More than just interview folklore, the "where do you want to be?" question happens. It's happened to me. Frankly, when we were using "where do you want to go today?" as part of our brand message, how could we resist asking a version of that question during the interviews? Though I'd hate to think that anyone asks it verbatim. I think my version is something like "if you were hired for the position, can you tell me where you would see your career progressing from there?".

Anyway, I know people get asked the question and it's so broad and general that you could go anywhere with it. As someone who has interviewed thousands of people (I guess thousands...not sure), thought I could share some of the thinking that goes behind a question like that. And perhaps, this could help you think about how you would answer the question for yourself. We aren't trying to trick the interview here...just structuring the answer so you are giving the interviewer something to take away from the conversation.

So first, you have probably heard the advice that you aren't supposed to say "well, I'd like to have your job in 5 years". You know the reason for that isn't necessarily because the interviewer would feel threatened by that; though if they have been in their role for a number of years with no intention to leave it, they might. Actually, that answer lacks depth...it's too easy. There are a number of ways to grow professionally and so answering "your job" is kind of a cop out. The question is intended to start a conversation...they don't want to just know the job, they want to discover why that's is your intended career path and what that choice says about you. Also, keep in mind, that you can describe what you would like to be doing down the road without naming the actual job. It gives you an opportunity to highlight to them what your passions and talents are. Here's what the interviewer could be thinking while you answer the question:

* Has this person thought about their career progression at all? Since they are looking to leave their employer, they should have thought about it. If they are in demand, they should be desirous of it in their next move. If this candidate is struggling for an answer...why have they not thought about this already?

Hint: think about it. Big red flag if you haven't.

* How flexible is this person? Do they seem so rigid in their career path that they might not be able to take on extra responsibilities or consider other alternatives based on business need?

Hint: be honest about where you can be flexible. I covered for a maternity leave once that definitely took me away from what I was passionate about, but we needed someone to step in and it was a good opportunity for me to try something different.

* Can we offer this person the kind of career path they are looking for? Does it exist at our company?

Hint: do some research on the company and understand the potential career path, roles posted on their career site and the verbiage they use to talk about their roles. Ask questions about career path. Instead of saying "I'd like to do X", you could say "I really enjoy X. Can you tell me what kind of roles include responsibility for X at different levels so I can get a sense of how I could progress at your company?"

* Is this person's assessment of their skills relative to potential career paths on target? Can we help them develop those skills? 

Hint: be honest with yourself. Look at past performance reviews, ask people you've worked with in the past. Take that into account when you are thinking about your career goals and again, do the research and ask the questions about roles at different levels of responsibility that could leverage your skills. And be honest about where you might not have significant skills but would like to grow.

* Does this person have some humility? Where do they see themselves relative to others in their field and will I have trouble managing (or working with) them?

Hint: I'd recommend not getting too far ahead of yourself in terms of an established time-frame if you can avoid it. I can't tell you how many MBAs have told me they want to run a P&L in 3-5 years. That's a red flag for me. Have a candid conversation about skills sets.

* How does this person value the different parts of their work (strategy versus people management versus execution) and their skills sets?

Hint: your choice of future roles should be a combination of what you are good at and what you like to do, with a little bit of personal growth opportunity thrown in. So again, the interviewer will learn a lot about what you like to do and where you think you are strong...hopefully it matches well with where THEY think you are strong.

*Does this person expect to be at their employer for a while?

Hint: have an answer that relates to career paths within the company based on your research.

* Is this person seriously considering my company?

Hint: once again,doing  the research and asking questions is important. Make it a dialog and be interested in your own career development.

So here's an example of how the conversation could go if I was interviewing someone:

Me: Sue, if you were to be hired into this Marketing Manager position, have you given some thought to how you might see your career path progressing from there?

Sue: Yes, I have. I've always really enjoyed working on go-to-market strategy because there are so many moving pieces. I know that the open position is mostly focused on taking the product to market in the United States. In the future, I'd be interested in exploring roles involved with entering new geographical markets. I like the idea of breaking new ground, engaging with subsidiary marketing teams and learning more about customer behavior in different economies. Another option I'm also potentially interested in is growing into a management role, so I'd like to understand if there are roles that could leverage my go-to-market strategy experience while leading a team. Do you think that kind of opportunity would exist in this group in the future?

Me: Sure, we grow many of our managers internally and there are a lot of options for people wanting to take on management roles like setting up a mentor relationship with an existing manager. As far as looking at new geographical markets, I'm not sure what the product plans are for this immediate group, but we see roles focused on emerging markets opening up all the time. So you could even think of making a move to another product group at some point. Is that something that you would consider?

Sue: Yes. It's important for me to feel like I am growing professionally and contributing to the team goals. So I actually like the idea of expanding my domain knowledge and making an impact on another part of the business at some point. Of course, my first priority would be to become an expert at the Marketing Manager position!

I'm liking Sue so much for this position right now. Seems that she has thought about her career, what she's good at and what she enjoys. She has some areas for growth that she is interested in exploring without a rigid time frame and she seems to have some flexibility. Now I don't need to tell you to come up with your own answers to the "where do you want to be" question (do I?). And I figure that if you are reading this, you are already thinking about your own career growth. I was just hoping that I could help you frame your answers and understand why, oh why, an interviewer would ask such a general question like that.

Good luck!