Over your career, one of the most common interview questions you’ll hear is “How do you define success?” While it’s a favorite of hiring managers and recruiters, it’s widely disliked by many candidates, who feel frustrated by the open-ended nature of the question. However, I believe if a candidate understands why this question is being asked, they can better consider their own answer and can provide information that’s honest and helpful.
What does it look like?
Part of what trips up candidates is the apparent academic nature of the question. It seems to ask a candidate to concoct a comprehensive definition that would belong in your personal dictionary. Is that what a hiring manager is looking for? Not exactly. What they’re really asking is “What does success look like to you?” Instead of an intellectual definition, strive for a more visual or emotional picture. Reframing the question should free up your imagination and memory to provide a more honest and personal “definition” of success.
It’s about you…
Part of success is personal; it’s what drives you to excel at your job. Part of your answer should speak to success on an individual level. Before your interview, sit down and write out experiences in which you’ve felt success in your career, focusing on your role and the result of your success. While this might seem obvious or boring to you, you might be surprised. Part of what can be challenging about this question is that it seems simple on the outside—of course we all think about success—but in actuality, it’s more complicated. Prepare yourself not only by jogging the memory of the story where you led a presentation or supported a colleague, but also by knowing your personal role.
… but what’s in it for them?
The other part of success, of course, is how you define success for the company. In the eyes of the company, you cannot achieve personal success unless the company is succeeding as well. In this section, there’s a risk for bottled answers—responses that feel contrived and pre-packaged. Jot down a list of all the ways a company can succeed besides making money, from advancing or supporting the company culture to implementing a new tradition or tool. Keep it specific and exciting.
With this question, a lot of thought goes a long way. There’s no need to memorize an answer, of course, but being thoughtful about your history and values will help you ace it!
Chaloner, founded in 1979 as Chaloner Associates, is a national executive search firm that focuses on recruiting mid- to senior-level communications, public relations, marketing and investor relations professionals.