This is one of those classic interview questions that doesn’t really have a good answer to it, apart from avoiding the arrogant “in your chair” answer. Still, over the years I’ve come to realise that life is often too changeable for this to be a sensible question, a bit like the Soviet era 5-year plans. If annual objectives from your performance appraisal can often become obsolete within that same year, what chance do you have against the vagaries of life over a 5-year period ?
If I consider where I stood on the first of January of a 5-year period, for most of my life I could not have predicted where I would be on the first of January at the end of it. Let’s say we start in January 1975 and progress in 5-year steps, at what stage had my career become predictable enough for a 5-year plan to make sense ?
- Jan.1975 : Working in 1980 as a researcher at the same university had not even entered into my future plans.
- Jan.1980 : Absolutely no chance that South Africa featured in my career plans.
- Jan.1985 : I know I intended to leave South Africa at some stage, but it was not clear that I would be in the UK in 1990.
- Jan.1990 : One of the few times where continuing to work at Allied Steel & Wire was part of the planned career path.
- Jan.1995 : Not even an inkling that I would be made redundant, find a job in British Steel, and move on to Ebbw Vale in the newly formed Corus by the year 2000.
- Jan.2000 : No indication that Ebbw Vale would closed and I would have managed to find a new position in Llanwern in 2005.
- Jan.2005 : My plan to become closer involved in Port Talbot and leave Llanwern did actually happen as planned – a very rare occasion !
- Jan.2010 : This must have been a relatively stable period in my career despite the Tata Steel take-over because at the start of 2015 I was doing more of the same as in 2010.
- Jan.2015 : I had vague plans to retire at some stage between the age of 60 and 65, but I couldn’t have predicted that only 15 months later, retirement would be upon me.
So in short, either my career has shown an unusual amount of flux, or events in modern-day life don’t allow for 5-year plans. The best you can do is have a general direction of where your internal compass leads you, and be prepared to modify your plans as and when the challenges and opportunities crop up.
Afterthought : I once was sitting through a presentation of the 15-year forward plan for Strip Products UK, and in the Q&A session I stood up and raised my doubts about the validity of planning over such a period. After all, I said, “Would you have been able to predict our current situation 15 years ago ?” That was in 2007. We all know what happened the year after, and not surprisingly the aforementioned 15-year plan was never heard of again.