Stig-Rune Reese (IMSA Norway) on why did you leave that executive job? So, now you’re sitting there. In the chair, alone on one side of the table. The executive interview has gone well so far, but, inside, there’s an uncertainty that weakens your performance. Then the question hits you, the one that you’ve feared, and naively had hoped that they wouldn’t ask:

"Why did you leave that executive job?"

The truth is that you did not do well. There was friction with the board, bad chemistry with the chairman, the results did not materialize and you were forced to accept a severance package. We’re talking about one of your life's greatest downfalls, and something you certainly don’t want others to know about.

This is the most challenging situation executive candidates may experience during an interview. And few people know how to handle it.

The answer to the difficult question often falls into one of these categories;
- Speaks deceivingly
- Tries to circumvent it (and hope that they forget it)
- Refuses to comment

Many come up with the story that the job was done and it was time for someone else to take over. They convey the message in a powerful, colorful way, using many words, almost as if they want to scare the interviewer not to go deeper (a typical defence mechanism response with the ambitious of us). Others proclaim that they would be happy to talk about it, but they’re unable because they’ve signed an agreement that involves confidentiality. Still others try to create a halo of loyalty announcing that they really do not want to talk negatively about former employers.

You may think that you were able to avoid answering the question using so much words, babbling and chitchatting, that they forgot what it was they wanted to know about. But those who employ at this level are qualified professionals and expect more than empty phrases or loyalty declarations. And what they understand when the babbling begins, is that they’ve hit a soft spot.

So what should you do?  

Getting into job-trouble can happen to anyone, even the best. Being forced to leave an executive job is something that happens more often than one might think, and does not in any way necessarily mean that your career has come to an end. But those who are about to take a new manager on board need to do their own assessment of the person and situation to be comfortable with their decision, and to do that they need answers and facts which they can consider. Thus, eluding the question just creates problems and sends you out of the process.

My advice to managers in a situation like this, is to show that they have nothing to hide.

Tell your version of what happened, why you had to exit and what you learned from it. Be brief. Reveal what you realize you could have done differently and what you would do if you are to see a similar situation coming up again. You should even consider not minding them contacting your "foes" if they ask for it. In that case, try to tell them how you believe they perceived it and what they are likely to say about you.

If you do this right, you’ll let the interviewers make their own analysis, almost like a judge who hears both parties, and you can still be "in". In addition, you’ll be the one who gets to tell the story first.

Doing this sounds both challenging and risky.

What if I say something that makes them reject me?


Yes, it's risky, but it’s still the best chance you have. Your honesty will earn their trust, you show that you dare talk about what happened and that you've mentally digested it and moved on. You’ll demonstrate that you’ve learned something, that you’ve gained a significant experience, and that you’re capable of putting it into perspective.

And best of all; some of the responsibility will be transferred to your potential employer. You have been sincere and need not fear that it will appear later. If you don’t get the job, maybe something in your answers suggested that this wasn’t the right job for you. If so, maybe it was just as well you didn’t get it?

Some closing remarks:
- Prepare thoroughly for this question, know what to answer.
- Be short and factual, don’t elaborate. If there are reasons to criticize your former employer, tell it like it is. It's not disloyal.
- Express facts as neutrally as possible.
- Avoid strong, emotional adjectives.
- Realistic reflections on one’s own role in the conflict is useful. It indicates self-awareness and ability to learn.
- Be sure to have names ready to whom they can call to hear the story from the other side.