What do I say that I want to be when I grow up?
February 10, 2012 1:52 PM   Subscribe

I have an interview next Tuesday with a investment firm. The position is Executive Assistant to the CEO. When they ask me where I see myself in 5 years, what do I say?

The position is a pretty basic administrative assistant position, but it's for the CEO at a firm that does institutional investments and wealth management such as hedge funds. I am good at interviews, until they get to the 5-year question. Why? Because from my experience, Executive Assistant is pretty much as high as you can go in admin jobs. No company I have ever worked for would ever dream of letting an administrative person escape from that role. (The assumption has always been that if you were good enough for a "real job", then you wouldn't be an admin.)

But lately, I keep getting asked this question, and I have no idea what to say. I mean, for instance, if I'm working at an engineering company, I'm not suddenly going to learn how to become an engineer. At a tech company, I'm not going to suddenly learn to be a software engineer. (Also, I am at an age where going back to school to get a degree in something specialized would be completely impractical - going part-time, I'd graduate just a few years before retirement, with a mountain of debt. And frankly, as an extremely experienced Exec Assist, I earn more than an entry level engineer does, for example. However, a lot of people assume I'm in my mid-30's, so I guess it would be in my best interests not to point out that I'm much older.)

As assistant to the CEO, I'd be at the top of the admin pile. There is no higher admin position to strive for. So what do I say? Do I say that I'd like to be working towards being a financial analyst? (Is that even the right title?) If I do that, are they going to think I'm not serious about the admin job, and pass me over for someone else? If I say that, are they going to wonder why, if that was my goal, I've never bothered to work for a financial services company before?

(If it matters, I actually would be interested in becoming an investment advisor, or whatever the proper title is. But at this point, I know next to nothing about investing.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do I say that I'd like to be working towards being a financial analyst?....If I say that, are they going to wonder why, if that was my goal, I've never bothered to work for a financial services company before?

They're going to wonder why you're applying for a job that has nothing to do at the practical task level with being a financial analyst, so definitely don't say that. I think you can be somewhat vague and say you hope have grown into a position at an organization where your skills are being utilized to their fullest and you are taking on increasing responsibility, stuff like that.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:00 PM on February 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

At the Fortune 500 company I previously worked for, the administrative assistants were on a track to do project analysis. Now, this was an engineering concern, not a financial one, but you could make a case that you believe that the administrative work can serve as a stepping stone to project analysis or planning.

I'm not sure how this actually works, by the way, or if this is a common thing in engineering, let alone in financial companies. But whether or not you actually want to do this, it isn't an unreasonable response, as long as you do some homework into what this would entail.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 2:01 PM on February 10, 2012

I'd say you could rephrase that question in your head. Instead of trying to answer the question as "What career title do you see yourself with in 5 years?" try answering "What sort of knowledge and capabilities to you see yourself as having in 5 years, and how will that benefit the company?"

For instance, "In 5 years, I see myself as being able to provide x benefits because I will be more knowledgeable about company processes y and z. In 5 years I hope to have gained insight into a, b, and c, and be applying those insights in my daily work with Person Q / process D / etc."
posted by erst at 2:02 PM on February 10, 2012 [17 favorites]

I accidentally hit Post before finishing my thought: you should do some homework so that if they follow up, you're able to give some details about what this might entail, what the time frame would be (the admins who made the jump did so in less than 3 years), etc.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 2:03 PM on February 10, 2012

"In 5 years I want to be an indispensible Executive Assistant doing the best job in this role that [CEO, company] has ever seen."
If they press further, you could turn it back to them - "Perhaps I misunderstood the structure of your organization. What other roles are seen as advancement beyond this position?"
posted by aimedwander at 2:03 PM on February 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

This maybe a very British perspective, but try just telling the truth. What DO you want to be doing in the future? And it doesn't have to be only professional goals you're striving for. If its a company you don't know, you could just state that you'd hope to be in a role in which you can grow, and in which the company can start to really see your full potential.
posted by expatbore at 2:11 PM on February 10, 2012

"In 5 years, I would like to be the executive assistant to your Board of Directors."
"And in 10 years I would like to sit on the Board in my capacity as the Secretary of the Board."
posted by ruelle at 2:59 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

(15 years in financial services and funds management). There are plenty of places you can go from a top admin position. I wouldn't say you think it would take you 10 years to be the secretary to the board of directors, that is probably within your grasp in 1 year with some study. If you are interested in other support functions, you could talk about operations management, customer relationship management, project support, HR, training, general office management (every place I have ever worked has an office manager who runs the place). You need to be prepared with the followup to any of these answers, which will be "how do you plan to get there?". Research some certificate courses and you are golden.

Also, it is fine to say: "You know, this is what I want to do. I want to be challenged and stretched and to do a great job. But in five years, I want to be supporting the CEO of an investment funds firm. I would be very happy to be doing this job in five years time." You would be surprised how many people will appreciate the honesty and the 'stickability' that this answer implies.

There are plenty of options. Pick one, do a little research and start talking. Good luck.
posted by yogalemon at 3:29 PM on February 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

They know that there's no higher admin position and they don't really want you to suddenly talk about your burning desire for a different career even if you have one; they just don't want the 2012 equivalent of someone who was hired in 1975 and in 1995 could still only use a typewriter.

Rather than talking about promotions, I would just focus on ways you can develop your skills and usefulness in the position. Whether that's learning new software, developing social media skills so you can manage the CEO's Twitter feed, keeping abreast of developments in hedge fundery that will affect the CEO's calendar. If the job involves supervising any less-senior staff you can talk about developing mentorship skills, etc.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 3:32 PM on February 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

"In 5 years, I would like to be the executive assistant to your Board of Directors."
"And in 10 years I would like to sit on the Board in my capacity as the Secretary of the Board."
posted by ruelle at 5:59 PM on February 10 [+] [!]

Please don't.

Corporate boards don't typically have EAs, and Secretary of the Board is typically a very experienced, senior lawyer - it has nothing at all to do with being a secretary in the administrative sense.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 3:47 PM on February 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

"Well, in five years, I would like to know a company -- this company, I hope -- so well, that the knowledge and experience I've gained helps determine where I can deliver and get the most value!"
posted by thinkpiece at 3:53 PM on February 10, 2012

"In five years, I'd like to be asking someone else this exact same question. From the other side of the desk."

This phrase shows that you're ambitious and aspire to a higher level position, willing to work hard, and loyal to the company which hires you.
posted by HeyAllie at 4:09 PM on February 10, 2012

When I ask candidates this question I'm not expecting a them to say that they want to go higher in five years; I'm hoping they'll say they want to be better at their job in five years.
posted by sm1tten at 4:20 PM on February 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

What are the skills that you bring to being an EA that you most enjoy deploying?

As an EA, I handle accounting/finances, process and project management, facilitation of both groups and projects. I plan events, organize meetings, sometimes facilitate meetings, and serve as a central repository of institutional knowledge. And I've only been at my current job for 6 months. Maybe you want to manage a group of admins, or be helping to improve and streamline work processes in the company, using your expert knowledge and background.

It's okay if you "just" want to be a kickass EA, too, and any of the above could come into play in expanding on that answer, too.
posted by rosa at 4:27 PM on February 10, 2012

nthing sm1tten. When I'm interviewing a candidate for a position I hope they'll be in long-term, I don't want to hear them say they're planning on climbing out of that position as soon as possible. I want to hear how they really want to be contributing as the best darn *positionname* ever.

If it's interviewing for an entry-level position with a clear career path, that's different. An experienced, highly-skilled Executive Assistant should interview differently than, say, someone whose last position was as an intern.
posted by erst at 4:43 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

"In five years, I'd like to be asking someone else this exact same question. From the other side of the desk."

This phrase shows that you're ambitious and aspire to a higher level position, willing to work hard, and loyal to the company which hires you.

And if you're talking to the hiring manager, you're threatening that person's job.

I wouldn't use that line, myself. I'd focus on talking about how you want to get better at your prospective job - that has always gone over well for me.
posted by winna at 5:16 PM on February 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm an Executive Assistant to a CEO and I have been in the same position, happily, for almost seven years. At my previous company, I was sort of forced into a management-type role I didn't want and I quickly learned that I was going to need to be honest about what I wanted in order to be happy at work. So I stopped bullshitting and in interviews told the truth. I told them I love being an Executive Assistant and want to have a comfortable, stable job where I can become invaluable to the CEO and his management team on a long-term basis. If I were the type of person who was ambitious, I wouldn't be an Executive Assistant, and I can't imagine that a potential employer wants to hire someone in an EA role who doesn't want to stay in that kind of position for all of those five years. It may be administrative, but it can be hard work does actually require special skills and knowledge; I used to feel self-conscious about my salary compared with other admins but in the years I've been doing this I've come to understand that truly excellent top level assistants are pretty rare. So I would tell them you like being an Executive Assistant, that you feel like you are at the top of your field in that position, and that you don't really have a strong desire to "climb the corporate ladder."

If you do want to get into financial planning at some point in the future - well, I would probably leave that out, to be honest. You may be able to move into a role like that once you're inside the company, or you may find that once you have some exposure to the field you aren't really interested anymore. I really feel like it would be a mark against you in an EA interview to tell them your real goal is to do something else.
posted by something something at 5:18 PM on February 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I agree with something something. At my last interview (which was 11 years ago- still in the same job), I said that I was lucky enough to have found a career that I truly enjoy and I really can't imagine wanting to do anything else. I talked a bit about why I love my job (how much I enjoy the challenge of fitting 43 appointments in when you only have an 8-hour day, etc) and how, with constantly changing technology, I am always learning something new so I never get bored. I feel like I could go on & on here, because I really *do* love my job, but you get the idea.
posted by dogmom at 7:11 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

After talking about skills and abilities you want to develop in the next 5 years, turn the question around and ask them where they see the company (and the position) being in 5 years - get a feel for what *they* see the job doing.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:29 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I hate these types of questions. At my last interview (which led to a great job offer btw) I answered along the lines of "Building up a tolerance for cliché interview questions". Got a surprised look and a great laugh. Broke the "interview tension" and it felt like we started to actually talk.
posted by alchemist at 7:38 AM on February 11, 2012

I work for a pretty great PE firm. I would suggest incorporating what some others have said about gaining knowledge and having your skills fully utilized, but I would frame it in terms of the firm where you're interviewing. "There are a lot of different directions that interest me. What I really want is to join a best-in-class firm like XXXXXXXX and support the CEO with all my considerable abilities while immersing myself in an environment that by definition has a lot to teach someone who's interested. It seems like those firms do an excellent job of noticing people's capabilities and continuing to challenge them should a time come when they outgrow their current role." I mean, you could probably word it a lot better than that, but as someone who's hired, that would be what I'd like to hear, subjectively speaking.
posted by troywestfield at 11:51 AM on February 11, 2012

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