Success secrets | Owning up rough spots in your career

Success secrets | Owning up rough spots in your career
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First Published: Mon, Jun 11 2007. 01 36 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Jun 11 2007. 01 36 AM IST
In my previous job, I was one of those cases where I supposedly “resigned", but was really sort of fired. What do I tell prospective employers when they ask, “Why did you leave your old job?"
—Name withheld, Hartsburg, Missouri
Welcome to a club with thousands upon thousands of members—virtually none of them card-carrying.
After all, who wants to admit: “I was asked to leave because I was in over my head and couldn’t deliver?” Or: “I jumped before I was pushed because my boss and I just couldn’t get along?” Or: “They told me I was never going to be promoted and gave me six months to look around?”
The facts are: Irreconcilable differences happen at work all the time, but most people want to act as if they never happen to them. And so, when they get out there in the job market, their impulse is to answer the inevitable “What happened?” question with make-nice mumbo-jumbo about bad fit or a burning desire for new challenges.
Now, such “excuses” may have an element of truth to them. Sometimes a boss or company situation is so untenable you just have to get out, and sometimes a job is too small for the person who holds it, or is the wrong skills fit.
And, of course, no one wants to burn bridges, so a certain ambiguity around why you left may seem like the only approach.
Most prospective employers, however, hear vague, generic departure stories for what they can be. They hear warning bells that say a candidate is hard to get along with, an inveterate under-performer or a career dilettante.
There is a much better way out of the common hiring bind you find yourself in: Full ownership.
You need to say, “Here’s why I left and here’s how I was responsible for the breach.” Don't pass blame. And, just as important, don’t play the victim. You need to say, “Here's what I learned that will make me a better employee for you.”
Make no mistake. We are not?suggesting you pour out every little detail of your job implosion. We’re just promoting a perhaps counter intuitive level of?specificity.
We have a friend who, after 12 years with the same company, was asked to move on because he couldn’t deal effectively with direct reports who weren’t delivering. Additionally, he just couldn’t cut costs in his operations, even in the midst of a downturn.
Here's the interesting twist: Our friend didn’t respond to his firing quite the way you’d expect. Most people in his position become defensive and depressed. They enter a state we call the “vortex of defeat”, in which lack of self-confidence feeds upon itself in a downward spiral.
By contrast, our friend took full accountability for what occurred. He told prospective employers, “I’m sitting here with you because I didn’t have the guts to move out employees who couldn’t meet their numbers and I tweaked costs instead of taking the full-bore approach that was necessary. But I can assure you, those mistakes won’t happen again. Let me prove it to you.”
Within weeks, someone did.
And chances are someone will for you, too—with full ownership. Granted, your “history” will not vanish. It’s risky to hire someone who, for all intents and purposes, was fired. Worse, it’s hard to explain upstairs! But your candour and self-awareness will be the counterbalance. Maybe not on your first job interview, but eventually—when you bump into one of the legions of people who have been there, just like you.
What do you think of executive search consultants?
—Bill Bryan, New York
Ideally, a company has a training programme, consistent coaching and succession planning. As a result, it primarily promotes from within. What better way to give employees a sense of opportunity, not to mention fostering speedier, more successful job transitions?
Reality, of course, doesn’t work that way. Many companies consider management development more of a chore than the priority it should be. Still other companies just don’t have enough talent. They’re expanding into new businesses where they have no expertise, or they're too small to have a bench, or their boards have been sleeping and can’t come up with a slate of internal CEO candidates.
And so it happens. They need help looking for help. That’s why executive search consultants exist. Yes, they’re expensive, slow down the hiring process and can too easily become a crutch.
And, yes, internal promotions should always be the first line of defence.
But, given the competitiveness of business today, there’s no reason to give up a good offence too. Executive search consultants can give you just that.
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Campaign readers can email them questions at Please include your name, occupation and city.
Select questions will be answered.
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First Published: Mon, Jun 11 2007. 01 36 AM IST