“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

In June 2017, I found myself in an impressive boardroom, sitting with the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of a major, public corporation with whom I was interviewing for a job. We were having a very engaging conversation about the role of enterprise applications in a modern organization and my own interests and experience in managing projects and processes around such technology. We also chatted about less formal topics like the beauty of living and working in Santa Cruz, California, and the contrast from its bustling neighbor, Silicon Valley, from where I was hoping to escape.

Towards the end of our conversation, he pulled out one of the classics from Interviewing 101: “So tell me… where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

I could have answered with the obvious response we all know we’re supposed to give; the one that affirms our singular focus on career progression and nothing else. It’s an answer I’d been reciting in interviews for years and almost slipped out without me even thinking about it. “Oh, I’d like to become a Director and then eventually I want to be CIO, just like you!” with a cheery smile plastered on my face. But I did think about it. And instead of giving the safe answer we’ve all had drilled into our heads by career counselors, I decided to answer honestly.

My CIO is a very personable man who greets his team with warm smiles and genuine questions about their weekend, finds time to ride his bike during his lunch hour, and leaves work at a reasonable hour to go home and spend time with his family. Even though at the time of this interview I had only known him for 5 minutes, I could tell what a sincere person he was which is why I knew I could answer his question honestly, and that he would appreciate – even respect – the answer I was about to give.

“Well, my family comes first. So while I want to have a career that is challenging and rewarding, I also want a career that allows me to raise my family and spend time with them. So I can’t tell you where I necessarily want to be in 5 years, because as opportunities present themselves, I will make career decisions based on what is best for me and my family.” I went on to talk about the type of work I know I want to do and how the role I was interviewing for was a great fit for me.

After the interview I reflected on the answers I had given, feeling great about some, second-guessing myself on others. This particular one had been a risk. I couldn’t quite tell if it had sealed the deal or lost me the job. I had a feeling it sealed the deal as I’m a pretty good read of people and my CIO seemed in the moment to have appreciated my response. But I didn’t know for sure until the job offer came in a few days later.

It was a minor moment in the grand scheme of my professional career, but it represented a mindset change for me.

Instead of pretending to be some career woman who wants to go as far as she possibly can up the corporate ladder no matter what the price, I realized it was okay to be honest about the fact that this isn’t who I really am.

I’m here to do a job, to be challenged and use my skills to help advance the company, to earn a paycheck, and then go home to my family. I realized that if I was honest with myself and with other people, they would still respect me – as a professional and as a person. And anyone who didn’t respect that or couldn’t understand my choice of sincerity over cutthroat capitalism, wasn’t someone whose approval I should be seeking anyway.
Comment below! Have you ever answered this classic interview question with something other than the canned corporate ladder-climbing response? Are there other ways that you’ve gone against the corporate “norms” and lived to tell about it? We want to hear your thoughts!

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