Understanding your career path, plans and ambitions

If you’re applying for a new job then you will no doubt have spent a lot of time considering what that move means to you and your career. The last thing you want at interview is to be unprepared for questions about your career and ambitions.

The questions below are designed to test the depth of your ambition and how committed you are to your career choices past and future.

Alternative and related questions:

If you were just starting out in your career again, what would you do differently?
How do you feel about your career path to date?

The meaning behind the question:

The interviewer is very simply looking for evidence of mistakes, failings and regrets – because any such issues will inevitably tell them a lot about you and, in particular, a lot of very useful negative information!

Your answer:

Everyone has loose threads – untidy parts of their life that they would like to remove. But if you were able to pull on one of those threads you could find it unravels the tapestry of your life.  So, assuming you’re happy with the current path of your career, it’s therefore pointless having any regrets about the past – and even more pointless to admit such regrets to your interviewer!

Don’t be tempted to bare your heart.  You’re sitting opposite an interviewer, not a psychotherapist.  You have nothing to gain – and plenty to lose – from confessing to any disappointments.  Conversely, just saying that there’s nothing you would like to have been different will sound empty and portray you as lacking in imagination.

The secret to this question is to seize upon something which would not have lead you down a different path but which would have led to your arriving at your current position more quickly than you have otherwise done – and then explaining why it simply wasn’t possible!

An alternative approach is to shift the emphasis of the question by explaining that you’re happy with your career path to date but recognise that it’s now time to make a move and that it would be a mistake to carry on in your current job.  The choice is yours, although I personally prefer the former strategy.

Example:

I’m very pleased with the path my career has taken to date.  I’ve made a series of conscious decisions that have led me to where I am and to be sitting before you today. If there was any aspect of my career path that I would like to have been different then it would probably be to have embarked on my MBA a little earlier.  However, that’s easy to say now but, at the time, with the workload I had to manage, it simply wasn’t physically possible for me to take on my MBA any earlier – and attempting to do so would most likely have been detrimental both to my MBA and to my ability to perform my job.

Word of warning:

Don’t criticise others – other individuals or other organisations – when talking about your career path.  Avoid any negativity full stop.

Alternative and related questions:

If you were just starting out in your career again, what would you do differently?
How do you feel about your career path to date?

The meaning behind the question:

Like the previous – and closely-related – question, the interviewer is again looking for evidence of mistakes, failings and regrets.  They’re just doing so much more directly than in the previous question.  The assumption is that you do have some regrets and they’re hoping this question will uncover those.  It’s all very useful information to them.

Your answer:

“Greatest regrets”; it’s highly emotive language, isn’t it.  But you definitely need to avoid giving a highly emotive answer.

While this question is much more direct than the previous question, it’s actually easier to answer in many ways.  Don’t answer it in terms of what your greatest regrets are; answer it in terms of whether or not you have any regrets – and answer it in terms of your not having any!

This is a question you have a very good chance of successfully dodging, without actually being seen to be dodging it.

Example:

I don’t think I’d say I have any specific regrets about the path my career has taken, let alone any major regrets.  I’m very pleased with the path my career has taken to date.  I wouldn’t say that my career has taken a path so much as that I’ve consciously steered my career down a certain path.  All of the decisions I’ve made along the way have been for specific reasons and, ultimately, those decisions have led me to where I am today.  There are, of course, certain things I could perhaps have done differently but there’s certainly nothing I actually regret in any way.

Word of warning:

If the interviewer insists on your mentioning at least one regret then refer back to the answer you’ve prepared for the previous question and, if they’ve already asked you that question themselves, then just refer them back to the answer you gave, repeating it if appropriate, while emphasising that it really doesn’t constitute a ‘regret’.

Alternative and related questions:

What is the greatest challenge you have faced in your current job?
What has been your greatest achievement/accomplishment?

The meaning behind the question:

Great challenges can mean great achievements but they can also mean great failures! The interviewer hasn’t necessarily suggested you pick a challenge that you successfully surmounted so a weaker candidate could easily be caught out here.  Either way, it’s a very useful question for an interviewer; they get to hear about an interesting success – or failure – on the candidate’s part.

Your answer:

Without a doubt, the very best way to answer this question is to turn the question into the Top 10 question we covered all the way back in Chapter 2, “What has been your greatest achievement/accomplishment?”

Your greatest achievement or greatest accomplishment will undoubtedly have been a great challenge.  If not then what is there to be proud about?

If you’ve already been asked that question separately then the best approach is to say you’ve already discussed that earlier and then move on to talk about another major challenge.  As with many other interview questions, it’s a good idea to have a second answer up your sleeve.

If at all possible, try to limit your answer to a challenge in your recent career history. Avoid going too far back.  As a general rule when answering interview questions, if you are forced to cite an example of something which could be seen as a negative, then aim for something far back in your career history.  Conversely, if you’re given the opportunity to cite an example of something positive then aim to pick something recent.

Example:

The greatest challenge I’ve faced in my career to date has to be the key role I played in helping my company survive the recent recession.  The company was undoubtedly ill-prepared for the advent and impact of the recession; their financial reserves were just too weak.  After a spate of redundancies, those of us who were left faced an uphill struggle to keep sales levels up and costs down while maintaining our standards of customer service.  I learned a great deal from the experience.  It was a great challenge.  While we certainly did have a tough time of it, we successfully rode out the recession and the cost control measures which I personally devised and implemented ultimately resulted in a significantly healthier bottom line than we had had before the recession.

Alternative and related questions:

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
How long do you plan to stay/would you stay in this job if we offer it to you?
How far do you feel you might rise in our organisation?

The meaning behind the question:

This question is very closely related to my top 10 question, covered in Chapter 2, “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” but is sufficiently different for us to cover it separately here.  The interviewer is specifically asking what you see your ‘career options’ as being.  They want to know how long you feel you might stay in their organisation, how this new job fits into your career plan and how you envisage you will progress in their organisation.

Your answer:

The answer to this question is really quite simple.  In most cases, you will simply want to demonstrate that you are committed to this new job for the five years ahead (whether that’s true or not!) but that, naturally, you don’t want to just stand still; you expect to be able to progress and move upwards in their organisation – to their benefit as well as your own.  To put it another way, you see them as your preferred career option for the whole five years ahead and aren’t currently contemplating any other options.  In reality, five years is a long time and you may well intend to consider other options before those five years are up – but telling the interviewer this isn’t going to support your case for them to hire you.

Example:

I see myself remaining with your organisation for the next five years.  I feel that’s my best career option at present.  Naturally, I will be hoping to progress significantly over the course of those five years and, having proved myself, would expect to be entrusted with greater responsibility and a higher level of autonomy.  I can see that there are plenty of opportunities for promotion and for ongoing professional development within your organisation and I am keen to take advantage of them and to become a greater asset to your organisation.

Word of warning:

In most cases, you should avoid being too specific and stating, for example, a particular job role you hope to be able to get in, say, three years’ time.  You are being recruited for a specific job and that must remain your current focus.

Alternative and related questions:

How do you define success?
What exactly does the word ‘failure’ mean to you?

The meaning behind the question:

This is an interesting question clearly designed to identify how, in the workplace, you define success but also to give the interviewer some greater insight into your psychology and the way you think and feel about success – and what your ‘value system’ is.

Your answer:

Everyone knows what success means – and the Oxford English dictionary defines it formally as ‘the accomplishment of an aim or purpose’ or ‘the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.’  This question, however, is asking what the word means to you in particular.  So what does it mean to you?  Everyone defines success slightly differently.  For some it may be a job well done.  For others, it may be reward and recognition for their efforts.  What is it for you?

There are no right or wrong answers to this question but do be sure to keep your definition restricted to the workplace, unless of course your interviewer has specifically asked you for a broader definition, not just related to the workplace.

Example:

For me, success has a number of different elements.  On the one hand, it’s clearly having achieved a specific goal or goals – the satisfaction of a job well done, having achieved one’s purpose.  On the other hand, it’s also the recognition of that achievement by others.  Ultimately, success is a significant motivator for me – the desire to achieve success in all that I undertake and to contribute to the best of my ability.

Word of warning:

Be prepared for the interviewer to follow up this question by asking you for an example of when you’ve personally achieved success.