spot. At worst, you don’t sound authentic and at best you land a job because you’re great at interviewing and not because you were well-suited for the job.
The underlying question
There’s much more to this question than it suggests. Think of this question from the point of view of the interviewer and what they’re actually trying to ascertain. There’s a good chance they’re asking because they want to know:
- Are you going to stay in this position long? Remember, turnover hurts companies. Badly.
- Is this position well-matched to you?
- Are you goal-driven, motivated and well-articulated?
You don’t need to say “I want to be CEO” or I want to be “VP of Pricing”. There’s no need to be that specific and if you are you run the risk of coming across overly confident. Gallo’s article suggests you focus on certain skills you’d like to work on instead, such as “I’d like to have better developed my skills as a manager” or “taken on increasing responsibility in assigning budgets”. This comes across as far more credible and realistic.
Reframe the question
One of the best pieces of advice from Gallo’s article is to shorten the time frame of the question. If you’re unsure where you’d like to be in five years, try answering the question for one or two years. It will make the question far easier to answer and will open up very goals you can draw upon.
Photo: Above photograph used under CC license
This article originally appeared in: “Where will you be in 5 years” on HBR.org.
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