Although somewhat cliché, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” is still a common interview question. But the hiring manager isn’t looking for your actual five-year plan. They are looking to uncover your “why,” the purpose behind your career, and whether that aligns with their organization’s mission, values, and goals for the position. To impress your interviewer, shift away from thinking about yourself five years into the future and focus on what drives your career now. Here’s how to answer “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” in a way that demonstrates your ability to deliver results.
Don’t Take the Question Literally
Answering this question with a title or position you are aiming for is risky (and won’t give the interviewer the information they actually want). The fact is, we all have different goals for work. And while they are all valid, they can easily be misconstrued in an interview.
Some people want to dedicate their lives to their job, take on increasing responsibilities, and climb the career ladder. High ambition sounds great, right? Not if the employer thinks that career path isn’t feasible in their organization.
Others want to do great work each day but are happy to remain in the same position throughout their tenure. A consistently good employee? Surely that’s a plus. But not if the employer reads that as a lack of motivation or unwillingness to take on new tasks. Not aiming for a higher position can be misread too.
No matter your career goals, a literal answer runs a high risk of being perceived as the “wrong” answer.
Prepare Before the Interview
Because the “5 year” question can be interpreted in many ways, it can be easy to veer off-topic or bring up things that aren’t relevant to the specific role, essentially wasting valuable interview time. To avoid that, do your homework.
Think deeply about what the organization is looking for and the business results they want to achieve with this new role. Read the job description closely and identify the 4-5 key skills and abilities most likely to drive that impact. Research the organization to uncover potential challenges you would be excited to take on in the role.
Use the CAR Interview Method to Flip the Script
Interview questions are often flawed, asking one thing when the interviewer is seeking something else. You may be speaking with an inexperienced interviewer or someone who doesn’t have a deep understanding of the job. Many employers understand the big picture of what they are trying to achieve but not necessarily all the details involved with getting it done. That means you must carefully structure your answer to every question with context that demonstrates your capabilities.
Regardless of what question they throw at you, flip it to focus on your achievements and the results you delivered. We recommend using the CAR method:
- Context: What situation were you in? What background information does the listener need to understand the context? What was the task you were expected to perform? What needed to be done? What challenges did you expect to face?
- Action: What actions did you take? (You can also outline what alternatives you considered.)
- Result: What impact did your actions have? (These do not have to be all puppies and rainbows. You can admit that you got it wrong on the first try and had to go back and fix something.)
Think About the Business Problems You Like to Solve
Use the “5 year” question to share your career narrative as it relates to this position. What business problems do you handle best? What is the impact of your work, and why is it important to you? Discuss how you see yourself making a positive impact on the hiring organization using your specific strengths, solving their specific problems. Describe the value you hope to bring to the company and how your past achievements have prepared you to do so.
Here’s one way you might do that:
“In five years, I see myself making a positive impact on this organization by helping to [business results they want to achieve with the role]. In my previous role, the organization struggled with [context: the business problem]. That’s exactly the type of business problem I love to solve. I [action: how you used your skills to solve the problem], which led to [result: the business impact]. That’s how I think about work—less about where I might be in five years, more about the kind of impact I can make. If that’s my focus, my career path will unfold in line with what I’m best at and what I value in work.”
Show Your Interviewer That You Are Adaptable
The world of work is evolving rapidly. The remote/hybrid revolution and increasing prevalence of AI-driven tools have changed much about where and how work gets done today. The key skills required to succeed at a job five years ago may drastically differ from what is needed now. And how organizations structure the work can change just as quickly.
Demonstrate your understanding that while it may not be possible to envision exactly what your role will look like in five years, your skills, abilities, and past work experiences have prepared you to deliver results for the organization as it grows.
Here’s one way to structure your answer:
“At my previous organization, my role evolved quite a bit. Initially, I couldn’t have predicted what that would look like. But as the organization’s needs shifted due to [context: the business problem], I saw an opportunity to [action: how you used your skills to solve the problem]. Because of that [result: the business impact]. So, in five years, I see myself helping your organization navigate whatever changes come along, which could be [an example of emerging trends in the industry]. I see myself adapting and developing my skill set to match that growth.”
This Works for “What Are Your Weaknesses?” Too
When an interviewer asks generic questions like, “Can you tell me a little about yourself?” or “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” try to put yourself in their shoes. What do they really want to know? The point of any interview question is to reveal one thing: whether or not your skills, abilities, and working style match the organization’s goals for the position. The hiring manager may be interviewing other candidates who are just as qualified to succeed in the role. But showing that you know what the position requires and can offer concrete examples of how your skills and abilities match their goals will help you stand out from a top-performing crowd.
For a detailed step-by-step guide through your entire job search, including tips for developing a compelling career narrative, in-depth resume and cover letter writing tips, and more interview strategies that work, read our Guide to Senior Executive Job Search.