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Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

It's not unusual for the question to be asked in a job interview…

"Where do you see yourself in 5 years?"

It's an important question, and it's fraught with landmines.

As a job seeker, you may have no idea what growth potential the company may offer or what the employer wants to hear.

So how do you address the question? It may vary. Here are some things to consider…

Be Realistic. While you may think that they are looking for someone with great drive and ambition, it's important to give an answer that sounds credible based on your past performance.

I interviewed someone a while back that had worked in the same sales role at a company for the past 11 years. He was an average performer and had built a stable book of business. However, now after a lay-off and when looking for a new job, his answer to this question is that he plans on becoming a divisional director at a large company. He may be capable of that kind of rapid advancement, however, his background shows no indication that he could accomplish that. After remaining stagnant for 11 years in the same job, what would make an employer think that now he would crank it up and achieve that kind of lofty goal? Rather than make him appear ambitious, it makes him appear as if he's an unrealistic dreamer.

You may have lofty ambitions, and very good reasons why you would accomplish them. However, when answering this question in an interview, it's important to give an answer that would be credible to the employer. If you have credible reasons why, and how you would achieve that kind of goal, describe it to them.

What are their expectations for this hire? Depending on the company, the job, the hiring manager, and other factors, their desire for the person they hire for this role may vary dramatically. They may be looking for a "star athlete" that can start in this role and run as far as their abilities can take them. However, it's also possible that they want to hire someone that will be interested and satisfied in only this role for a long time. Perhaps they don't want someone looking for advancement, but rather, will fill this job well for the foreseeable future.

It's possible the hiring manager for the role is concerned about their own growth potential and is leery of hiring someone that may outpace them. Or, they may specifically be looking for someone that has great potential and is willing to risk being overshadowed in order to gain a high-impact employee.

How do they perceive you? Your answer to this question will certainly have an impact on weather they will move forward with you or not.

Perhaps they need someone that is at least willing to give a year to the position at hand before moving on to other opportunities within the organization. An answer that seems highly ambitious to them, that would require moving out of the current position quickly, may turn them off. Similarly, perhaps they see the current role as one that's a quick stepping stone to bigger and better roles. An answer that appears that you might become complacent or lack a desire for more responsibility may discourage them from pursuing you further as well.

Ask questions! A good interview should always be a dialogue. As much as the employer is asking questions of you… you should be asking questions of them as well. Asking them questions regarding expectations will give you a better understanding of their desire for the hire. Asking what kind of future they envision for the person they hire, can give you insights as to whether they are looking for ambition, or simply a stable worker bee. Inquiring how long the previous person had been in the job and why they are gone can give further insight as well. Asking questions before you are asked this one can prepare you for the kind of answer they are looking for.

Tell the truth! When answering this question, the best policy (as always), is honesty. If you have very specific goals and plans for your next 5 years, it does neither you, nor them, any good to paint a different picture. If this position, or the company doesn't fit for you to reach your objectives, then it's probably not the right position for you. Deceiving them about your objectives in order to get a job that doesn't help you achieve them is a recipe for dissatisfaction for both of you.

If, however, your objectives for the next 5 years are not very specific and defined yet, then it's also best to be honest about that as well. Perhaps you know you do want to advance, however, don't know specifically what that may look like. You might give an answer like:

"I have hopes of taking on new challenges and advancing my career when it's appropriate. However, I'm focused on the job at hand, and the pace that any advancement happens will be determined by whether I've earned it or not. If I perform beyond the company's expectations for as long as I'm needed in the current role, I would hope there will eventually be opportunities to grow in the organization."

It makes clear that you have a desire for growth, while still showing a commitment to the immediate task at hand. It shows you are committed to performing above expectations, and willing to wait for the appropriate time for next steps. An answer like this can potentially satisfy a variety of desired responses from hiring managers.

Think through what's true for you. What are your objectives, and how does the position you are interviewing for fit them? Ask several questions throughout the interview to determine how well the company and the position fits. Then give an answer that reflects your situation.

It's a common question to be asked, so be sure to prepare your answer in advance!

Answering "What are your strengths?"
Interviewing the Interviewer!
The "Weakness" Question!
Deadly Interview Question #1!

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