Interview Question: "How Do You Define Success?"

Interviewing for a new employee
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During a job interview, your interviewer might ask a question like, "How do you evaluate success?" or "How do you define success?" This is an open-ended question, without a right or wrong answer, and it provides a super opportunity for you to demonstrate, through your answers and body language, the qualities that most employers are looking for—determination, motivation, drive, enthusiasm, and a shared collaborative vision. 

What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know

A question like this is intended to give your potential employer a sense of your work ethic, goals, and overall personality.

Your interviewer is also trying to ascertain how well you would fit in with their company culture. Does your definition of success match the company's objectives? Will your aspirations fit with the employer's mission?

The most effective responses to this question demonstrate that you are a candidate who cares about setting and meeting personal and professional standards.

If you can illustrate how, in the past, you’ve been a quality-conscious, improvement-oriented employee, this will win you points with the hiring manager. 

How to Answer "How Do You Define Success?”

The best approach to answering this question is to reference specific examples of your successes and explain the factors that contributed to your achievements. Then share how you applied what you learned from each experience to continue your professional development and generate positive results.

You could reference a time when you led a team that was able to deliver a product ahead of schedule. Describe the steps that were taken to ensure that high quality was maintained despite the accelerated schedule.

You could then share how you recognized each team member's efforts and how you and your staff were able to implement the same technique with future deliverables. For example, you might say:

"I like to maintain a consistent level of productivity and take both my successes and failures in stride. I try to learn from both and apply that knowledge to future situations. 

"For example, last August my sales team landed P&Z as a client. We were all elated, and I took my staff out for a celebratory dinner. I thought up a series of awards to recognize the roles that individual staff had played in the process and saluted members of the team.

"I then called a meeting for the next Tuesday to break down the process, and I identified several strategies that had contributed to our success. We discussed new targets, and six months later we landed another top consumer products client using some of the same tactics."

 Examples of the Best Answers

How you define success will be based entirely on your own values, career ambitions, and life experience. Although you should be honest in your answer, it’s also a savvy strategy to try to show how your perspective on success aligns with the employer’s needs and would make you a productive employee at their organization.

I define success in different ways. At work, it is meeting the goals set by my supervisors and my fellow workers. It is my understanding, from talking to a few of your other employees, that the GGR company is recognized not only for rewarding success but also for giving employees opportunities to grow. After work, I enjoy playing softball, so success on the field is catching a pop fly to win the game.

Why It Works: This answer shows how the candidate is goal-oriented and also demonstrates that he has done his homework to find out whether goal achievement is valued by the employer he’s interviewing with. By using the softball example from his off-hours life, he also shows that he enjoys competition within a team environment.

For me, success is about doing my job well. I want to be recognized as someone who always does her best and tries her hardest to achieve her goals.

Why It Works: This candidate demonstrates in her answer that she takes ownership of her job responsibilities and is goal-oriented. It is a simple yet sincere response that, when said using the proper tone of voice and good eye contact, would work well to persuade an interviewer that the candidate has a strong work ethic.

I evaluate success based not only on my work but also on the work of my team. In order for me to be considered successful, the team needs to achieve both our individual and our team goals.

Why It Works: Many employers want to hire personnel who thrive in team-based work settings. This candidate showcases his dedication to effective teamwork in his answer, proving that he is as committed to collective accomplishment as he is to individual success.

I tend to view success incrementally. As someone who is invigorated by new, complex challenges, I never want to find myself in a situation where I feel as if there is nothing left to learn or achieve. If, over the course of my employment, I can leave work each evening satisfied that I’ve learned something new or useful, this counts as success to me.

Why It Works: This response does a great job of showcasing one of the candidate’s personal traits, that she is eager to learn new things and is determined to continuously improve her skills and work performance. This sort of drive and “teachability” is a characteristic that’s highly valued by employers.

Success, for me, will always be about making a difference in other people’s lives. If I know that at the end of the day my work has helped someone find a job or feed their family or turn their life around, then I sleep well at night and wake up eager to start work all over again the next day.

Why It Works: Here the candidate structures his response to show that his work is more than just a job for him—it’s a vocation. This level of personal commitment is desirable in many fields, such as social work, healthcare, teaching, pastoral care, or career services.

Tips for Giving the Best Answer

Research the Company Before the Interview

In your answer, you should be cognizant of the type of job you're applying for. While a large corporation might place all its emphasis on the bottom line, a nonprofit would measure success not in money but in social impact. A technology company might place a strong emphasis on innovation in product development, while an online media company would emphasize page views and SEO statistics.

As you prepare for your interview, browse the company's website, research its presence in the news and other media, and see if you can find any information about its mission statement.

Pay particular attention to corporate web pages with titles such as “Our Mission” or “About Us.” This is the easiest and quickest way to learn how the company itself evaluates success; your goal should be to mirror this definition of success with your own statement. Here's how to research a company.

Include Aspects of Your Own Personality in Your Answers

If there's an area where your values overlap with the company's, make sure to emphasize that in the interview. But you also want to make sure you give a balanced answer, illustrating a dynamic focus on improving your own performance, furthering your company's mission, and making a positive impact overall. Ideally, you will be able to show the hiring committee that you share their vision and will be a powerful contributor to the company's cultivation and fruition.

Remind the Interviewer of What You Can Contribute

Ideally, your answer should also emphasize the unique skills and values that you can offer the employer (and which other job candidates may lack). Make sure that your definition of success requires a desirable talent that you possess, be it teamwork, empathy for others, self-motivation, or other valued soft skills

What Not to Say 

Avoid Giving an Answer That Might be Construed as Contentious

While this question is intended to tap into your personal value system, an interview is not the time to air your political or religious beliefs (unless you’re applying for a job with a political party or as a pastor).

Avoid Sharing Personal Information About Your Family

In an interview, you are seeking to demonstrate your professionalism as a job candidate, so your answer should define success within the context of the workplace, not the home.

Mentioning your family may well raise red flags regarding whether you will be a conscientious employee or will be drawn into excessive absenteeism because of your familial obligations.

 Possible Follow-Up Questions

Key Takeaways

STAY ON TOPIC: Use your response to highlight the skills and personal qualities that will be assets in your new role.

MAKE IT PERSONAL, BUT NOT TOO PERSONAL: Give the interviewer a good glimpse into your personality, but not into your family life, religious leanings, or politics.

KNOW HOW THE EMPLOYER DEFINES SUCCESS: If you are able to go into your interview confident that your definition of success tallies well with that of your prospective employer, you’ll have created a firm framework for a memorable and productive “meeting of the minds” with your interviewers.