Article by: J.T. O’Donnell

Now, I’m going to show you what happens when your career story is bad. Not sure if yours is good? There’s an easy way to check. The number one sign your career story is lacking is if it’s missing key elements — especially, the happy ending.

Here’s an example…

Meet Mike: “Poor Me, I Got Fired By an Evil Boss”

I recently worked with Mike. He had been at a company for 10 years. In the last six months, a new manager took over. Mike says within weeks he knew he was “pegged” as someone the new manager wanted to make an example of. Mike said he tried everything to make the new manager happy, but that each time he tried, it only seemed to make her more angry. He said all of his colleagues saw it too and felt bad for him, but nobody would help him fight back. Finally, he was put on performance review. Within a week, he had made a mistake, and was let go. He was out of a job with no reference from a place he had worked at decade.

This was Mike’s comment to me:

How do I explain leaving there to potential employers? I have no chance. She ruined me.

I said:

That’s true if you are going to keep telling the story that way.
Mike replied:
How else can I tell it? That’s what happened.
I responded:
No, that’s how you see what happened, and telling it that way makes you sound suspect. You aren’t telling a good story. Even worse, you’re telling the wrong story to the wrong audience.
Even if the facts in Mike’s story were true, the way he was telling it wasn’t going to serve him well in his job search. Stories are a creative process. There are many different ways to tell the same career story. I needed Mike to think about how the audience who’d be hearing his story would react to it.

Here’s what’s wrong with Mike’s story:

  1. Mike mentions he was made a target. He immediately positions himself as the only person in a large organization being singled out — most hiring managers will assume there was a good reason for that.
  2. He claims he tried everything to make the manager happy, but nothing worked. This sounds very dramatic and most hiring managers will assume Mike didn’t know what to do to really improve the situation. Hence, the reason for increasing the manager’s frustration with him.
  3. Mike had been at the company 10 years and now a new boss had come in and shaken things up. Most employers will assume the change in management was needed and that Mike was eliminated because he hadn’t been pulling his weight for quite some time, and most likely, the previous management hadn’t done anything about it.
  4. Lastly, and by far the most important, Mike blames his entire situation on one person. Not taking an ounce responsibility for his part in the story. This makes him appear to lack any sense of accountability, which will make hiring managers run in the other direction.
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Solution: Present a More Objective Account of Events

When I explained to Mike the above, he was shocked, and frankly, really defensive. But, when I shared with him what he would need to say in order to get employers to consider him for a job, he got the message. It went something like this:

“My last job was a powerful experience. I had 9.5 excellent years there. I got promoted three times. I learned so much from my employer and have many good colleagues that still work there. Unfortunately, in the last six months in the job, we had a change in leadership. It was clear the manager and I weren’t on the same page, but given how long I had worked there, I thought I could get things back on track. I tried to improve our working relationship, but I seemed to only make things worse. Looking back, I think there are definitely things I could have done differently. However, it finally came to point that the new manager felt my performance didn’t match what she needed. I was terminated.”

And then, I made sure Mike added this (the happy ending):

“Let me tell you, that is so hard to say. I won’t lie, getting let go from a place I worked at for a decade was really tough. But, it taught me a lot too. And now, I just want to take what I learned, along with the experience I gained, and apply it someplace new. That’s why I’m excited about your organization. I can see myself being really successful here.”

By telling a more balanced story with an optimistic finish, Mike sounded more credible. Most importantly, when he ended it with a positive spin, he proved he knew how to create his own “happy ending” to his career story.

What Happened to Mike?

Mike and I practiced this for a month. He needed time to process his emotions and really allow himself to come to terms with the situation so he could deliver a more objective career story. He had to find a way to say this on his own terms. Eventually, he was ready to answer the dreaded, “Why did you leave your last job question?” in an upcoming interview. Not surprisingly, when the question arose in the phone screen, Mike was actually eager to answer it. He wanted to share his new story. It worked. Mike got the second interview, then the job … and that was the true happy ending for both of us.

Article by: J.T. O’Donnell. If you want to learn a bit more about her work, she is the founder of the free advice site, CAREEREALISM and the creator of this Job Search Accelerator Program (JSAP). She also head up the professional branding resource for executives, C-Suite Insider.