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Be Careful with This question!! - "What are Your Career Goals?"

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

Did you know that this common question, "What are your career goals?" is actually a dangerous one that can cost you your offer if you're not careful?

To understand why this question is risky we need to first figure out the reasons why employers like to ask it. There are two major objectives.

First, employers want to know if you have a goal; By asking this, they can find out if you are a goal-oriented person and have any aspirations for growth.

Second (and this will be our topic today), they also want to assess whether you will likely stay with the new firm for a long time. And in order to determine that, the interviewer wants to know:

  1. if you are genuinely interested and committed to the role and

  2. if their role can meet your goals within a reasonable amount of time.

Why? Because if the role cannot meet the goals of the candidate (at least the short-term ones) soon, they will likely start looking again.

For the rest of this article, I will dive deep into these TWO points (genuine interest and if the goals are achievable) and how you should prepare your response accordingly. Let's go

  1. Make your answer 100% about the role you're applying for

You should only mention your goals that are directly about the role in question. Because if you mention any goal other than what the role pertains to or what the role can provide, the employer will likely believe that you are not, in fact, genuinely keen on the opportunity.

One of the biggest fears of a hiring manager is employing someone who will end up leaving them quickly (say less than 1 to 2 years). And the reason they're so afraid is because of the cost of making a wrong hiring decision. It's extremely expensive (both financially and resource-wise) to bring in someone new.

First, there is a long waiting period during which they are trying to identify the right person - you need to get the new headcount approved, write a new JD, post jobs online, engage recruiters, shortlist candidates, go through numerous interviews, propose an offer, have the offer approved, present the offer, and wait for the candidate to accept (if they accept at all). if they do not accept the offer, then it's back to square one and starting the whole process all over again.

And if the candidate does accept, then you need to wait for them to resign, pass background checking and serve the notice period until they finally start (and again, if any of these steps don't work out, then it's back to square one).

But that is just the beginning. Once the new person joins, you need to spend time training the new person; he/she would need time to get used to the systems and processes in the new firm, probably need time to learn the new business, build new relationships, etc. – As you can see, there is much investment that goes into the new staff.

And all of this will go to waste if the new employee leaves within a short period of time.

As a result, if the interviewer hears anything during the interview that may even remotely suggest that the candidate is not that keen on the role, it creates a considerable amount of concern in their mind. And this often leads to the employer deciding not to make the offer in the end.

As you can imagine, every candidate will say they are interested and committed to the role they are applying for, right? Therefore, from the interviewer's point of view, they are always on the lookout for any signs that suggest a lack of commitment or interest. And most of the time, if you mention anything other than the particular job as part of your career goals, they will likely assume that what you really want to do is the other thing you just alluded to.

As a candidate, it's common to be open to different types of opportunities. Maybe, you are open to trying something new, trying a different team, new areas of focus, even some side projects and hobbies you'd like to pursue, etc. And it doesn't necessarily mean that you are not keen on the job you're applying for. It's just that there are multiple areas and avenues you may be open to in the future.

  1. For example, a lawyer who specializes in one sector may be open to trying a different area

  2. Or a salesperson may consider moving to account management or relationship management down the line

  3. A professional in the back office within banking may be open to moving to the front office in the future.

  4. Or you may even want to start your business one day (which may or may not happen).

And all of these are great! By all means, do pursue them, and there are job search tips for moving to a different area, too!

All I am saying is: if any of these plans and desires are not part of the very job you're applying for, do not bring them up.

Because if you do, the interviewer will almost always misinterpret it as you not being that keen on their opportunity and wanting to do something else soon. Remember, they are looking for hints that someone may not stay with them long. And they will think you will likely move to a different role the first chance you get.

Throughout my recruitment career, I saw so many qualified candidates whom even the employer agrees are fit for the job, in the end, not getting the offer because they answered this question incorrectly. The feedback from the employer would be something like, "We feel this person is a strong profile, but he/she seems to want to do something else." Or, "She is qualified for the job, but we feel that her motivation and interests are not aligned with this position." Even though the candidate really wanted to join this company!

Once the motivation is in doubt, the employer will almost always choose not to hire the person (again, because the cost of a wrong hire is too much).

Make your reply 100% focused on the position you're there for.

  1. Keep your answer flexible and open

As I mentioned, another piece of information the employer is after is whether your goals are achievable in the near future. Because if they cannot be achieved within a reasonable period, it's possible and likely that the candidate will start looking again!

And, if you mention goals that are too specific, you risk saying something that the employer believes they may not be able to provide.

For example, responses such as:

  1. “My goal is to start managing a team in a few years.”

  2. “I aim to become a manager in 2 years.”

  3. “I want to own and drive the entire program for this initiative eventually.”

  4. “My career goal would be to become a project director.”

The problem is that:

First, we are not sure if those opportunities (like managing a team, running the entire program, or becoming a project director) will be available.

And 2nd, even if they are, the hiring manager won't know for sure if he or she can offer you such positions in the future (as there can be many factors to be considered), which only creates more uncertainty in the hiring manager's mind.

So instead, if you want to maximize your chances of getting an offer, keeping your goals open and flexible is best.

For example, instead of saying I want to be a manager you can say, I want to grow in my role and gain more leadership exposure.

Instead of saying I want to be promoted to a manager position from assistant manager, you can say I would like to progress in my career and position.

Instead of saying I want to drive the entire program, you may want to say I would like to have more exposure and additional decision-making ability.

And then, after you get the offer, join the firm, and find your footing, then by all means, discuss your specific career progression plans and desires with your manager (which everyone should do, by the way).

But during the interview, you are much better off keeping these things broad and open.

Again, this seemingly innocent question, "What are your career goals?" is, in fact, a dangerous one we need to be careful of.

Now that we understand what the employers are really looking for when making this query, the next time you are presented with this question:

  1. Keep your answer 100% focused on the role you're interviewing for

  2. Keep your answer flexible and open

…. so that you can avoid unnecessary pitfalls and maximize your chances of a positive result.

Happy job searching!

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