While we are flattered by the response to our previous post, Career Plans Are Dangerous, we weren't quite anticipating the push back.
All we were saying is that if you find yourself in a profession which is evolving rapidly, career planning just doesn't make a lot of sense.
And our advice to employers was equally straightforward: If no one knows what the future in your field is going to be, then asking the standard interview question "where do you see yourself in five years?" is silly.
Most readers got our point — and for those who were made extremely uncomfortable, we will provide some thoughts in a minute — but some took us to task for saying that asking someone where they expect to be in five years is a great way to uncover the applicant's "ambition, personality, values, thinking process, etc. The way people answer this question can tell me a lot about them and whether they are the right person for a particular job/environment."
Well, we don't claim to be recruiters. But between the three of us we have hired literally hundreds of people and our experience has been that if you are looking to discover those things, there is a much more direct — and we would argue better — way of finding out. Ask the person what they have been (or are now) utterly committed to in their life: "What really turns you on and attracts you almost in spite of yourself? What are the things that you can't put out of your mind?"
What our organizations need today — perhaps above all else — is commitment. People who truly want to do a great job. Who are driven to do so. The best way to find out if someone has that kind of desire and commitment is to ask about times they have demonstrated it in the past.
Does it have to be work-related?
It would be nice, but no.
What you are looking for is whether they have developed the "muscle" to be committed. To anything. Because if they have that muscle, you and they will quickly find out whether they can become committed to the specifics of your organization and job. If they don't have the "commitment muscle," it will surely be hard work for you to develop it.
Why not insist that the desire be work-related in general and tied to your firm in particular? Well, the moment you say to people "tell me why you feel passionate about joining XYZ Corp," people are going to be tempted to tell you what you want to hear, instead of the honest and complete truth. They are, as a friend of ours who hires for a large corporation told us, "going to start blowing in your ear." It is not that they are going to be trying to deceive you. They want to be excited about your firm. They want to convince themselves as much as they want to convince you. So they are naturally going to be doing everything they possibly can to put themselves in the best possible light. There is nothing wrong with that. It's the way of the world. But it is not particularly helpful either.
You can probe to see if the applicant's values and the company's are in sync — if they have the requisite skills and intelligence, and how good they are at problem-solving and the like. These are good things to do. But the best way you are going to find out if they have the ability to commit whole-heartedly to something is to discover if they have done so in the past.
One of us, Charlie, was once interviewing a young woman, Kathryn, for a sales position. She was currently a college counselor and had no prior sales experience. She'd been "approved" by three people on Charlie's staff but they were concerned about whether she was committed to "our work." She had no prior experience in that either.
So Charlie asked Kathryn to go for a walk with him and they started to talk about life in general. Almost immediately Kathryn shared that she loved running marathons, particularly Boston's. No one would have guessed this from looking at her. Charlie's thought? "And we were worried about whether Kathryn is committed!!? I couldn't even conceive of what it would take to run that 26 miles."
Kathryn got hired, learned the business and thrived.
The point? What you want to know about the applicant is whether they have the capacity for commitment. If they do, it is up to you and them to figure out how you are going to get them to do so in the future as they work for you.
But that is a challenge for you to figure out after you have decided to hire them. First, you have to know if they have the requisite ability to commit wholeheartedly. And to us, the easiest way to find out is to ask them directly.
Memo to the person applying for the job: If you think that talking about your "desires" can seem "un-businesslike," get over it.
You know, in general terms, what the company is looking for in an applicant. And you know whether or not you have those skills.
But there are lots and lots of people who are smart, good problem-solvers, good team players, and who take initiative and want to win. It is going to be extremely hard to set yourself apart, if these are the qualities on which you choose to compete.
Talking about your passions and desires will set you apart. Once you get the gig, it is up to you (and your future boss) to figure out how to channel that passion for the organization's benefit — and yours.
This post is part of the special series The New Rules for Getting a Job.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 03/14/2012.
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