No matter whether someone leaves his or her company under positive or negative circumstances, everyone struggles with their “exit story.” I’ve had the privilege of helping healthcare leaders in career transition for over three decades, and I can’t tell you how many exit stories I’ve heard from many different perspectives—recruiters, employers, and people going through the exit process. Some stories are straightforward, the details of other stories are overwhelming.
Learning to tell your exit story is the toughest part of transition for most people. Often, executives don’t realize they’re in trouble in their current position. They don’t observe what’s going on around them or take the time to gather feedback, so they get blindsided. Having to come to terms with those circumstances hurts. But if you are in transition, it is essential to your future success to find a way to tell your exit story honestly, concisely, and with a forward-looking mindset.
Work through your emotions.
The first response to an exit is usually emotional. Fear, anxiety, and depression all come into play when you have a very tough and challenging exit story. This is to be expected. But too often, people start talking to others about why they left their former position before they take the time to work through these emotions. When you’re hurting, you’re going to talk about it. It’ll creep into every conversation.
When you share your story too soon, the message you’re sending will almost certainly be riddled with inconsistencies and perceived as negative, which will be damaging to you and the organization. The first step, then, in crafting your exit story is to shut your mouth. Take some time to get your mental and emotional health in check. The only person you should talk to about your exit at this stage is your partner or a trustworthy friend.
Aim for a win-win.
The best way to start preparing your exit story is to write it down exactly the way it happened. Include an explanation about why it happened, such as strained relationships, corporate politics, business decisions, or job performance (which I find is rarely the primary reason these days). From there, the goal is to find a way to tell the story where both you and your former employer come out looking good. This will likely take the help of a coach or confidant who has no emotional involvement with your story.
Finding a way to tell your exit story that demonstrates that the decision to part ways was reasonable for both parties creates a win-win situation. At worst, a neutral-neutral story is acceptable—the organization doesn’t get hurt, and neither do you. The story isn’t positive, but it’s also not damaging. A lose-lose exit story is simply not an option. Everyone benefits when both parties can move on in at least a neutral manner (apart from immoral or illegal circumstances, that is).
Set the right mindset by starting your exit story on a positive note, such as your most significant, impactful achievement from your time with your former organization. Then you move into the story of what happened to cause your departure. Then move back into a positive thought about your experience there, something you learned, or how it has prepared you for your next position.
You should work on your exit story until you can do this in four sentences. The more verbose you are, the more red flags it raises with your potential new organization. You must create a story that is true, and believe it in a way that helps you move on and let go of the past.
Ask others’ perspectives on your exit story. Does it match their account of how it happened? Are you presenting your experience in a positive or negative light? How will potential employers interpret this story? Often, another person’s view of what happened will be more positive than your own. This can help you see your exit story in a different light and frame it in a win-win manner.
Practice and anticipate.
Next, practice saying your exit story. It needs to flow. It has to be concise and delivered with confidence. How you deliver the message is as important as the message itself.
I’m often asked if you should wait to be asked about your exit story or get in front of it. That’s a tough call. Most exit stories are given only when asked. In situations where there’s info out in the news, it’s best to get ahead of it and tell your own story once you’ve built a relationship with the recruiter or interviewer.
In addition to anticipating when you will introduce your exit story, you must also anticipate the follow-up questions your interviewer will ask. For example, if you plan to give “philosophical differences” as the reason for leaving, you had better be prepared to answer the natural next question: “And what were those philosophical differences?” Predict the questions someone might ask based on your exit story, and think through your answers ahead of time so you can answer truthfully, briefly, and positively.
Telling your exit story is one of the most uncomfortable parts of the career transition process, especially when the circumstances of your parting were painful or unfair. Working through emotions and asking for others’ perspectives will allow you to tell your exit story in a way that leaves you and your organization’s reputations intact and enter into your new opportunity without baggage from your exit experience.