When I’m facilitating workshops on improving one’s performance in job interviews, I often begin by asking those participating to share with me any questions they find difficult to answer. Among the questions which often come up is, ‘Where do you see yourself in 5 years?’
In coming up with your answer for this question; and every other question you will be asked by the way, do your best to understand the purpose of the question. While you are doing your best to impress the interviewers and get a job offer, from their side of the table, they are looking for reasons to rule candidates out and hire the last person remaining. In other words, answering this question well can leave you in the hunt, answering it poorly can leave you out of the running.
So, what’s behind the question? They might be checking to see if you’ve got ambition and see yourself having been promoted within the organization. While this strikes most people as surely a positive thing, it could trigger an area to be concerned about in the mind of the interviewer. Why? If they see you’ve already got your eyes on a more senior role in the organization, they could be going through this same hiring process in a short time; something they don’t want to do. Hiring and training people takes time and money, and in return for that investment in hiring new people, they want and expect to get a return on that investment. When it’s all about you and your career advancement, that doesn’t show an understanding and empathy for the employer’s situation.
Now on the other hand, some employer’s hope and expect you’ll outgrow an entry-level position, and if you stay with the company, they’d like you to advance having spent some time on the front-line. This way you’ve got an appreciation and first-hand experience of what it’s like to work at the bottom and this can shape your work as you move up. If you show no ambition beyond the job after 5 years, they may look at you as stagnating and dead weight.
I have found a combination of the two above positions to be ideal for most people in most job interviews. Doing research into an organization and the people who work in the role you’re after should reveal some insights that will aid you with the question. If however, you fail to unearth any clues about how long people typically stay in the job you’re after, you still need an answer. See what you think of this:
Let me assure you my focus at this time is securing this position and investing myself in the job; ensuring you in turn get a return on your investment in hiring me. That being said, I’d like to take part in any courses, cross-training or collaborative projects which will put me in a position to compete successfully for opportunities which may present themselves in the future.
You see a lot can happen in 5 years. While you and the interviewer might both have ideas of how things will look in that time, you both are looking at the future armed only with what you know in the present with respect to the future. As time evolves, opportunities may present themselves for an organization to launch new products, expand or contract, re-brand themselves entirely, move or perhaps stay largely exactly as they are. All kinds of factors may impact your personal direction and ambition.
Now there are some answers which effectively take you right out of the running in the mind of some interviewers. Suppose you shared that you and your partner plan on starting your family and having a couple of children over the next 5 years. Doing the math, this could mean you’re off for 2 of those 5 years on maternity leave, and your attendance and performance may become concerning both during pregnancy and once the children are born. Yes you’ve a right to start a family, but the interviewer knows there’ll still be work needing doing, and if they have to hire short-term help to cover your position, well, if they can avoid it, they just might choose someone who doesn’t raise this issue. Best to keep these plans to yourself.
Another possible problem answer is at the other end of the age spectrum. If see yourself as fully retired in 2-3 years, you could take yourself out of the running if they are wanting to hire someone they can make a long-term investment in. You might be perfect however if they are looking to hire someone for only 2-3 years while they restructure their workforce to compete better down the road. Getting what they can out of you for those few years might be pretty appealing and you part ways happily. Just don’t make this answer all about you. Sure you’ll get your pay for a few years and ride off into the sunset, but organizations aren’t entirely charitable. What’s in it for them? Productivity and someone who is totally invested in this single job and not looking beyond it to advance.
Some jobs have a high turnover precisely because they are entry-level, minimum wage jobs and employers expect if you have any ambition you’ll move on. Not everybody wants to climb the ladder though and that’s not a bad thing. Being consistently productive in a job is a wonderful quality; a win-win.