Nov 282013

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Yesterday, I received a very interesting message from a contact on LinkedIn. Responding to my last article the “where do you see yourself in five years” dilemma, Jane (not her real name) sent a long list of interview questions she dislikes and why. She ended her message by nicely asking what my answer would be if the table was turned around and the “where do you see yourself in five years” question posed to me. I sent Jane a reply, which I am more than happy to share and elaborate on.

The summary of my reply was – I really do not have a five-year plan, not even a two or one year plan… When I tell people this, they struggle to accept it. After all, I am a Recruiter and should know better.

A little about me…

While in primary/secondary school, I wanted to be a Medical Doctor, so I was encouraged to and took science classes. Even though I passed my exams, by the time I was done with secondary school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be, but knew medicine wasn’t for me. Growing up with a loving mum – a Nurse, meant that I had access to and read lots of medical books. It also meant that I had my fair share of hospital visits (even when I wasn’t ill). I was lucky to realise early that my interest in medicine was because of over-exposure to a medical environment from a very young age and innocently thinking that taking care of the sick was the only way to “help” people.

In reality, although I liked maths, physics, biology and chemistry, I did not really connect with them. I found them (except for biology) slightly abstract and social sciences a lot more engaging. As a result, upon graduation, I decided to pursue a university degree in Sociology and Anthropology. The only reason I was able to do a career switch was because in addition to the science classes I took, I also took a couple of social science classes – mostly out of interest. I was really lucky because the switch wasn’t planned.

Any graduate of Sociology, Anthropology or other social sciences will tell you how broad they are. I went through all my years of university education not knowing what path I would follow when I graduated. I however knew the courses I was interested in and went with them. I enjoyed my  socio-psychology, psychology, industrial sociology, social institutions, social stratification and mobility as well as sociology of personality and motivation classes. But I was not done with studying after four years. I went on to pursue a masters degree in International Development a few years after my first degree.

While studying for my masters degree, I pretty much fell in love with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Upon graduation, I got a job as a CSR Resourcer at Justmeans. Anyone who knew me at that time would have thought that I was destined for a CSR career. One of my core responsibilities was liaising with university career services and ensuring their students/alumni had access to information on CSR and sustainability-related jobs. This was the turning point for me, the beginning of my recruitment career, but I didn’t see it coming.

So what is the connection to the five-year career plan question?

If anyone had asked me questions relating to a five year plan at any point from primary/secondary school to when I completed my masters degree, I would have given answers that may not have reflected where I was five years from the time of the questions. Similarly, if anyone had asked the same questions after I joined Justmeans, I would have given inaccurate answers. Fast forward to 2013. More recently, I would have given wrong answers if anyone had asked me similar questions just a couple of months ago. I am in a different place from where I was only two months ago.

Precise plans work for some, but not everyone. It is important we keep in mind that not having a plan at certain points in a person’s career does not always equate to not having interests, aspirations, passions or motivations. It certainly does not mean a person will not be successful in a role. I have come to realise that the main thing that kept me going throughout my studies was my genuine interest in what I did. Today, the passion for what I do keeps me going as well. I am following my interests and passions first and building a career around them as I go. This may not work for everyone, but somehow it does for me.

A lot of us can clearly remember our lives without mobile phones and the internet, simply because major technological changes in Africa only recently took (and is still taking) place. Who would have accurately predicted that Africa will top the mobile money map or be an emerging force to reckon with in e-commerce today? Things change and these days, very quickly.

To me, having a plan set in stone means not giving myself room to adapt to unpredictable changes or even new challenges. It does not mean I am not aiming for specific things, it just means I am creating a flexible environment to ensure I achieve my goals. It means I am preparing myself for and willing to walk through multiple interesting and challenging career paths, not a straight, narrow and somewhat boring path.

Even professionals who enjoy career planning, do not always have clear cut visions of what they want to be or do at all times, but as long as they have something that drives them – a passion or an aspiration that links directly to their dream or current jobs and employers, then they are on the right track.

So if I was interviewing for a role today and asked where I see myself in five years, my answer would probably be:

  • I see myself continuing in the path I have always taken – striving to be the best in what I do
  • I see myself in a challenging and engaging role that has some links to one or more of my passions and interests, especially Africa, recruitment, international development and corporate social responsibility
  • I see myself effectively using the skills I have gained, but also exploring opportunities where I can gain a lot more at the shortest possible time

To me, for as long as all the dots connect in my head (and heart) today, I will not worry about where I will be in five, four, three, two or even one year. The future is very unpredictable, but I know that every creative step I take towards a passion today, is a positive step towards where I will be in five years.

All I need to do is keep an eye on what the market is saying. Keeping abreast of future market predictions mean I can continue focusing on gaining the most relevant sets of skills…

Nov 122013

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Why we ask:

Recruiters ask the “where do you see yourself in five years” question for a couple of reasons. We ask because we want to know what motivates you. We love candidates with the core technical expertise our clients and hiring managers seek, but in addition, look for candidates with passion, drive and aspirations.

We know the hiring landscape has changed a lot in recent times and an employee staying with a company for more than 3 years is now the exception as opposed to the rule, but when we recruit, we hope that our clients and hiring managers will provide the right environment for you to grow. We hope they (and their colleagues) will do everything reasonably possible to retain you if you are good at your job.

During an interview, we look for an early indication of commitment from you. Asking the “where do you see yourself in five years” question is just one of the many ways try to find out if you will be keen to learn, grow and contribute to our client’s growth in some capacity for at least the medium term.

When we ask, we do not typically look for a right or wrong answer (although a few Recruiters may), we generally look for insights, we look for hidden information – information that reveals a lot more about you than our technical questions would. It is important to note that we also look to see if our clients and hiring managers can potentially match your aspirations as it is a two way process.

There is no point in us progressing with your application if your aspiration is to be a professional chef in one of the finest restaurants in the world in 12 months and you are applying for an IT Manager role we know would progress to an IT Director role in the same period of time. It will be a disservice to you, us and of course our clients and hiring managers.

The above example is extreme, but we see it every day. We know many of you have plans – great plans, so we want to know how adaptable they are and if they are suited to our employer or maybe better suited to a different employer. If we are in external consulting, we would sometimes direct you to a different employer who can provide you with the platform to achieve your personal and professional goals.

The five year question gives us a platform to probe further, to discuss with you, to determine if you are right for our client/hiring manager or not. More importantly, it gives you an opportunity to ask us questions too. There is nothing wrong in asking us to elaborate on any of our questions, after all an interview is a two way conversation, or at least a good one should be.

But candidates don’t always like it:

The challenge however is that more often than not, the “where do you see yourself in five years” question is asked in a very vague way by some of us – without any context. As an external Recruiter, I received this feedback from many candidates interviewing with other Recruiters. This is why it is reputed to be one of the most difficult questions to answer. The unanimous feeling is that it makes some of you uneasy when asked without a follow up explanation or an indication of what we are trying to find out.

To my fellow Recruiters:

Candidates may be acquainted with the responsibilities of the role they are interviewing for and clear on its reporting structures. They may have done their research on the potential employer’s current operation and read the latest news on their investment interests and how it relates to the role, but it is still unfair for this question to be posed without firsthand information on how the role is likely to evolve.

It is only logical for us to have prior discussions with candidates about the expectations of the role and give them all the relevant information they need to know before the question is asked, especially if we are looking for a right or wrong answer.

The question should be adapted to interview situations and put into specific contexts where possible. Giving candidates detailed information about the company’s growth strategy, clients, customers or technology would help put the question into perspective and provide a platform for the provision of more accurate answers.

It may be helpful to first discuss the goals of the company, describe the purpose of a role, how it sits within a department and the rest of the business, why the role has become available and the likely challenges it will face. At this point it okay to ask how the person would support the company’s goals if they take it on and what plans they may have/suggest to ensure an overall positive impact. Their response will give a clearer picture of how they analyse situations and what they may potentially bring to the role.

Should we decide to ask this question, we need to keep in mind that not everyone has a definite five year plan. In addition, not having a five year plan doesn’t necessarily mean not having relevant passion, drive or aspirations. The “where do you see yourself in five years” question, in specific contexts should provide a part of the overall picture. We should focus less on right or wrong answers and more on how the question is answered –  the structure, content and how it relates to the role and our client.

As a past/current interviewee or interviewer, what is your experience?

Nov 092013
What do African Employers Really Want A Recruiters Perspective

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The responses received from my last article what do African employers really want – local or international expertise?” were wide-ranged and eye-opening. I will however focus on only two of the most popular ones in this piece.

Lots of readers agreed with the latest trend of hiring African professionals with local and international experience. They believe it is the best way forward, as having a good blend of both could be advantageous to all stakeholders. However, a significantly higher number strongly opined that a lot more attention should be paid to Africans with local talent as it is (or at least should be) the core of all African talent resourcing strategies.

The argument for finding a good balance lies in the fact that no company looking to significantly grow and favourably compete can operate in isolation of the international environment. To succeed, companies must attempt to harmoniously incorporate the best of both worlds to their local operation. On the other hand, the argument for focusing on local expertise is particularly strong. Companies need to fully harness the local talent resources in the places they operate, to not only gain the benefits that come with acceptance as “local companies”, but also deliver on their social responsibility and ensure long term sustainability.

I see the strengths of and completely agree with both arguments. However, I also feel that corporate interest in local and international talent mix is a reality that should not be ignored by African early career and experienced professionals alike, whichever view they take. This is a trend that reflects the current talent need of companies in a world that has arguably become much smaller than a “global village”.

Below shows a simplified (for ease of explanation)  table of categories African professionals generally fall under. The current recruiting trend shows that corporations are increasingly looking to hire professionals who fall under B to D. This leaves  A and E professionals somewhat vulnerable. So what can they do to ensure they are as, if not more competitive?

Professionals Experience
A 100% Local
B 75% Local : 25% International
C 50% Local : 50% International
D 25% Local : 75% International
E 100% International


In one word Research.    

In this context, research means collecting information about roles, functions or industries that could potentially be beneficial to a person’s career. If we all accept that knowledge is power, then being knowledgeable about all that affects a person’s career empowers him/her to make informed decisions.

For any African professional to have career success, he/she must be very inquisitive. Questions such as “what are my peers doing locally and internationally?”, “what is the current local and market trend in my industry?”, “what are reputable analysts identifying as the future market trend in my industry?”, “what certification/experience do I need to attain a specific height?”, “what opportunities should I take advantage of in my current environment?” should be consistently asked. Inquisitiveness leads to answers and research is key in finding answers.

It is no news that advancements in technology is transforming the African continent. It is a lot easier to access information today than it was not very long ago and social media is playing an important role. 10 years ago, if a person wanted to seek information about career opportunities in a company or apply for specific positions, they reviewed the job section of newspapers and posted their CVs to the details specified. Today, they do a Google or Yahoo search, check LinkedIn’s job section or passively wait for the roles to “find them” by setting specific online preferences and receiving updates in their inboxes. With the click of a button, they can apply.

Professionals (either early career or experienced) with only local or international experience, looking to expand their horizon should take advantage of these advancements. Resources such as LinkedIn Groups are particularly useful as they can provide valuable platforms for broad or specific information. They can also act as useful platforms for engaging with similar-minded professionals.

For professionals who just want to keep up-to-date with industry information, in addition to getting information from familiar industry resources, passive resources such as Google Alerts can be helpful too. Google Alerts is a free Google service that automatically notifies users when new online content from news, blogs, websites, videos and/or discussion groups matches a set of search terms selected by the user. A user can set up alerts with generic words such as “Development in Africa” or very specific words such as “Telecommunication jobs in South Africa”. The results are delivered in an email which can be set as it happens, daily or weekly.

These are just two of the very many online options available.

Other small steps can be taken to ensure continuous relevant expertise.  For instance, locally based professionals can strive to participate in international projects with their current employers where possible, as this could help increase their knowledge of the international markets and give a more complete understanding of their industries. Similarly, internationally based Africans considering relocating to Africa can get involved in specific Africa-focused projects where possible. This would help improve their local knowledge and ensure they develop the right transferable skills when they finally decide to relocate.

Location of expertise should not limit a person’s ability to develop a successful career in Africa. Everyone can do something to change their professional situation and technology has made it a million times easier.

Markets change, trends change, and corporate strategic plans change, but in our ever-changing world, one thing is certain – each person is the main driver in their career journey.