Reflecting forward at Interview: How do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

Beyond the ‘weaknesses’ question, failing to give a good answer regarding your career plans is the next sure fire way to ruin a great interview. Moreover, like the ‘weaknesses’ question, we all know it’s one that could come up at any stage, so why aren’t we better at answering it?

Because it’s a silly/token question. Because I don’t know. Because anything could happen and I don’t know what they want me to say.

So what do you say?

I’d like to be in a point in my career where I can take on a more senior role, maybe with a larger team and more responsibility.

When you’ve interviewed as many people as I have, this answer is stock standard, and usually accompanied by a few ‘ahhs’, ‘umms’ and false starts. Not exactly impressive, and not giving the impression you’ve given this a great deal of thought. Sure, it tells me what you think I want to hear, without being too committed to one direction, but it leads me to one question: if this is how you go about planning your career, is this how you would go about running a department?

#1 Tailor it to the role you’re interviewing for: imagine a ‘future you’

The fact is, not many of us do have clear career plans. We might have an idea of an end goal, but rigorous, self-directed career planning, although advised, is rarely done. Most of us rely on the organisation we work with to define this for us. If this is you, and you don’t have a clear ambition, what you need to do is imagine a ‘future you’ within the context of the role you are interviewing for. What have they told you about career progression, or the people you’d be reporting to? Is there a career path already defined you could use to shape your answer? If it’s a flat organisation, with not much room for upwards progression, what potential lateral moves could you make? Is there a particular area within finance, or outside of finance, that you don’t have experience in and would like to develop skills in?

You’ve told me quite a lot about your career pathways. What is important for me is that I am able to build a toolkit of skills to enhance my overall performance as a finance manager. Therefore, in 5 years, I like to think that I would have proven my value and received the opportunity to move into a leadership role in commercial finance, an area that I currently have limited exposure to.

#2 Take control: set your own milestones that speak to the needs of the business

Think about the role you’re interviewing for. Does it entail a 2, 3 or 5-year plan? Will long term planning be a part of the role? If it is, then ‘yourself’ in 5 years is you having delivered the objectives contained in your business plan. Tailor it to the organisation you are interviewing for and their objectives. If they are talking about long term change or business transformation, how does the role in question feed into these larger programmes, and how can you use this information to visualise the ‘future you’?

This role clearly has an important mandate, which is to support the delivery and adoption of the 3 transformation initiatives you have spoken about, which you anticipate will take 4-5 years. I would like to think that nearing the end of this period, with regular communication with my superiors, that I would be able to define my next career move, depending on the strategic priorities or needs of the business.

#3 Above all, be clear, concise and confident

Clarity and precision of thought is essential. There is little more unattractive than someone who shows a lack of ambition at interview. Even if you are ambitious, but you fluff this answer up, you will appear like you do not care, or have not given your career enough thought – which may raise serious (if unjustified) questions over your capacity as a leader. Ensure that however you decide to approach this question that you give it some serious preparation. If it’s something you feel uncomfortable with, practice it. Whether you record yourself, get your partner/friend to ask you the question, or write it out and learn it, become comfortable with your wording.

And if you give a good enough answer – it might even come true!

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