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"How do you define success?" may sound like a tricky question, but it's easy to answer with just a little preparation. It's one of the most common questions asked in a job interview so it's worth spending some time thinking through different ways to answer it.
Success is a subjective concept. What one person may consider successful people or a successful life will vary greatly from the next. Some people measure their success by their bank account, while some measure success by how much free time they have. Your definition of success will likely vary from other job candidates and, as such, there's no real right answer. Don't let this scare you though!
Hiring managers and potential employers ask this question to better understand your personal definition of success because it can highlight how you approach your work and life. In most cases, this is a strong indicator of whether you'll be a good fit for the role and have a positive impact on the team you'll be working with.
When interviewing for a job, there's a good chance you'll be asked this open-ended question. Like most common interview questions, the best thing you can do is prepare a practice your answer prior to the interview to give yourself the best chance of landing a job offer. Here are a few tips on how to best answer "how do you define success?" with some sample answers.
What does "success" mean?
Before we dive into how to best answer this question, it's worth spending some time defining what "success" means. More specifically, what "success" means in the context of a professional/work environment.
Merriam-Webster defines success as "favorable or desired outcomes". It doesn't get more vague than that! As we mentioned earlier, success is entirely subjective; meaning everyone's definition of what these "favorable or desired outcomes" are will be different.
It's up to you to decide. Easy, right? Not quite... it gets a little more complicated when you're defining success in a job interview.
When you're asked "how do you define success?" in a job interview, you not only need to consider your own personal definition of success and long-term goals but also what success means for the potential employer:
- What are the team goals?
- What are the company goals?
- Does the job description hint at any success metrics?
All of these should factor into your definition of success and depend largely on the job you're applying for. If you can align these, you'll give yourself the best chance of landing the job.
Why do interviewers ask "How do you define success?"
While it might sound like an innocuous question, your answer to "how do you define success?" gives hiring managers an insight into your work ethic, self-awareness, how you work, expectations, and what your short and long-term goals are. Your answer is also a good indication of how you approach setting or achieving targets and how you measure your hard work.
Do you understand what the role entails and what the company's expectations are? Does your definition of success consider your team's goals as well as your own? Do your aspirations align with the long-term mission of the company?
Hiring managers want to understand how you approach work and what your motivations and drives are. If your answer clearly defines what you want to achieve and how you'll achieve it AND aligns with the team's and company's goals, it's a good sign that you'll work well with the team and excel in the role.
A generic or lazy answer will signal a lazy work attitude. The most effective answers show the hiring manager you know what the new role entails and how you'd be able to contribute to the company's goals and success metrics. It demonstrates that you care deeply about achieving the best outcomes for yourself and the company and have thought them through prior to the interview.
Just remember that at the crux of this question, hiring managers have some pretty simple goals for the interview process: they want to determine if you have a good work ethic and that you're a good fit for the job and company culture.
If you demonstrate that you've prepared for this question with the job and company's goals in mind, you're already putting yourself ahead of 99% of job applicants and will score points with the hiring manager!
How to answer "How do you define success?"
The best way to approach this question is to prepare specific examples for what success looks like to you. These should be a mix of examples from both your own professional career (the past) as well as what success will look like for you at the job you're applying for (the future).
Success can be ambiguous and abstract, so providing examples helps show the hiring manager exactly what you consider to be a success at previous roles, what you learned from each experience, and how you're going to apply this knowledge to achieve positive results at this new role.
A helpful way to prepare to answer this question is to break it down into a few steps. Getting these down on paper is a great exercise to think and see more clearly how you should be defining success at this new job.
Step 1: Write down some successes you've had at previous jobs
Look back on any relevant experience you've had and write down any key achievements or milestones that you consider a success. If you can, include any key metrics or data points (e.g. we grew website traffic by 200% in 12 months).
Try to include as many as you can and look for themes among those accomplishments. For example, if your previous successes have all been about increasing conversion rates or sales revenue, that's a sign that these KPIs are how you define success. Similarly, if you've been proud of positive qualitative feedback from customers, that's another way you can define success.
Step 2: Consider how you achieved these successes
Now that you've got some key successes to work from, dig a little deeper into how you achieved these successes. Think about other milestones, strategies you took, changes/improvements you made on the road to success.
Expanding on this a little further will help you show the hiring manager how you approach achieving success as an ongoing process, breaking down your larger goals into smaller milestones. It's also a great way to squeeze in a few more accolades by turning your examples into more interesting stories.
Step 3: Research the job and company
In your answer, you should always be cognizant of the job you're applying for. Employers want to hire candidates who understand the role and what the company's goals are and who will strive to help achieve them. It's a good idea to weave in the ways you can contribute to the company.
Start by reading the job description thoroughly (you'd be surprised how few job applicants to this!) and look for any key goals, responsibilities, or success indicators that the job requires. For example, if the job is for a marketing role, it likely includes some key responsibilities around increasing website conversion, SEO, or lead generation.
Increasing website conversion and bringing the company more leads are all great ideas to include in your definition of success because they align with the company's goals. If you're already thinking about these things it will look pretty enticing to the hiring manager!
Another good place to dive into is our remote company database where you can read more about the company and what their goals are If the company has a public employee handbook, you've struck gold. Not only will this knowledge help you shape your definition of success for the role, but it'll help you prepare some insightful questions of your own.
Step 4: Combine these and draft a response
Now use what you've learned to draft a response to "how do you define success?" Start by defining a clear definition of success, provide examples of past successes and how you achieved them, and then wrap up with how you will achieve similar positive success at this new role.
A good answer to this question aligns what you consider success with the team's and company's goals. Remember, this is a job interview and the hiring manager asks this question to determine whether or not you'll be a good fit for the role.
For example, if you're interviewing for a sales role and you define success as "how fulfilled you feel at work", that's great! But it's probably not what the hiring manager is looking for — they're likely looking for a success story about how you hit sales targets and how you'll strive to increase revenue.
Step 5: Practice your response!
Don't be caught off-guard by this interview question. There's no point spending all this time preparing if you don't practice your answer so you can deliver it confidently in a job interview.
Rehearse your definition of success, and examples of past and future successes out loud until you're comfortable answering this question. You're not going to get it right the first time and that's okay. As long as you can confidently discuss what you consider success and provide some specific examples when pressed by the interviewer, you'll get comfortable with a bit of practice.
Example answers to "How do you define success?"
As we've covered, how you answer the interview question "How do you define success?" will depend largely on two factors:
- Your own personal goals and definition of success
- What the job entails and what the company's goals are
What matters is that you've spent some time thinking about and researching both, so you can articulate that you're a good fit for the role.
Use these sample answers to "How do you define success?" as a base and adapt them to suit your specific situation.
One of the things that have drawn me towards a career in customer success is the opportunity to work closely with people and be able to help them along the entire customer journey.
For me, that's how I define success — how helpful I can be to customers and how quickly I can help them fix whatever problem they're dealing with. Maybe it's a personal thing, but I've always loved improving people's lives in this small way.
During my time at Stripe, I was proud to have the highest Net Promoter Score in my cohort of 80. Our support inquiries are almost always sellers — busy people — so I always considered being able to help them as fast as possible as success. By setting up response templates in Help Scout, Intercom, and Zendesk, my team was able to reduce our average response time from 4:22 down to 3:48. It doesn't sound like much, but with thousands of tickets, we were pretty proud of the direct result this had and the positive impact.
That's what caught my eye when I saw your Customer Success Manager role at Descript. It looks like you're growing fast and expanding your support team — I'd love for the chance to take ownership of your support function. If I bring what I learned at Stripe to this role, I'm sure I could streamline your processes to reduce customer response times and increase retention.
Why it works: This answer is perfect because it is genuine, honest, and includes specific examples from your previous role (with metrics!). It also clearly shows you understand where Descript is as a company and what they're looking for.
Most of my personal goals over the last 4-5 years have revolved around leveling up in product design. For me, success is about being the best I can be at what I do and doing my job well — regardless of what I'm doing. I want to be recognized as someone who always does world-class work. I never want to find myself in a situation where I feel as if I didn't work on something to the best of my ability.
In my last job at Metalab, I was able to work on a bunch of really exciting large-scale projects with designers who are some of the best in their fields. This was a great environment to learn from the best. I worked on the Waking Up and Headspace apps which both picked up several design awards. This was super validating for me, but I was usually a part of a large team and only worked on a small section of the project.
I'd love the opportunity to take even more ownership of projects at Josephmark and really give them my all and undivided attention. I've always admired the work your team does and how you've helped launch some huge brands. I'm excited to work more closely and directly with your clients to better solve their problems and help them scale.
Why it works: You've articulated what you consider your own personal definition of success to be and linked it closely with how it can help Josephmark. It's also clear from this answer that you're a successful person who holds yourself to a high standard by setting short-term and long-term goals. All of these are great signals to a hiring manager that you're a hard worker.
Bonus points for tying in your previous familiarity and admiration for the design team at Josepmark and that you understand the company's values.
When I was a content writer at Canva, I considered success by how many words I could churn out per week. Since then, I've been managing the content team at Mailchimp for about 3 years and my definition has definitely changed!
As a manager, my definition of success is more about how my team performs and how happy they are.
When I started at Mailchimp, we were a team of 5 and have grown to 32. I had the opportunity to step into more of a mentorship role, helping our team to do their best work and work more efficiently.
The team grew our organic SEO traffic by 620% and it's now a well-oiled machine that churns out a huge amount of content weekly. We also have the lowest turnover rate of any team at Mailchimp — something I'm particularly proud of!
Successfully and sustainably scaling content teams is what I consider success. Sure, the numbers matter, but it's also about making sure you can retain and attract the best talent as well. What excites me about this position at Lattice is the chance to join a small team and help you scale with the best practices I've learned at Mailchimp.
Why it works: You've clearly articulated how your definition of success has changed over time as you've progressed professionally. It's also great that you've included some impressive examples but understand that success as a manager is a little more nuanced than numbers and also includes the happiness of your team.
You've also outlined that you understand where Lattice is at and what they're looking for — for someone with experience and best practices to help them scale effectively and sustainably.
Things to avoid when answering "How do you define success?"
"How do you define success?" is an open-ended question and your answer will vary greatly depending on your own personal goals, your definition of success, and that of the goals of the company.
But this doesn't mean there aren't any wrong answers! Try to avoid these in your response:
Avoid any potentially contentious ideas
This applies to all interview questions. Try to avoid referencing any mentions of religion, politics, or polarizing ideologies in your answer. While it may seem okay, it's usually not relevant and can even invite conscious or unconscious bias — you never know the hiring managers' thoughts or preferences so it's always a good idea to just leave these out.
Don't get too personal
It's okay to share your personal goals and a little of your personal life in interviews, but it's best to avoid over-sharing unnecessarily. Hiring managers often ask this question to get a sense of your personality and what you consider true success, but there's no need to mention family members or other personal details. The reality is that this could raise some red flags with some potential employers who want to avoid potential absenteeism. You don't need to disclose personal details so keep it professional.
Leave room for potential and growth
When answering this question, make sure you consider how you could continue to grow in this new role. For example, your definition of success can also include succeeding in this current role but also transitioning into a managerial role. You don't want to give off the impression that you'll quickly hit a ceiling at this new role once you achieve your definition of success.
Possible follow-up questions
- What are your career goals?
- Do you have any questions for me? Read our guide on the best questions to ask in an interview.
- Why are you interested in this position?
- What makes you unique?
- What is your greatest strength?
- What is your greatest weakness?
- What can you contribute to this company? This question is similar to "Why do you want to work here?" And will only be asked as a follow-up if you weren't able to articulate your value in your answer.
- Any number of behavioral interview questions. Be sure to use the STAR method when answering.
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