Readers’ Forum: Where do I see myself in 5 years?

In the December 14, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to best answer an age-old interview question:

Many job-related sites talk about this interview question, but none suggest how to best answer it. The question is, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Obviously, this question relates to a person’s goals, but it can be sticky in some situations, especially a small business to which you are applying where the only promotion may be to the interviewer’s position. What do you suggest?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

So, what should you say to the five-year question? My cynical answer is another question: “Will your company still be in business five years from now?”

Yah, that’s a little rude, but a dopey question sometimes deserves a pointed rejoinder.

This is why I include “five years” in my list of the Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions. You see, the problem doesn’t lie in coming up with an answer. The problem is the question itself. I advise employers not to ask “where you see yourself in five years” for a number of reasons:

  • There are so many canned answers floating around that it’s meaningless — few people answer it honestly.
  • Many businesses really won’t be around in five years.
  • Changes in technology and business render almost any career goal ephemeral.

I suggest you be honest with the employer. If you don’t know where you see yourself in five years, tell him where you see yourself in six months or a year: “Contributing to the profitability of this company by doing A, B, and C for you.” Then explain what A, B, and C are in detail. (Do your homework, or don’t go to the interview!)

Talk shop! Steer the interviewer away from goofy questions like, What’s your greatest weakness? If you could be any animal, what animal would you be? No matter how you decide to answer (or parry) a worn out interview question, you can take control of the interview. In the Answer Kit: How Can I Change Careers? I offer many suggestions to help you take the interviewer out of fantasyland. Here are two of them:

  • Don’t talk about yourself. Talk shop and demonstrate your abilities. Ask the interviewer: What’s the main problem or challenge you’d like the person you hire to tackle? I’d like to show you how I’d go about it…
  • Skip the elevator pitch. Offer value and make a commitment. Rather than say, “I’m a hardworking, capable operations manager seeking opportunity for advancement,” (so’s everybody!) try this: I will reduce your operations costs by negotiating better deals with your freight vendors and streamlining your shipping department by doing X, Y and Z… (Again, you’d better have done your homework, and be ready to get very specific!)

(How Can I Change Careers? isn’t just for career changers. It’s for anyone who wants to stand out by demonstrating their value to a specific employer.)

Don’t get lost trying to answer distracting questions. If you find a job interview is going off the track, you can also steer it back on course by raising (and answering) The Most Important Question in an Interview.

Employers seem to think that certain interview questions are a must. Is “the five year question” one of them? Does it matter where you see yourself in five years?

Besides, hasn’t this question been so over-analyzed and the answers “faked” for so long that it’s meaningless anyway? Gimme a break. I’d rather be asked why manhole covers are round.

What’s your take on it? Is this just another stupid interview question? How do you answer it?

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Readers’ Forum: Is there anything you won’t do to stay in the running?

In the November 9, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader thinks I’m giving bad advice that costs people job offers. Or at least interviews. You decide:

You regularly advise against divulging past salary in an interview because it might prejudice an employer’s offer. I disagree with you. After going on over 25 interviews (most were second or third round) in the past nine months, I suspect most people would gladly reveal their salary history if required, so as not to be disqualified. What do you say to this?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

Do you really want to get stuck defending what your last employer paid you? Do you want to be stuck trying to change the value that an old employer put on your head?

This salary issue is more than a question of being cooperative. It’s about making sound judgments. In my opinion, an intelligent disagreement and discussion about salary reveals integrity and it stimulates an important dialogue. Employers who rely on salary history to judge you are trusting another company’s evaluation. Think about that. It’s almost insane. What really matters is what you can do for this company now and in the future. Is the company able to make that judgment? Why does it need your last employer’s “salary input?”

Declining to divulge salary history is not about being uncooperative. It’s about shifting the interview to a higher plane. Don’t worry so much about getting disqualified.

Some employers will try to pry any information they can out of a job candidate. Should you give them anything they ask for, just so you won’t be disqualified? Where’s the line?

What have employers asked you to say or do, just to stay in the running? Have you ever done anything you’ve regretted?

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Harvard Webinar: Can you stand out in the talent glut?

This is a special posting connected to the Harvard Business School Career Management Webinar I presented on November 3, 2010. I’ll add more content here after the event — but the main purpose is to answer questions we didn’t have time for during the hour, and to carry on the discussion.

Can you stand out in the talent glut?

Please post your questions and comments below. Thanks for joining me!

[UPDATE: Don’t miss this audio excerpt from the webinar!]

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Readers’ Forum: Do I have to say it?

In the November 2, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager makes a complaint and a request. Listen up:

I am speaking both as a frustrated hiring manager and as a job hunter. When I was job hunting, I always made it clear that I wanted the job. I expressed this verbally during the interview and in my thank-you letter. Now, as a (beginner) hiring manager, I want to ensure that positions are filled by qualified candidates who I know, undisputedly, want the job.

Can you discuss the importance of this basic and obvious technique in interviewing that is often overlooked? That is, the applicant must always say to the potential employer, “I want this job.” Of course, this must be based on a sincere desire for the position. What are your views on the importance of this statement?

A truncated version of my advice:
(For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

There’s a footnote in one of my books about a sales vice president who interviewed for a job and failed to get the offer. He argued to me that making such an explicit statement is awkward and that it shows the candidate “has no class.”

My response to him: Failure to say you want the job indicates you aren’t worth hiring because you don’t have enough interest in working for the employer.

“Of course I want the job,” he exclaimed. ” That’s why I’m interviewing! The manager knows that!”

No, the manager doesn’t know that. Most jobs people interview for are jobs that come along, not jobs they really want. Most candidates don’t know they want a job until after they’ve met and talked with the manager at length. When the candidate makes a decision, the manager needs to hear it.

When you interview for a job and decide you want it, do you say it? “I want this job.” No, I don’t mean do you hem and haw and mince your words. I mean, do you say, “I want this job?”

I think if you don’t, you don’t deserve to be hired. (Would you expect someone to accept your marriage proposal if you don’t say, “I love you?”) If you’re a manager, I suggest you watch your next candidate, and listen carefully. Does she tell you she wants to work on your team? No? Hit the EJECT button. On to the next candidate!

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We don’t need no stinking references…

So, why do employers ask for references, then never bother to contact them? Guess they don’t really need no stinking references, eh?

A reader asks:

I found a job listing on Craigslist that interested me. I did some homework and liked what I found out about the company, and I sent my resume and cover letter. I received a response quickly and was given an interview the following day. The interview went really well, and was told a decision was going to be made quickly.

I received an email four days later telling me they were close to a decision, and would like references from me. I replied within minutes (thanks to a smartphone). Three days later, I got a job offer over the phone. After checking with my references, I found this company never called them. Why is that, do you think? Do they just want to see if I can list three people without my last name? I don’t get it. Is this commonplace these days? Another company I applied to asked as well, but never called any of them. Any ideas?

Congratulations on the offer. You’re asking a very good question. Not enough companies actually check references. Fewer job candidates check a company’s references before accepting an offer. This is a mistake on both sides.

But yes, it’s common for a company to ask for your references but not to check them prior to issuing an offer. Someone in HR may follow up with them later, after you’ve already started work. That’s pretty useless at that point for you, isn’t it? But if something negative turns up, you could get fired.

All of this points to the really big problem: HR does things simply because “that’s how it’s supposed to be done” – even when they don’t actually do it!

It’s idiotic.

Just make sure the company you’re joining is a good one. Never accept an offer just because the money’s good or “because they want you.” This article might help: Peeling The Offer.

Have you ever accepted an offer, only to find the employer never really checked the references it requested? If you’re a manager, do you check references? If you work in HR, and you collect references but never check them, why pretend?

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Readers’ Forum: Just 2 weeks off? Are you nuts???

In the October 26, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks:

One thing that has kept me from seeking other employment is that I don’t want to lose the four weeks of vacation time I’ve built up. Are vacation benefits negotiable?

Everything is negotiable, but not every negotiation is winnable… The position many companies take has never made sense to me. They claim they wouldn’t be able to keep a lid on vacation policy if they were to negotiate special deals with new hires. “We must be consistent and fair.”

But I look at this another way. Vacation time is not a benefit, but a form of compensation… Wait until the offer has been made, then diplomatically and matter-of-factly explain that just as you are worth the salary level you have attained, you’re worth the vacation time, too.

(The rest of my suggestions are in the newsletter. Subscribe now — it’s FREE! Don’t miss getting the whole story next week!)

Employers will ask for your salary history, and base a job offer on it. So when it comes to vacation time, why do they want you to start back at square one? More vacation is good for the gander! Just 2 weeks off? Are you nuts???

Did you leave your vacation time behind, or did you negotiate it? What’s your story?

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Stupid interview animals: No soap, RADIO!

MediaBistro led me to the latest career advice in Fortune.com’s Ask Annie column: Employer’s Wacky Interview Questions. I don’t know what’s wackier: the questions, or that Annie Fisher really believes that the mission of career advisors is to come up with clever answers for them.

Get this question from an Ask Annie reader:

Yesterday an interviewer asked me, “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?” I was so surprised that it took me a few minutes to come up with an answer. I said I was like a dog, “loyal to a fault” — which made sense, since I stayed with my last employer for 17 years, despite having had other offers — but I couldn’t really tell from his reaction if that was a good response or not.

A good response? About what animal you would be?

Fisher answers with an anecdote to encourage confused job candidates to play guessing games:

J.P. Hansen, president of Omaha-based Hansen Executive Search, was once asked the Barbara Walters-esque what-animal-would-you-be question in a job interview. His answer: A jaguar. Why? Hansen explained that “the jaguar is very versatile, able to patiently wait for its prey for hours on end, then pounce with lightning speed and grace. Plus, it’s a cool car!” The hiring manager who was quizzing him smiled, reached into her purse, and pulled out her car keys — with a Jaguar emblem on the key chain. Hansen got the job.

What luck! Another winning answer to one of the Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions!

Next, Hansen explains the “strategy” behind these idiotic queries:

“The job market is so tight right now, with so many candidates available whose backgrounds and qualifications are so similar to one another, that some hiring managers try to find an ‘aha!’ moment where they can trip you up, or get you to reveal something you didn’t plan to say,” he says.

Aha! The interviewer doesn’t know what the F she’s doing, so she tries to trip the job applicant with… Do you walk to school or carry your lunch (heh-heh…)?

Since there is no way to predict what you might be asked, how do you prepare? Hansen… says job seekers need to go into interviews with enough confidence to handle any wacky question that might come up. The only way to get that confidence: Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Prepare what? A Noah’s Ark of rejoinders that might reflect the pets (or cars) that some wacky interviewer owns? Fisher wraps up the article with a plug for Hansen’s book about interview animals. The caution to job hunters is clear: You’d better stock up on interviewer-approved answers to dumb-ass questions, or you’re not going to get hired. And here’s a book full of ’em…!

Is it any wonder employers think there’s a talent shortage during the biggest glut of unemployed talent in American history?

  • There just aren’t enough job applicants who know what animal they want to be!
  • Today’s job hunters just haven’t got a heh-heh clever explanation for their greatest weakness, and,
  • They can’t tell you where the hell they see themselves in five years (as though the company in question is likely to be in business in five years…)

Like most of life’s mysteries, Why should I hire you? has a Zen sort of “best answer.” That is, another question: The most important question in an interview:

“Would you like me to show you how I can help increase your profits if you hire me to do this job?”

If the interviewer doesn’t get that, you walk. Imagine taking a job with a dope who hires you because your answer is a match to the keys in her purse. Lotsa luck. My good buddy Nancy Austin explains it simply: Beyond the Trick Question. (Her article includes a hiring manager with a lu-lu of a Stupid Interview Question of his own.) Nancy’s article is all you need to know to interview like an adult.

But Fisher and Hansen need to consult the nearest ten-year-old who knows the joke about the trick question. (HR execs, please pay close attention.) Most kids are exposed to this famous childhood gotcha, and are thereby innoculated against embarrassing themselves later in life. This joke is told in a group, where one kid is set up as the sucker by the others, who all know the story:

The Joke: Two elephants are sitting in a bathtub, scrubbing away. One elephant pauses and cries out to the other, “Pass the soap!” And the other elephant shouts back, “No soap! RADIO!”

All the kids burst out laughing at the hilarious rejoinder and they slap one another on the back with glee. The sucker in the group cracks up, too and exclaims how funny it is — only to be mocked by the rest because there is no joke.

The story and the rejoinder are nonsense, of course; designed to determine whether the kid is so desperate to “belong” that he’ll suspend his common sense, his honesty and his integrity. Just like the foolish job applicant who goes along with the even more foolish hiring manager — both suckered by some “career expert” who is clueless about how to have an intelligent discussion about the work at hand.

Even ten-year-olds get it. An entire industry — the career industry — continues to embarrass itself by trying to con job hunters and hiring managers into pretending they’re silly elephants sitting in a tub.

This is no joke. It’s time to grow up and interview like adults.

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Readers’ Forum: Why interview when there’s no job?

In the July 27, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newslettera reader asks:

Rather than chase job listings, I took your advice and picked three companies I really want to work for. This is fun, because I work harder when I am totally focused. I did extensive research, identified the right managers, and arranged introductions. What if they don’t have any jobs open? Isn’t that a waste of time?

Absolutely not. These are still the people you want to get to know and stay in touch with.

About 60% of jobs are found through personal contacts. The managers on your list are your best new personal contacts — whether they have a job for you or not. Your investment of time is a good one because they could lead you to your next job even if they don’t hire you. But take note: You must be credible if you want your contacts to be productive.

(You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

Job hunting isn’t about getting a job. It’s about getting known. As you’re starting to see, your credibility is greatest when you approach companies and managers you really want to work for. When you’re motivated and know your stuff, managers take notice. When you meet with managers you care about, that’s what makes the outcome productive.

How much time do you invest in getting to know people you’d really like to work with? Even if there isn’t a job to talk about?

And, how do you go about it?

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Readers’ Forum: How can I compensate for job requirements?

Discussion: June 22, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

(You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

A reader says:

What do you do when the employer interviewing you has four requirements but you meet only three of them—yet you know that you’re the best person for the job? How can I turn this kind of situation into a job offer?

How indeed? In today’s Q&A column in the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader didn’t meet the employer’s list of requirements. Is the job interview over? I think it can be salvaged.

What’s your advice to this reader? Better yet, has this happened to you? What did you do to convince the manager? Did it work? If you’re a manager, can a candidate compensate for job requirements?

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New grads in job interviews

I just read an article full of advice for new college graduates going into job interviews. It’s on BNET: Fred Ball: Killer Interview Skills for New Grads.

I’d love to know what the Ask The Headhunter audience thinks about Ball’s tips. I’ll add my two bits later.

Are the tips realistic?

Will they help kids get jobs?

Will the employer be impressed?

Best parts, worst parts?

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