The best way to answer the question ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’

As a recruitment consultant for the past 12 years, I’ve managed the recruitment process for businesses of all kinds. In my experience, the question of “Where do you see yourself in five (or 10) years?” is the one that job seekers most often misunderstand.

Mistakes candidates make when responding to this question

Many job seekers mistakenly believe that recruiters are hoping they will respond by saying something along the lines of: Well, I plan to stay with this company and this position for the rest of my life!

First, candidates need to understand that the point of the question isn’t to determine if you will stick with the job that you’ve applied for.

In fact, the opposite is often true: many companies hope to hear that the candidate is ambitious and intends to grow with the organization. Employers want to find out if they can count on the candidate to rise to new challenges in the future, and if they can see a future for themselves at the organization beyond the position they’re applying for.

It may be helpful to remember that you don’t necessarily need to give a precise answer to this question.

When asked, some candidates don’t know what to say: That’s a really tough question… I’m not sure what to say. This makes me very uncomfortable. Um…

It’s better to reply by saying: Right now, I have no specific career plan.

It’s shorter and conveys the same message.

Also, try to avoid answering with: I don’t know what I want to do. All I really want is to find a job that makes me happy and where I feel useful.

By saying that you want to be happy, you don’t reveal anything about yourself to a recruiter. The goal of each of your responses should be to highlight what makes you unique.

For example, if you talk about your interest in eventually taking on a management position, the recruiter will associate this ambition with your candidacy. If you express a desire to work abroad, they learn even more about you.

Therefore, don’t shy away from being too specific about what would make you happy. You will save the recruiter time and they’ll be thankful to you for that, I’m sure.

Why ask this question?

The job interview allows a recruiter to not only find out more about your qualifications, but also your professional ambitions. Understanding your motivations and long-term goals will help a recruiter to get an idea of how you will align with an organization in the future.

The recruiter will also be able to determine how the position you’re applying for fits in to your long-term career plan. They will see up to what point you have a clear vision of where you want to go in your career and how important your work is to you.

A recruiter may ask versions of this question using different time frames, for example three, five or 10 year windows are common. The idea is to propose a long enough time to allow you, the candidate, to let your imagination wander a little.

In the short term, of course, you face constraints: the practical realities of life must be handled first. But in the long term, you can allow yourself to believe that anything is possible, and that with time you will be able to achieve great things.

Asking this question gives recruiters a great opportunity to see the light shine in your eyes and to get a sense of how gutsy you are. They will also learn how to motivate you should they choose to hire you.

How to reply

Try not to be flatly realistic: I’d like to be a director, but maybe that’s aiming too high. I don’t know if I could do it – many are called, few are chosen, right?

Instead, be positive and confident, with a pragmatic angle: I’d like to become a director. In order to do that, I’m aware that I would have to undertake some training; I found the program I’d need to complete. I would also need to refine my political sense, for which I was thinking of hiring a coach to help me.

I’ll use this opportunity to tell you an anecdote. I had one candidate who, in response to this question, answered:

Where do I see myself in five years? Well, in five years, we may all be dead. With the way things are going, we may well see the apocalypse soon.

Needless to say, this kind of answer will disrupt the ambience of a job interview.

Prepare yourself

You aren’t under any obligation to provide a precise answer to this question, but if at all possible, it’s a good idea to illustrate a few possibilities:

I don’t have a particular title in mind, but I see myself more in a generalist role rather than a specialist; ideally in a company about the same size as yours, which will allow me to work on a variety of projects. I intend to keep working in the same industry.

This kind of answer is great for me because I learn something about the candidate, even if they don’t have a precise objective in mind.

Of course, if your vision for your future doesn’t align with the position that you’ve applied for, you don’t have to mention anything about your plans – it’s your choice.

Today, companies expect a certain amount of turnover. We no longer live in the era when employees spend their entire career at one company.

For example, an answer like this may be very well received by a recruiter:

My goal is to one day become a strategic consultant to large companies. To achieve this, I need to gain a strong understanding of the challenges faced by organizations like yours, which I want to do by evolving in different positions and by pushing myself to perform at the highest level possible in order to build my credibility.

I understand that it’s not obvious how best to answer a question that is as personal and complex as this one. This is why an orientation counselor can be such a help in this situation.

This question can be expected from any recruiter, so take advantage of this and prepare your answer in advance. It’s up to you to make it work!

By: Mathieu Guénette, Guidance Counsellor at Les Chercheurs de sens

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Mathieu Guénette

Mathieu Guénette is a self-employed Guidance Counsellor with over 20 years of experience, as well as an author and a lecturer. He has worked with a diverse clientele (teenagers, adults, managers, job hunters). In 2017, he has simultaneously obtained the Ordre des conseillers et conseillères d'orientation du Québec’s Professional Award and the Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines agréés’ HR Book of the Year Award for his work Le candidat visceral. He provides services in Montreal, Lanaudière and remotely. His website is full of handy resources for you: Les chercheurs de sens.

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