Amy Gallo, Harvard Business Review | March, 2011,
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, 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. You have to clarify for yourself what you aspire to do with your career before you can communicate it confidently to others.
Be introspective
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 getthere?
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 time frame 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.