Let me restate the problem - when I look to hire, I am looking to hire someone who's goals are aligned closely enough with mine, my team's and my company's enough that the employee will outlast the "investment period" and be able to deliver a return on the investment in as long a term as possible. Maybe not even the standard 3 years, ideally I'd like to shoot for even longer - but with promotions and transfers along the way so that the employee has changed "jobs" but remained an asset to the company.
I do not want to hire someone who is so unmotivated that they will not leave. That will result in someone who is unlikely deliver on the return on investment proposition, because they are so under-skilled and under-motivated that the learning curve will be extraordinarily high and long.
The key here is the alignment - when I interview, I want to know what the employee wants in terms of their career and to get a sense from his reaction that what I can offer will meet a substantial number of his goals and expectations. I want honesty and I want some level of serious thought and perhaps even soul searching. No one is psychic - people fail all the time at making career changing moves and finding they hate them. But I'm looking for someone who's actually given some thought on what they want now, and what they are moving towards - because if the answer right now is "I don't know" - then that's my same answer when I ask myself "what's the likelihood that I can give this candidate a decent career opportunity in 2-3 years?" - "I don't know".
The other key is that I won't even bother to ask the "So what do YOU want, what do YOU like, and what are your thoughts for long term happiness?" until I can answer for myself that I like the candidate enough to care - and for that they have to pass my muster in the terms that Joel Spolsky introduced me to - they have to be smart and get things done. So if being smart and getting things done is your talent, please don't downplay it - all you will do is make the interview process unpleasantly short.
Do, however, maximize your interview efficiency by spending some time thinking about what the company would have to do for you in order to keep you interested over the next 3-5 years. Please don't stick to the money. In all honesty, the company will pay what it has to pay to hire someone like you - not you, per se, just close enough to the going rates that they can retain most people, because most people won't get a better offer elsewhere.
Instead, think about the intangibles:
- Do you like this business? Does being part of it excite you? Does being part of a different business excite you more?
- What parts of your job do you love? Hate? If you could rebalance the tasks in your world, what would you do more of/less of?
- What kind of relationship do you want with your management and your team? Stick to the positive here - "independance over consensus", "learning opportunities", "close collaboration", "a focus on impecciable quality", "an ability to move agilely" - the negatives are usually too generic to be useful. A good source of inspiration is - what you liked in the past from leaders and peers?
- What work/life tradeoffs are a want-to-have/must-have? Keep in mind that everything has a tradeoff - Work at Home means more flex, more independance, but less cohesive support, core hours are a pain to adhere to, but very useful for getting people together to meet, offices are great, but take money to finance and money is finite. What tradeoffs really help you?
Note that I'm skipping the "what is your next career goal?" - sure if you just know that you MUST get an advanced degree, or be an architect, or a manager - put that out there... but my general experience has been that as a manager:
- I can't guarantee a promotion, and there will be many limiting factors - the person, their ability to respond to feedback, and the availability of the opportunities they want will make predicting this hard.
- People really have no clue. They usually answer with what they think sounds good.
What I want to do is to find the intangibles that will make this a "good fit" - it'll make the person less inclined to take a risk on being equally happy in that new job, and also it'll keep them happy and motivated to do good stuff while on my team.
CAVEAT - there is one time I saw ambition as a deal breaker. I interviewed a great guy. Smart, eloquent and experienced - I had no doubt he could the job. However, when I listened to his career goals for the near term - they were were more aligned with my boss' - who was 5 ranks higher than the individual contributor position I was hiring him for. I was fairly sure that if I hired him, he'd be gunning for a different role in the organization so quickly that I wouldn't get the useful 2-5 years I was hoping for.
When it comes to ambition in terms of position (rather than the challenge of the job itself) - be aware of the role that you are interviewing for, and be interested in the nature of promotions. You'll never get a clear sense of "it would take an act of God for that type of promotion to occur", but you should get a sense of how fast and what level of effort are required. Be aware that if you seem to think the job is beneath you, or "fine ... for now but I'm really looking for something better" - you may well come off as a candidate who is unlikely to stay. This isn't a matter of talent, it's a matter of different expectations.