How To Answer “How Do You Define Success” (With Examples)

By Sky Ariella - Apr. 26, 2021
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An employee’s definition of success can dictate their work performance and how well they’ll function on a new team. When an interviewer asks a candidate “how do you define success?” they’re evaluating your ethics, aspirations, and character.

A potential employer will be paying close attention to your response because success is personal to each candidate.

Some people measure success in:

  • Power

  • Material luxury

  • Money

  • Making a positive difference

  • Managing a prosperous team

  • Establishing innovation in their industry

An interviewer needs to determine what your barometers for success are so that they can decide if your motivations would fit their company expectations.

Why Interviewers Ask “How Do You Define Success?”

An interviewer asks the question of how you define success to see if your goals are aligned with the organization. Your answer can show a lot about the employee you’ll be if they decide to hire you.

How you define success will display what you prioritize in the workplace and how you meet goals.

Some examples of qualities the interviewer will be looking for include:

A candidate who tells a hiring manager that they define success by how much money they have in their bank account shows that their measure has little to do with quality or meeting goals.

It can make an employer think that the work they’ll do will be all about getting a paycheck, instead of facilitating the success of the company.

Consider the implications of your answer before you give it. A candidate whose response demonstrates care and a strong work ethic will likely catch an interviewer’s attention.

How to Answer “How Do You Define Success?”

Answering this question most honestly and impressively will take some self-awareness and critical thinking. Take advice from your research and apply it to your personality and work history. An answer that impresses will be one that accurately reflects you and your work style while still being strategic with what the company wants in its employees.

Here’s a three-step process for answering “how do you define success?”

  1. Briefly define success. Seeing as this question is fairly straightforward, you should begin with your personal definition of success. However, your definition shouldn’t make up the majority of your answer, but rather set the stage for a compelling story that shows your definition in action.

  2. Tell a story. Great storytellers show instead of tell. After you’ve defined success in a quick sentence, you need to describe a situation in which your definition of success came to the forefront.

    For example, if you defined success as being part of a team that can navigate any challenge, you should follow that up with a story about a time your team overcame adversity and achieved an unexpectedly great result.

    If you can, also include numbers in your story. Hiring managers and recruiters might struggle to grasp qualitative information, but bringing in quantitative data makes your story more universally understandable. For example, saying that you completed a project 20% under budget and 2 weeks early sounds a lot better than simply saying it was done faster and cheaper than expected.

  3. Try to include the company’s values. There’s a good chance that the company has its own, publically available definition of success. At the very least, their mission statement should give you a clue as to how this employer measures success.

    You don’t have to simply fall back on the company’s definition and agree wholeheartedly. However, if you can incorporate or reference the company’s understanding of success into your answer, you’ll be that much closer to painting yourself as a perfect cultural fit. During a job interview, anything that makes you seem like you’re already an insider is a win.

Common Mistkaes to Avoid When Answering “How Do You Define Success?”

  • Don’t give motivations that are irrelevant to the position. While you may have a lot of influences in your personal life that contribute to your motivations, not all of them are helpful in a job interview. Avoid responding with political or religious values because it can be off-putting or seem unrelated to the position.

  • Don’t give a lengthy, unfocused response. As with many of the answers you’ll be giving during a job interview, you should respond as concisely as possible. Stay on topic and try not to wander off into stories that aren’t relevant to the question.

    Try to map out your possible answer in advance to keep it short and to the point when it comes time for the actual interview.

  • Don’t get too personal. It’s important that you maintain professionalism. While asking how you define success can be an expansive question, you should continue to answer appropriately. Avoid divulging overly personal details.

  • Don’t lie. Many applicants may be less than truthful in their answers to align their values with a potential employer during an interview. This strategy often fails. It’s always best to be honest with an interviewer. You just have to be honest to your credit.

    Maybe your first ideas for ways to express your definitions of success don’t reflect yourself in the best light. Do some restructuring of your answer and consider alternative examples of how you evaluate success.

  • Don’t be too honest. It can seem contradictory to recommend that you not lie and avoid being too honest in the same list of tips.

    However, walking this line effectively can make the difference between being hired or turned down. Don’t respond with motivations that could be interpreted as negative or unprofessional.

    For example, you may have very well pursued a managerial career because you wanted the power that comes with being the supervisor of a team. However, giving power as your measure of success can sound a little callous and careless to the interviewer.

    Try to find another aspect of this emotion that motivates you. Such as saying that you consider success to be motivating and guiding your team to meet their goals.

  • Tips for Answering “How Do You Define Success?”

    Consider the following tips for giving your best possible answer to “how do you define success?”

    1. Research the company. Part of coming up with a response that will resonate with an interviewer is doing prior research on the company. Depending on the field, companies have different values and measures of success. Hopefully, most of their goals and values will resonate with you, and you can articulate that.

      Going into an interview prepared with information about the company you’re hoping to be hired for will not only help you with this question. It will be useful for making a good impression throughout most of the interview process.

    2. Give examples of how you’ve achieved success in the past. Giving a clear description of what you consider success is all well and good. However, it can make you an even more desirable candidate if you have examples from prior work achievements to back it up.

      Think back on your former work and academic experiences to times when you met or exceeded your expectation of success. Demonstrate how this experience coincides with the definitions of success you explained earlier.

      Try to keep the successes you mention professionally relevant. There are lots of things to be proud of, but an interviewer is interested in what qualities will transfer to the workplace.

    3. Be specific in your explanation. After telling the interviewer what qualities define success for you, you need to explain how that’s relevant. Be specific in your description of how you define success and how you’ve met this standard in the past.

      However, being specific in your answer doesn’t mean give irrelevant details. Make sure you’re staying on topic.

    4. Mention how you’ll bring your skills to the company. Your answer to how you define success doesn’t just have to include your past achievements. Continually remind the interviewer that you’ll be bringing the abilities that have made you successful in the past to this new position.

      Try to keep your answer relevant to the position at hand.

    5. Do some self-reflection. The only way to answer this question genuinely is by doing a little self-reflection and figuring out for yourself how you truly define success. Take some time to think about your prior accomplishments.

    6. Some questions to consider include:

      • What was it that motivated you to meet goals in the past?

      • Why do you consider your accomplishments to be successes?

      • What patterns do you see across your achievements?

      Analyzing these questions before an interview can help you craft a thoughtful, strategic answer that the interviewer responds well to.

    7. Let your personality show. After doing heaps of research on how to give the best possible answers to interview questions, try not to settle for cookie-cutter clichés of what you think the interviewer wants to hear.

      This can be boring, and you run the risk of getting lost among the competition. Even with the nerves associated with making a good impression, let your personality shine through.

      Being yourself and showing your personality off can make you stand out from the other candidates because the fact of the matter is that nobody else is you.

    Examples Answers to “How Do You Define Success?”

    1. Example #1 — Defining Success by Meeting Goals

      Throughout my professional and personal life, I’ve defined my accomplishments by meeting goals that I set for myself. One of the reasons that I’m attracted to this position is that your organization responds to and rewards meeting important career milestones. I think I carry the mentality of setting and working towards goals in my general life as well.

      For example, in my current role as an account for NextGen, I always note quarterly goals the company has for my department and others. I make it a point to make a list of personal goals that coincide with NextGen’s, to ensure that I can meet or exceed broader corporate goals. That led to being able to successfully reduce wasteful spending in each department by a minimum of 8%, even when the corporate benchmark was only 3%.

    2. Example #2 — Defining Success Through Work Quality

      As a graphic designer, I believe that my success greatly depends on the quality of work I’m producing. Creating the best possible designs is what motivates me and makes me feel successful. I know that your mission statement includes the phrase “brand marked by quality,” and that really resonated with me — in the past, I’ve been personally anxious about my name being attached to less-than-stellar projects that were rushed out in the name of efficiency.

      One of the few times I was able to dedicate an appropriate amount of time to a project, the client was absolutely ecstatic with the result and signed a 6-month contract with our company worth over $30,000. Working here would mean being able to dedicate myself fully to producing quality projects every time, which would help me to feel successful year-round, instead of once in a blue moon.

    3. Example #3 — Defining Success by Overcoming Challenges

      I am very motivated by overcoming challenges in the workplace. I’ve found that my success and innovation in past positions have often come from a difficult situation. For example, in my last job, we had a client unsatisfied with the outcome of our marketing campaign.

      This difficulty inspired me to design a new strategy that ended up resulting in a 4% growth for the client. I think my logical view of challenges makes me a successful and flexible employee, which I believe fits in nicely with your corporate ethos of “adapt, grow, overcome.”

    4. Example #4 — Defining Success by Management Accomplishments

      As an office supervisor, I consider the success of my team as my greatest success. After all, a manager can only ever be successful as their team is. In my last role, I had the opportunity to manage an administrative team of six in their daily duties and long-term projects.

      Over the course of that year, I saw entry-level associates grow in productivity and teamwork. That was the time I’ve felt the most successful in my supervisory career, and I’d hope to continue this at your company.

    Possible Follow-up Questions

    In addition to how you define success, there’s probably a lot of other common interview questions you’ll be asked. Thinking about them in advance can greatly improve your performance. Consider the possible follow-up questions below.

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Author

Sky Ariella

Sky Ariella is a professional freelance writer, originally from New York. She has been featured on websites and online magazines covering topics in career, travel, and lifestyle. She received her BA in psychology from Hunter College.

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