I’m a big fan of Liz Ryan and her writings on the topics of HR and recruitment. I find it usually very insightful and thought provoking. I just finished reading her blog post “Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?” and it was so much though provoking that it provoked me to write an answer. If you haven’t read it check first what Liz wrote and then come back. I would maintain that asking questions like “Where do you see yourself in five years?” is not that lame as it may seem.
There are no lame questions
Any question is legitimate as long as you understand the reason you are asking it. Yes, I agree with Liz that if you got a list of your questions from your manager or HR department and you go one by one without really knowing why you are asking them then you are wasting your time as well as the time of the candidate. But if the question you ask brings you something you are looking for than it is legitimate to ask it.
It is important to have a vision
Liz claims that in today’s fast paced and ever changing world you cannot predict what will be in five years and she is of course right. In my mind that is exactly the reason why you should have a vision. You should know where you want to be in five years otherwise you will be swept off course. If you would ask me ten years ago when I finished university where I want to be in five years I would tell you that I want to be a developer and in long-term a manager. As it turned out I got the opportunity about a year after I would make that statement. So what? Things didn’t go exactly as I planned but since I had a long-term vision I was at least able to make decisions that guided me in the direction I wanted to go. If you ask me today I will keep my answer probably more fuzzy and at the values level. “In five years I want to be still in a leadership position, building something great for better of humanity and developing people around me.”
What answers you want to hear
So what do you want to hear when asking the “where do you want to be in five years” question? This obviously depends on what traits you need the employee to exhibit.
- Sitting in your chair
- Be the go-to-guy for technical stuff
- Having an ice-cream business
- Doing something new and exciting
Pretty much anything except of “I don’t know”. Keep in mind that you are asking about desires not about what will be. Things may of course turn for that individual in very different way. Obviously, this is not a question that tells you everything you want to know about the guy and chances are that quite often you will hear not what the guy wants but rather what he believes you want to hear… well, his loss.
I don’t claim here that this sort of questions are the best way to find out whether someone has the right fit and attitude that you need. For that you may want to look more at behavioral type of interviewing with questions targeted on actual situations and the way the candidate handled them. Chances are that if he or she consistently showed certain way how to deal with problems in the past they will do the same on your team in the future. Just to give you an example of such questions: “Tell me about a time in your life when you had to deal with unexpected emergency,” or “Describe me a situation when you were asked to do something outside of your scope of responsibility.” And then dig deeper into these. The key here is not to present hypothetical scenarios where the person with at least a bit of smarts can deduce the right answer but rather seek what exactly this person did in the situations he may encounter in your organization, what his believes and values are and why he is acting in a certain way. Remember, everyone is good for something. So you are not trying to see if someone is good or bad, but rather whether he is good or bad fit for your team.
Employment for life
Liz is also questioning the morality of employer to ask the question about “five years” when he may not be able to guarantee a job even for five months. But that is not the point. If I know that your dream job is to sell ice cream and you are interviewing for a position of accountant I obviously cannot guarantee you that in five years at our company you will have an ice cream stand. But I can give you a chance to learn some of the skills you will need to be successful at your dream job. I can be also very upfront with you in case I see that there is nothing I can teach you to help you get closer to your envisioned job.
It is important that not only I screen the candidates for fit with my organization but also the other way around. They need to understand whether they want to work for someone like myself in this type of organization. So my favorite question to ask about person’s long-term career plans would be: “What is the mission of your professional life?” It is a question that goes down to your core values and by answering it honestly, at least for yourself if not for me, you get a feel whether the job is right for you or not.
So the next time you do interviews with candidates feel free to ask any career related and politically correct question as long as you understand why you are asking it and what will you do with the answer.
What are your thoughts on the topic? Do you believe that asking this question is a waste of time or would you ask it yourself?
Originally posted at LinkedIn.