What are your career goals?

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Transition

I collect dreadful questions. I’ve got six so far. These are the seemingly easy questions you know you’re going to get over a networking coffee, in a job interview and in the elevator up to your office. These are not questions you want to stumble over.

Having good, true answers to the Six Dreadfuls is confidence-building, anxiety-relieving and crazy-empowering. I’ve written in this column about the First Dreadful (“So, tell me about yourself”) and the Second Dreadful (“What kind of work are you looking for?”).

This week I’m skipping ahead to the Sixth Dreadful, a fairly recent addition to my collection. A coaching client told me she had gotten it in an interview and had been unprepared. I felt responsible for the miss; it’s an obvious Dreadful.

I ran it past a different coaching client recently, a lovely 50-year-old man.

“Are you ready for the Sixth Dreadful?” I asked my client. “Brace yourself.”

He looked nervous.

“What are your career goals?” I asked him.

And he teared up.

“There’s the facile answer and then there’s the weepy answer,” I told him. “In addition to being obnoxious, it’s also a very profound question.”

I sought to reassure him that we would come up with a good interview/cocktail party answer to that question.

“And then we might want to talk in more depth about what it is you want to have contributed with your work over the finite span of your career,” I said.

“But I have no idea,” he exclaimed.

“I know,” I said. “Most people don’t. But you need an answer anyway – that’s why it’s a Dreadful.”

This client doesn’t want to run companies; he doesn’t aspire to CTO of some startup; he doesn’t even see himself as particularly ambitious. He enjoys his work in software engineering, but frankly, would rather be home with his family.

“I’m a nice guy,” he told me. “I like to help people. I just want to make my small corner of work better for the folks around me.”

“That seems like a pretty awesome career goal to me,” I said.

Over time, over the course of coaching conversations and iterations over email, he came up with his answer to the Sixth Dreadful:

“I want to combine my technical skills as a software engineer with my soft skills as an educator – in terms of coaching, communicating and teaching – to lead strong, well-adjusted teams to do good, technically interesting work.”

“What about you, Kathryn?” he asked. “What are your career goals?”

“Oh, I just want to write a book,” I told him.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.