Where Will I be in 5 Years?

In every job interview and in every performance appraisal I have been asked one question consistently. There is some variation of it but by and large it is the same. Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years. I can remember back to when I was trying for a promotion that, at the time, I thought would allow for my husband to stay home with our kids (apparently I hadn’t fully vetted that plan with all involved parties because it didn’t come to fruition). This goal of having a lifestyle change put a lot of pressure on the interview. I researched and asked questions. I learned about the differences in the new role that I would need to stretch into. I learned about who the interviewer might be, my goal was to think like them and answer things the way they would. The only problem was when I came into the interview there were three interviewers and all were men. I had never had an interview with that many men before and I was instantly worried I wouldn’t be able to relate to them. So naturally the right answer is to go in full on stereotype mode (the decisions we make under stress are just ridiculous). I was quicker to answer questions so I wouldn’t appear indecisive or unable to respond. I portrayed myself as being even more blunt than I am during the “How would you handle xyz situation.” questions. I overestimated my negotiation skills. I modeled their body language back at them and even went so far as to make my laugh sound more like theirs when they made jokes. I had the right intentions but it was a bit much.

Near the end of the interview one of them asked the where do you see yourself question. The only problem was that they once again threw me off. The interviewer didn’t use a 5 or 10 year timeline. He asked where I wanted to be in 2-3 years. Immediately following my thought of, this is a really silly way to ask the question, my second reaction was a little panicked around how to answer. If I say still in this role do I sound lazy? If I say I see myself in anything other than this role in 2 years do I sound like a flake or unrealistic? The truth is I did see myself in that role in 2-3 years but not a whole lot longer than that. In an effort to still play to their perceived styles but be a bit more true to myself, I settled on something to the effect of, “In 2-3 years I likely will still be becoming an expert in this role and working toward becoming a supervisor. Eventually I’d hope to be one of you.” The majority of that interview was junk because I was nervous, I was stereotyping, and I wasn’t being authentic. I like to think I got the job based on that one question because it was the only thing I said that made their faces light up.

I knew then, even before I had conducted a single interview of my own, that men would want a certain type of answer. After years of being on both sides of the table its been reinforced even more so. Why is it that there is such a distinction between how men and women respond to this question? I have no doubt that had I been an actual man, not just playing one for the moment, I would have been able to answer with confidence and likely not given much thought to the “right” answer. I am guessing, and I could be wrong, that at least part of the reason those men interviewing me used such a short timeframe was because they have no problem imagining themselves as an expert at something within a year or so. Why would you need to wait 5 or heaven forbid 10 years before becoming an expert? Women don’t typically think like that. We assume there will need to be time to master the nuances and have enough exposure to all of the circumstances to become an expert at anything. We see value in, or are valued for, our patience and perseverance. Women want to meet 100% of the criteria for the next step, regardless of what it is, whereas men only feel the need to meet about 60%. It’s no wonder we assume we’ll need more time to get there.

There is also a difference in determining what that next step is. Men that I have spoken to, or asked this question of myself, consistently answer that they are working to get to the top. They want to be head of sales, VP of the department, essentially, the king of the mountain (all in the next 5 years mind you). I actually had a man I was interviewing once respond to my ‘where do you see yourself’ question by asking, “Well, who’s in charge around here.” as he looked around the room. (For the moment dude, it’s me.) Mixing a top notch ego with a low level of awareness is not going to get you invited back for a second interview. While most people posses a bit more tact than that, it does seem as though the linear view of career progression remains. They are climbing the ladder, and when the goal is that clear it makes running full steam ahead toward it that much easier. Women tend to get uncomfortable when we’re asked those types of questions and I think it is because we often think in terms of impact rather than status or title. When the “next step” is wherever you can make the biggest difference, many more options are available but the path much less clear. I think that is why we end up sounding unsure of ourselves. Should we strive for the next position in the job family? Focus on building a great customer rapport? Improve our leadership and managerial skills? Maybe we should look into Marketing. When the world looks like a whole jungle gym it’s hard to know what the next step is.

The differences in men and women’s view of success, value, and how they go about achieving them is a book, not a blog post. This question truly just seems to highlight the very beginning of it. I am sure classes or books on interview skills would give you the right answer. It would probably go so far as to say if you’re a person in this specific demographic, X will be most effective, in another try Y, and if in yet another category you’re best suited to Z. You could take another approach and dissect from your manager’s style or your people focused company initiatives what the best answer in your culture would be for that performance appraisal. While I admit all of that sounds wildly interesting and full of psychological nuances and biases to be researched, looking introspectively first has always served me well.

If this is a question that has plagued you in interviews, appraisals, or just general development conversations with a manager or mentor I would challenge you to take a hard look inward as well. I look at it in three pieces:

Where are your natural talents? You can find any sort of personality assessment either in a book or online to help identify these but my guess is you already know. Think of projects that you’ve worked on that went well or what you frequently do in your personal time to keep things running smoothly. This could be organization, listening, thinking outside the box, creating relationships and connections, time management, the list goes on.

What do you do that gives you energy? Consider all of the work you do that fuels you right up. It is the kind of work that when it’s done you could just jump into the air like those bridesmaid photos without anyone around to join you. This could be seeing the confidence on someone’s face after they try makeup for the first time, putting together the most stunning pivot table the world’s ever seen, being there for the moment a child “gets it” on their math homework.

Where do these collide? Obviously we want to do what gives us energy and what we’re already good at but it also likely needs to have an income. This is the external work to find what position suits you best. Once you’ve done all of the internal work you can start identifying the role. It might fit in your current company or maybe this is something you are looking outside for. If you’re at a loss for what this might look like, you can honestly start just by Googling it. Some ideas to point you in the right direction will come up.

The goal in this exercise isn’t to get where you’re going immediately but to help understand yourself well enough to know where you in fact do see yourself in 5-10 years, regardless of which side of the coin you fall on. If you’re a corner office driving, king of the mountain kind of person you need to know why and how because those positions just aren’t going to be handed to you. If you’re unsure and don’t have a plan there is no way you can work toward it. If you appear frazzled at the question even someone with the best of intentions isn’t going to be able to help you pursue it either. After my I want to be you answer that seemed to do the trick but was just tossed out there out of nowhere response, I started doing the work for myself. I am a jungle gym person who is looking to make an impact so forging a clear ladder wouldn’t be an option. My response now is I want to lead leaders. It leaves the conversation open but describes where my passion is, and tells me a lot about the person I’m responding to when I say it, which is always fun. I believe it will take me to all sorts of positions over the course of my career (and I get to do the where do they collide exercise no matter where I’m at) while also allowing me to know my purpose and feel content in precisely the role I’m in.

Things I’m reminding myself of

You get to change your mind. If you think you’ve cornered exactly what you want from life and your career but it doesn’t fulfill you after a time, you can start over. That doesn’t make you ungrateful or impatient or indecisive. It makes you ambitious and an advocate for growth. See more on this in ‘When is Enough, Enough?’

Defining what you want and where you, yourself, individually are going is scary, and that is what makes it great. Write down all of the crazy things that come into your head as you’re thinking of your talents and your passions and what lights you on fire. You can always cross them off if they don’t fit after a second look but if you don’t take them down on actual paper they will never feel real.

There is so much value in doing this stuff yourself but friends can bring clarity. If you don’t know the answers do it as a group exercise. Answer the questions for yourselves and then for each other, without sharing, and see what you come up with and how closely they are aligned. People who are close to you might have some great ideas that you never even thought of before.

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