“How do you define success?” is a common interview question that you need to be ready for because your response will have a serious impact on your chance of getting hired.
This guide will teach you why this question gets asked and how to craft an effective answer.
Table of contents
The Reason Interviewers Ask This Question
Everyone’s definition of success is different. As a result, questions like this tell interviewers a great deal about who you are and what motivates you.
It’s an opportunity to gain insight into your overall work ethic and the driving factors that push you to succeed. A good response can reassure hiring managers that your motivations will benefit you in the new role. They’re looking to learn about who you are as a person and how that influences your performance at work.
While there’s no true right and wrong answer, your response needs substance. How you define success can clue interviewers in on certain personality traits, making this question more multi-layered than most realize. Your words can highlight your work style, priorities, and values.
Beyond learning about your motivations and personal views on success, “How do you define success?” is used to ensure that you’ll fit in with company culture. Interviewers want to know that your thoughts align with the organization’s and the unique work you’ll do if given a job offer.
For example, let’s say that your definition of success is to win tons of individual accolades. While that would benefit a position involving predominantly solo work, it might not be the best way to respond to a job involving collaboration.
It’s important to give your answer to this question serious thought. It says more about you and what you offer the company than many other interview questions.
How to Answer “How Do You Define Success?”
“How do you define success?” is an interview question that has the potential to unveil so much information about you as a working professional. Because of this, you need to take your time in developing a response that leaves a lasting impact on interviewers.
Here are a few tips to remember when coming up with an answer that works in your favor.
1. Research the Company & Position
Before you do anything, research the company and the position you want to get. Knowing how the company defines success will help you frame your answer in the most impactful way possible. It gives you the power to create a response that allows interviewers to envision you in the role.
As you research, pay attention to what the company considers to be a “win.” You can turn to the official corporate website, look at published reports, and do a little digging on social media platforms. Look at LinkedIn profiles of people who currently work at that company and hold a similar role to the one you’re trying to get.
You’re unlikely to find a textbook definition of success in the eyes of the organization. But, you can use certain indicators to get a good idea of corporate values.
For example, the company may measure success through growth. In that case, a good approach would be to focus on driving sales and meeting goals. On the other hand, interviewers at a company that value collaboration and teamwork above all else would prefer to hear about how working with others towards an end goal contributes to your success.
2. Give Your Personal Definition
With information about the company and position in mind, you can provide your personal definition of success.
There are many ways to define success, and it varies from one person to the next. You may consider reaching work objectives a success or view professional growth as the real victory. Whatever the case may be, provide your definition while framing your answer in a way that the interviewer can understand and relate to..
There’s no singular correct and incorrect answer. However, interviewers like to hear responses that prove you’re a valuable employee.
One approach is to say that you measure success as a strategy to improve. Responses that lean on how success fosters professional growth often leave a great impression on decision-makers. It’s about showing dedication to doing your best and continually striving for more.
3. Provide an Example from your Previous Experience
Instead of relying entirely on your personal definition of success, provide an example. Show why you have those beliefs and share a moment when you succeeded at work.
Be as descriptive as possible. You want to keep the interviewer hooked and provide real-world examples that paint the perfect picture of who you are as an employee.
Think back on past work experiences and choose moments that illustrate your definition of success. For example, you can talk about a time when you surpassed sales goals or went above and beyond to do your best work.
Make sure to talk about the role you played in that success. Avoid being too broad and talking about the success the entire company or your team achieved. Be specific about your role and what you did to make that success happen.
4. Show You Can Adapt to What the Company Considers to Be “Success”
The most important thing to remember when answering “How do you define success?” is that you must show your willingness to adapt.
Interviewers often use this question to see how your personal definitions of success align with that of the company. However, it’s rare for those definitions to match exactly. That’s fine.
Expressing your flexibility reassures hiring managers that you can easily adapt to the needs of the company. Goals may change and companies restructure, so it’s a good idea to communicate that you can also adapt and adjust if needed.
5. Be Prepared for Follow-Up Questions
Our final tip is to prepare yourself for potential follow-up questions.
Before you head into your interview, you should have a well-thought answer that you can give confidently. Reflect on the past experience you can give as an example and think about all the ways this discussion can go.
An open-ended question like “How do you define success?” often leads to more follow-ups. Interviewers may ask for clarification or request that you extrapolate on key details. The trick is to be ready with the specifics and prepare as much as possible.
Consider doing mock interviews with friends and family. Ask that they come up with relevant follow-up questions on the fly so that you get comfortable pivoting.
What You Should Avoid When Giving Your Answer
Being asked to define or evaluate success during an interview can be challenging. While it’s a dynamic question with countless ways to give a great answer, there are also many ways to mess things up!
Avoid these mistakes to ensure that your response doesn’t harm your chances of getting a job offer.
Avoid Hot-Button Topics
When discussing personal beliefs and ideas, it can easily stray into controversial territory. Never let your response veer into polarizing topics like politics or religion. It’s not the time or place to discuss those matters.
If you do, you could inadvertently offend the interviewer, rub them the wrong way, or say something that instantly takes you out of the running. Take a professional approach, stay on topic, and leave those contentious topics for home.
Steer Clear of Personal Matters
Your ideas of success may share a link with your personal life, involving family or your partner. However, your response should stay within the context of the workplace. Interviewers prefer to hear examples from your work life over your personal or your family successes.
It sounds harsh, but that’s the reality. Mentioning family and other deeply personal topics can raise a red flag, making interviewers question your commitment to work.
Finally, keep your answer short. You can define success and back it up with a real-world example, but avoid rambling or going into lengthy explanations.
If the interviewer wants more details, they’ll ask for them in the follow-up. Concise answers are more memorable and show that your communication skills are top-notch.
We have a few examples to inspire you as you develop your response. Everyone’s answer to this question is different, but these examples can point you in the right direction and give you a better idea of what works.
The first example is a thought-provoking answer that can work for any job or industry. The definition the interviewee provides is not linked to a specific skill. Instead, it focuses on growth.
These types of responses show hiring managers your dedication to continued self-improvement.
“I think of success as a journey. I’m still in the early stages of my career, and I believe there are countless opportunities to improve myself. Any achievement I make is a success because it’s a chance to learn something new and push myself further.
Whether those achievements are official or go unrecognized, they’re part of the journey.
In my previous job, I jumped at every opportunity to work on projects and collaborate with others. Those moments felt like a success to me, especially after finishing them. Not only did they provide valuable work experience, but they exposed me to new things and pushed me to learn something new.
My capabilities grew tremendously during that time. I discovered new passions, realized untapped potential, and grew more than I could have ever imagined. All that came from taking chances and grabbing opportunities.
Working on those projects, I helped increase my previous company’s sales by 25 percent in a year. I helped in many ways and had a hand in nearly every project. It was a tangible success for the company and personal success for me to grow.”
The second example is more straightforward. It works because it highlights the candidate’s willingness to adapt and collaborate.
“For me, success is not solely based on individual achievements. While those matter, I believe that success comes when the work of an entire team comes together to create magic.
I believe that in order for me to be successful, the team I collaborate with must achieve individual and group goals. That’s why I work hard to ensure good communication and collaboration.
In my previous job, I led a small team while completing various marketing campaigns for clients. While I had my individual goals to pursue, I always prioritized supporting my team. That helped us work together like a well-oiled machine.
We ended up submitting most of our projects earlier than the proposed deadline, resulting in happier clients all around.”
Our final example focuses on work ethic. It shows self-awareness and good dedication to company goals. However, the response also highlights adaptability.
“My definition of success is doing consistent work and striving for the best possible result. I firmly believe that success starts with a strong work ethic. Dedication to doing the best is the first step.
When I reflect on my past work, I evaluate my success based on what I did to make the best of every situation.
For example, I had a particularly challenging situation during my last job. One of our top-selling products encountered manufacturing issues that resulted in a product that most of our regular clients couldn’t use. Instead of chalking it up to a loss, I pivoted my sales strategy.
I found a new way to sell this otherwise faulty product, allowing us to recoup our costs and still make a profit.
I use that approach in everything I do. I try to make the best out of every situation and push myself to get the best results possible.”
Knowing how to answer “How do you define success?” is quite important if you want to be prepared for your interview. This question is asked all the time, so you need to be ready for it.
Do your research, reflect on how you personally measure success and spend some time practicing.
You’ll do great!
Hannah Morgan speaks and writes about job search and career strategies. She founded CareerSherpa.net to educate professionals on how to maneuver through today’s job search process. Hannah was nominated as a LinkedIn Top Voice in Job Search and Careers and is a regular contributor to US News & World Report. She has been quoted by media outlets, including Forbes, USA Today, Money Magazine, Huffington Post, as well as many other publications. She is also author of The Infographic Resume and co-author of Social Networking for Business Success.