I have been struggling a bit with one particular story and wanted to get your feedback.
I can't figure out how to connect with my former company exit story and tell it authentically.
I was told that my skills no longer aligned with what former company needed (company I used to work for). What does that even mean? I have no idea. Literally, I was never given a good explanation for why my position was being eliminated. I understand that former company is going through a difficult phase financially and the new leadership decided that they needed to re-focus the business and eliminate certain positions (mine was one of them).
My Issue with the "Reality"
I don't want to tell the world that former company is not performing well and that is why I left the company. I am struggling with figuring out a way to tell the story of my exit gracefully. I want to retain the confidentiality of the performance of my former employer and paint my exit as an exciting new chapter in my growth.
Ah, yes! This client's frustration fairly leaps off the page.
How to tell a prospective employer that you got laid off – not because you aren't good at your job, but because the company itself is a sinking ship?
First of all, this person is right to protect his former employer. It wouldn’t do him any good to throw his old company under the bus, which would raise concerns about his loyalty and trustworthiness for the prospective employers sitting in front of him.
While anyone in this position is limited in what s/he can say verbally, this is a PERFECT example of just how much can be said indirectly, through the energy and implication that you bring to your response.
If you ever find yourself in this position, keep these things in mind:
1. People perceive much more by observing the energy you bring to an answer than by listening to the words you choose to express it.
If your hands are tied in what you can say, you can make that fact totally apparent in the way that you answer the question. It’s ok to take your time, to choose your words carefully, and to otherwise make it painfully clear how diplomatic and generous you are being by NOT rushing to throw anyone under the bus.
2. Gratitude is always sexy, so show it.
No matter how dysfunctional the organization actually was, working there helped shape you into the person you are today. So show that you are aware of this fact by demonstrating gratitude for the opportunities they afforded you.
This might sound like: “You know, I got a lot out of my time there. It really challenged me to develop my skills in this and that arena, and it was my first time managing such a big budget from soup to nuts, so it definitely helped me evolve in those ways.”
Mm, gratitude. Looks great on everyone!
3. Reveal why YOUR quest led you to THEM.
Now you want to introduce an element of what was missing from your old position, which is ideally something this new company embraces and celebrates. This will set you up nicely to introduce the "issue of alignment" (below) while satisfying their need to know why it makes sense for THIS to be the right next step for YOU.
The trick is not to make this part ALL about you, but to find the sweet spot that conveys just enough of your quest to make it seem INEVITABLE that you would want to work for THIS company over all the others.
This might sound like: “At the same time, working there helped me realize how important [something the prospective org embraces that the past org did not] is to me, and I just didn't see the opportunity for me to move forward in that direction within the company.”
This positions you as someone who is in pursuit of becoming their best self, while suggesting that this new company is exactly aligned with what you need to get there.
4. “Alignment” is a two-way street.
In this case, the old company said: “The employee’s skills were no long aligned with what the company needed.”
This little sentence has been a thorn in my client’s side ever since it fell out of the HR person's mouth, and has likely had a resounding impact on his self-esteem and confidence as a professional.
Just for fun, let’s look at it from the opposite end – as in: “The company coffers were no longer aligned with the employee’s salary requirements.”
Both sides of this equation are equally true. But when you get right down to it, what we really have here is “an issue of alignment" - a graceful way of saying "all blame aside; it just didn't fit."
The issue of alignment becomes even more true when you consider the fact that my client increasingly felt that the work was out of alignment with his personal values, which might have become a deal breaker even if the company hadn’t been strapped for cash – and which the rest of your answer is already hinting at.
5. Temper conviction with calm reassurance.
Once you’ve established the context around WHY you left your last company, the interviewer will want to know HOW you acted on this realization.
The subtext here is one of future liability: if you left your last company in the lurch, the chances are high that you might repeat the same abuse on your new employers.
What you want to communicate is that, although you are on your own quest for meaningful work and will not hesitate to pursue it – at the same time, you would NEVER think of abandoning your employer in the middle of a project.
It might sound something like this: “Once you realize that something doesn't fit, the only choice is to honor the promises you made, tie up the loose ends, and follow your instincts to get closer to the thing you're really meant to do."
This suggests that you made a choice that was tough but ultimately right for everyone involved, and that you can be trusted to do the things you said you were going to do before moving on to the next thing.
All Together Now!
"You know, I got a lot out of my time there... [quick list of three tangible growth benefits]. And at the same time it also helped me realize how important [something the prospective org embraces that the old company doesn't] is to me, and I just didn't see the opportunity for me to move forward in that direction within the company. So, it really came down to a question of alignment. Once you realize that something doesn't fit, the only choice is to honor the promises you made, tie up the loose ends, and follow your instincts to get closer to the thing you're really meant to do.”
I gave this advice to my client the day before his interview with a top tech firm, and later dropped him a line to see how it went.
"The interview took all of 9 minutes," he wrote back. "I'm on to the next round!"