How to answer the question: where do you see yourself in 5 years?

A potentially tricky question to answer, with a number of pitfalls.

People are often stumped because they think it’s a trick question, aimed at catching them out. But ultimately it’s an opportunity to prove how committed you are to your career and how important the role you’re applying for is to you.

Interviewers often ask the question to get a sense of how career-oriented you are and how keen you are on your professional development, your openness to change and your ambition.

“Employers want accounting professionals who strive to keep their careers moving forward yet are realistic about their futures,” says Phil Sheridan, MD of Robert Half UK. “Ideally, your answer will convey the career path you have in mind, while acknowledging that things are unlikely to unfold in a perfectly predictable way and that you’re flexible enough to take on unexpected changes and challenges.”

To illustrate that point, Sheridan suggests describing how you would have answered the same question five years ago as a way to set up a narrative. “You could use how your career has grown since then as the basis on where you see yourself progressing in the future and why.

“By explaining the why, it gives you the opportunity to relate your career progression to the role you’re applying for and further convince the hiring manager why you’re the best candidate for the job. It’s advisable to give the impression that you’re keen on the role and willing to put the time and effort in to make it a success.”

Looking to your future, Karen Young, a director at Hays Accountancy & Finance, advises picking two or three key professional milestones that you would like to achieve in the next five years and discuss them. “Your response should highlight your desire to progress, professionally and personally. If you are looking to further your studies and achieve qualifications, then make sure you mention it to your interviewer. Follow your answer with a question on the study support available.”

You can also use this question as a way of finding out the scope for development available in the role and how the employer can help you achieve your career goals. In five years you may want to take on more responsibility, gain exposure to certain business areas, or get in involved in projects.

How you tailor your answers and questions can depend a lot on the size of company. Large firms will likely have clearly defined staff structures and departments, making it easier to map a career path. While for smaller companies you may want to focus more on where you’d like the company to be in five years and how you’d like to be part of that story.

“Remember to illustrate your enthusiasm and dedication while highlighting your desire to grow with the company. Employers are looking for good personal attributes as well as key competencies, skills and qualifications and your answer to this question could be a great way to highlight these,” says Young.

Ann Swain, CEO of The Association of Professional Staffing Companies, says avoid being too specific. “It’s more about how you see yourself developing as a professional, so perhaps link it to your study, where each stage of your qualification can take you, what specific goals you can achieve by qualifying and how you can learn from more experienced people within the organisation.

“This could be that within five years your experience and qualifications could see you having man-management responsibilities, being in charge of a large budget and having some input to senior management decision making. This shows the employer that you are ambitious – but have thought about your professional development.”

Josh Rufus, a manager in public practice at Morgan McKinley, suggests having a three-point checklist when preparing to answer the question at interview:

1. Demonstrate your enthusiasm: make sure the interviewer knows that the opportunity presented is the right one for you and it will be an exciting next step for you.

2. Keep your answer fairly general: this is very important, as the interviewer will be looking for signs that your future lies with the firm, for the foreseeable future. Yes ‘a job for life’ probably does not exist anymore, but it’s important not to rule yourself out of the process; show a level of commitment.

 3. Show you are ambitious: I always believe that if you’re turned down for a role because an interviewer thinks that you will outgrow the firm, then the position is not for you. This does not necessarily mean that you need to think that you will be running the company within two years, but instead demonstrate your ability to be able to ‘step up’ in the future.

So the fail-safe answer to use is:

“I am looking for a company, such as yours where I can build my career. Ultimately I would like to assume more management responsibilities once I have proven myself in my current role. I enjoy new challenges and I believe that this position will give me that.”

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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