"Where do you want to be five years from now?" may be the most worthless interview question you can ask.

How can you say that, an executive recruiter (and longtime buddy) responded when I told him that. "Asking someone where they expect to be in five years is a great way to uncover the applicant's ambition, personality, values, thinking process, etc.," he said. "The way people answer this question can tell me a lot about them and whether they are the right person for a particular job or environment."

Well, maybe. But the question assumes that things are not going to change much over the next five years. And your experience and mine says that is probably not the case.

If you find yourself in an industry that is evolving rapidly, the kind of traditional career planning the question assumes just doesn't make a lot of sense. (Five years ago, store managers at Blockbuster might have started preparing for their boss's boss's job--regional manager. Bankers writing no-documentation loans thought they were on their way to becoming senior vice presidents. Most of them are either unemployed or working in a different field today.)

If no one knows what the future in your field is going to be, then asking applicants standard interview questions such as "Where do you see yourself in five years?" is silly.

So, if you think the "five-year" question is dumb, my buddy asked, do you have one to replace it?

I do.

Ask people what they have been (or are now) utterly committed to in their life. Ask them something like: "What really turns you on and attracts you almost in spite of yourself? What are the things that you can't put out of your mind?"

What our organizations need today--perhaps above all else--is commitment. People who truly want to do a great job. Who are driven to do so. The best way to find out if someone has that kind of desire and commitment is to ask about times he or she has demonstrated it in the past.

Does it have to be work-related?

It would be nice, but no.

What you are looking for is whether someone has shown true commitment in the past. To anything. Because if someone has that ability, you and that person will quickly find out whether he or she can become committed to the specifics of your organization and job. If the person doesn't already have that ability, it will be hard work for you to develop it.

Why not insist that the desire be work-related in general and tied to your company in particular?

Well, the moment you say to people, "Tell me why you feel passionate about joining XYZ Corporation," people are going to be tempted to tell you what you want to hear, instead of the honest and complete truth.

It is not that they are going to be trying to deceive you. They want to be excited about your company. They want to convince themselves as much as they want to convince you. So they are naturally going to be doing everything they possibly can to put themselves in the best possible light. There is nothing wrong with that. It's the way of the world. But it is not particularly helpful, either.

You can probe to see if the applicant's values and the company's are in sync--if someone has the requisite skills and intelligence, and how good he or she is at problem solving and the like. These are good things to do. But the best way you are going to find out if someone has the ability to commit wholeheartedly to something is to discover if the person has done so in the past.

What you want to know about the applicant is whether the person has the capacity for commitment. If he or she does, it is up to you and that person to figure out how you are going to use that commitment for your organization.

So, start asking more about commitment and less about where someone wants to be in five years' time.

Published on: Sep 5, 2014
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