The worst question about career goals is something like, “What’s your major career goal for the next five years?”

Here's why. I just Googled this question and found over 64 million answers. And from my viewpoint my advice to job seekers is not to answer the question. There are just too many variables and situations to consider that no matter what you say, you’ll probably say it wrong. Worse, your answer doesn’t matter. It’s contrived and so is the question. In this post I’ll tell you how to not answer the question and, if you’re the one asking it, what you should ask instead.

First off, while having a reasonable long-term career plan is worthwhile, telling someone about it isn’t. At least not without some context.

For example, if someone tells me he or she wants to be a functional VP within five years, it may make perfect sense if the person’s already a director. But if someone’s a manager and makes the same statement, I’m going to conclude the person is naïve or too arrogant. This would be the case even if the person was competent and capable of achieving the goal. Alternatively, if someone who’s been a director for 10 years wants to become a VP in the next five years, I’m going to use the interview to figure out why the person hasn’t already become a VP. So in both cases the interviewer will head off in the wrong direction.

Given the wide range of potential wrong answers, my advice to job seekers is to always avoid answering the question outright. Worse, being clever enough to figure out the right answer doesn’t mean you’re competent to do the work or that the job will allow you to achieve your career goals. On top of that, answering the question correctly doesn’t mean you’re goal-oriented. To address this important issue, here’s what I suggest you do no matter which side of the interview desk you’re on.

First, before I ask someone about their long-term career goal, I want to find out if the person is goal-oriented. In this case, I just ask the best goals-oriented question of all time. It goes something like this:

“What’s the biggest career goal you’ve ever achieved?”

If the answer makes sense I ask, “What’s the most recent career goal you have achieved?”

These simple questions are set-up questions to this more realistic question about goals: “What’s your current major career goal?”

The idea behind all of this is to first find out if the person has ever achieved any reasonable career goal. If so, it’s important to find out how significant the goal was and if the person has made a habit of achieving significant career goals. If the person has never achieved a significant career goal, why even ask the person about some future hypothetical goal?

Given this perspective, it’s important to validate the candidate’s already achieved goals and their significance. This requires some follow-up fact-finding to gather the following information:

  • The relative significance of the goal and how challenging it was to achieve.
  • How and why the goal was developed and the process the person went about achieving it.
  • To determine if the goals already achieved map to some grander purpose.
  • The trajectory of the person’s career goals including some insight to the rate of change of growth and personal development.
  • To figure out how committed the person was in achieving these past goals.

Given all of this, the question about the person’s current career goal can be logically assessed. The key to this is to first answer the question, “Does the person’s current goal seem realistic given the person’s past pattern of goal setting and achievement?” If yes, then the next question needs to relate to the job opening and the opportunity it represents. This requires an answer to the question, “Does our opportunity provide the person a platform to realistically meet his or her current career goal?” If yes, continue the interviewing process. If no, but the person is a top prospect, modify the job to meet his or her aspirations.

For the job seeker, here’s my advice on how to answer the “tell me about your career goals” question. Start off by stating that you’ve always had career goals. Then describe the most recent few you’ve achieved. Then describe your current goal and what you’re doing to achieve it. Then wrap it saying this is one of the key factors you’ll use to evaluate your next job opportunity. Then ask, “Do you think the opportunity you have open would meet this criteria and if so, why?” The interviewer’s answer will give you a great clue if you’ll be a finalist for the job or if you even want the job.

And that’s how you ask and answer questions about career goals.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He's also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. His new video program provides job seekers inside secrets on what it takes to get a job in the hidden job market.