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Are You Prepared for the Most Demanding Interview Question?

Seth wanted to make a move after being passed over for a promotion at his present company. Now, he was reporting to a newly hired COO.  He felt stuck because his job search was not generating the results he expected given his track record. According to Seth, he had interviewed for two opportunities that didn’t go beyond the “gatekeepers”. He had been actively networking with executive search consultants and his personal connections. Seth’s stumbling block became clear when we made some calls to contacts within executive search.

It turned out that Seth’s answer to the question, “Why do you want to leave your present company? ” did not work in his favor. Seth told his interviewers that his next step at his present company was the COO position, but he did not want the job because it didn’t have sales responsibility. While his reason for wanting to leave was viable, it was apparent that his company had hired a search firm to fill the COO role. Outsiders concluded that he had not been considered for the job. Seth thought he could get around the fact that he was passed over by indicating another reason he wanted to leave; Seth was not aware that he was damaging his credibility in the marketplace.

Your answer to “Why are you leaving?” is critical to your overall success.

  • Most interviewers know that this question can hit a nerve.  When evaluating you for a leadership role, it is critical to find out how you will respond to difficult questions.
  • Interviewers want to know if you are truthful and authentic in your responses. If your response or style doesn’t ring true, all your other responses will be called into question-and potentially your leadership style as well.
  • If you are leaving or left because of conditions that also exist in the potential company, interviewers need to know if they can overcome it.
  • If you left for reasons that are unfavorable or will be called into question by their stakeholders (investors, shareholders, board, employees, customers, etc.), interviewers don’t want to be surprised.

Keep it simple and real.

Seth was uncomfortable with his answer even though he was being honest. Most senior executives leave for more than one reason. He thought that this particular reason (out of all his reasons for wanting to leave) conveyed the most favorable message to the marketplace.  He was not happy with the way the new role was structured, however, the selection committee never gave him an opportunity to turn the job down (even though he was the first choice by his CEO).

Seth tanked his next opportunity that came along. The hiring board members felt that he was “defensive” when asked,  “Why do you want to leave your present company?” They liked Seth enough to request a check on his references. The selection committee couldn’t let go of their first impression, even though Seth’s references were very positive. The selection committee wondered if Seth’s defensiveness might indicate an unfavorable leadership style. So, the BOD decided to move forward with two other candidates.

  • Don’t appear uncomfortable or uncertain.
  • Don’t be untruthful or appear untruthful.
  • Don’t ramble or volunteer more than one reason for your departure.
  • Don’t become critical or defensive especially if your decision to leave was not entirely your own.

When the next opportunity surfaced, Seth was prepared. He refined his answer to the question “Why do you want to leave?” He practiced over multiple sessions, and then he ran his new response by several close business colleagues, becoming more and more comfortable with his answer. Instead of answering with one of the less critical reasons he wanted to leave, Seth told the interviewing CEO that his current company decided to go outside to fill a newly created COO role. Seth explained that he was his CEO’s pick for the job, but the Chairman overruled the CEO and hired someone with larger company experience.  For this new opportunity, the hiring CEO called every one of his references and did some background checking on his own. Because Seth felt comfortable answering the question with his primary reason for leaving, his references now felt free to validate his answer. He received an offer.

How do I get it right?

Your answer should be truthful and authentic. Let your own values and style come through.
Keep your answer short. Focus on the one reason that matters the most.
Ensure your answer is consistent with references.
Be appropriately positive given the circumstances.
Practice your answer and get feedback.
Don’t start your search until you are very comfortable with your answer.

When preparing to launch your search,  rely on a close and respected mentor/coach to listen and give feedback.  Many clients modify their initial response over multiple sessions-until their answer feels right. After guidance, your best indicator of future success is your own sense of comfort and well-being.  Practice until you feel good about your answer. Favorable results will follow.

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