Once you understand and assess the company’s mission, it’s time to understand how the organization’s goals are structured. Some companies can plan effectively multiple years out and cascade relevant information, goals, and responsibilities throughout the organization. When you’re interviewing with a company with that level of sophistication into their multi-year planning, you’ll be able to ask about their objectives and get reliable information in return. Many companies, especially early-stage startups, are still working on next week or tomorrow and the ability to pinpoint specific initiatives or outcomes multiple months or years out is… out of the question. There may be ideas or aspirations, visions, and dreams, you should explore with your interviewers, but you can’t put too much weight into information that falls into one of those categories.
The sophistication of a company’s goal-setting process, communications, and ability to cascade and distribute that information effectively throughout the organization will vary significantly. A scrappy, small company might do this well with a refined approach, accurate data, and synchronized responsibilities and cross-functional efforts. Some of the world’s top companies might be successful despite a broken or overly complicated and slow goal-setting process that is disconnected from most employees' experience. It’s valuable, if not imperative, to care about the purpose the team is working toward and understand the categories of goals they will focus on in the near term (often tied to revenue, growth, margin, client, or customer satisfaction). The “what,” “how,” “how fast” and “with whom” are the type of details that you’ll have to push to learn more about during the interview process.
With that in mind, prioritize getting a very clear picture of what’s going on right now concerning how the team operates and what they view as their organizational strengths or weaknesses during the interviews. The more you know now, if “now” sounds exciting and aligned with your aspirations, the better you can feel about “later.” If you can get behind the current initiatives and see yourself working well with the people who are on the team and find yourself curious about how a particular project might turn out, those are good signals. Perhaps that company is a place where, regardless of where they or you end up in 5–10 years, you’ll have benefited from the experience.
When it comes down to the position specifically, the professional goals you’ll be working toward and measured against are likely to be fluid, dynamic, and subject to evolving conditions. Hiring managers know the pain they are currently experiencing and the desired immediate solutions. If it’s an established company they might also have a general idea of the rhythm of work, how it plays out throughout the year and over time. If that’s the case, then they can probably share a realistic goal, but the problem there is that they could be resistant to change. The work may trend toward evolution rather than revolution—you might not be part of building something new, innovative, or challenging to the status quo.
Conversely, if it’s a new position at a startup or rapidly changing company, there is a good chance they haven’t thought that far out—they don’t have time. They are solving to survive and it’s better to understand if you’re excited by the current problems, pain points, and people, and open to the unknown, uncertain shifts that are likely to occur. Are you comfortable with ambiguity, changes, and risk or do you prefer stability and certainty? If the value proposition changes, how will you respond? If the role is on the dynamic, uncertain end of the spectrum, the good news is that you might have the chance to influence the path forward. By the time you get oriented to the existing expectations and make progress toward the known goals, you’ll have insight about what else needs to be done and how your background and expertise could contribute to the long-term impact. For this to be true, you have to find out how open your future manager and organization are to individuals driving the process.
And if we haven’t all figured this out yet, the world can throw curveballs into any company’s plans. Long-standing companies can fail, previously unknown products can quickly change our lives, and economic, political, or other global influences can impact how companies adapt and respond. It’s impossible to pick the winners, but you can pick your team.
As you search for opportunities and pick roles to pursue, another important factor to consider is where a particular company is on their journey as well as how that stage impacts the way the organization operates. The way work gets done, and the philosophy and technology that drive a company’s operations, can impact not only your day-to-day, but your overall experience and success.
In order to determine if a company’s operations supports your ability to do your best work and if that is something you want to focus on in your job search, think about these questions:
Is the company a brand new startup or established player?
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