It's Never Too Soon to Plan Your Exit

Tuesday, October 1, 2013 - 10:13

It might seem a tad morbid, but you should always be prepared for that dreaded tap on the shoulder. By Tom Skotnicki

The recent election of a Coalition government may not provide sufficient stimulus to stop the tightening of Australia's job market, particularly with its announced intention to reduce public sector jobs.

As job prospects wind down, more thought will need to be given by executives to exit strategies. Those who react positively to the challenge are likely to be most successful in shielding themselves against the consequences.

The reality is that most people only start thinking about an exit strategy once the first signs emerge that something is going wrong at work.

Your boss avoids you or cuts short your meetings, peer attitudes towards you change, you miss out on an expected pay rise or find it harder to cope with the workplace culture (which may be changing in reaction to economic circumstances) – these are signs it might be time to consider your future.

Concern about employees' reactions may be paranoia, but it is just as likely to reflect a subtle shift in attitude to their performance, standing or role within the organisation. As a matter of timing, this is a relatively late stage to develop an exit strategy and minimise the potential personal financial fallout, reduce the impact on your reputation and soften the blow to your sense of self-worth.

Ideally, employees should be developing an exit strategy from the time they take a position – it is an integral aspect of career planning.

The strategy, which includes elements such as maintaining key networks, taking advantage of training opportunities, updating and massaging your résumé and exploring alternative jobs and options should be viewed as a form of "catastrophe insurance". It should be regarded as being of value even if it never proves necessary to execute it and should begin the day you start a new job.

In some cases, the changing job market could prove to be a boon for executives seeking an exit strategy that involves reducing their level of commitment. For new mothers, part-time employment or a consultancy may be a preferred option and for many baby boomers it could offer a soft exit from the workplace while reducing costs for employers.

Even the most dedicated employees need to be prepared for a change in circumstances that will force them to seek alternative employment earlier than they had envisaged.

If they do need to shift to a Plan B, they need to have earlier assessed their best alternative employment prospects, who they need to be linked to ensure their networks are strong and what is required to ensure their personal brand is a career positive.

In cases where executives are contemplating setting up a business in either a related or unrelated area, they need to ensure they have done their market due diligence. They need to understand market conditions, ensure they have the right expertise (or that it is available) and have the financing required to carry the business through the establishment phase.

Frequently, the best time to seek an alternative position is when the job is going well. In this way you can demonstrate your value to current and future employers. Success on the job almost always results in a greater array of alternatives than failure or poor performance.

The key question for executives should always be, "What is the next role I am seeking outside as well as within the organisation?". Based on the answers and an assessment of contacts, capabilities, interests and training, it should be possible to establish new job goals.

If an effective exit strategy requires the development of new networks or additional training, then these can potentially be undertaken. Too often executives are focused on the next promotion or pay rise rather than ensuring they have the foundation on which to exit into the next phase of their career.

On a practical level, the exit strategy is not unlike being on a plane where most would regard it as sensible to have some working knowledge of the location of the emergency exits.

One technical aspect of virtually all executive exit strategies is having a precise understanding of your rights and obligations under your employment contract. Many employment contracts have non-competition clauses preventing approaches to existing clients or exclusions from working in specified roles.

Most importantly, if the job is affecting your health, state of mind or placing a serious burden on your family life, then ultimately you may have no choice but to consider your options.

Exit strategy guidelines

  • You are always better placed to find a new job while you are still employed.
  • Make sure you have taken a personal inventory of your skills, experience and interests to try to achieve the best fit in a future role.
  • Put out the feelers among your networks in regard to alternatives while avoiding any direct statement of an intention to leave.
  • If you do not have to move quickly then thoroughly plan your exit to ensure the greatest chance of success.
  • If possible, ensure your role is regarded by more senior executives as critical, as this is likely to delay any pre-emptive decision to terminate your services and provide a rationale for why your services should be retained within the organisation.
  • If possible, protect your reputation and try to ensure when you do leave that it is on good terms – a disgruntled former employer can seriously hamper your future career.
  • Try to ensure all work agreed to has been completed before departure. Nothing will annoy employers more than uncompleted work.
  • If leaving on good terms, seek a testimonial from your former employer – it often can prove of significant value.
  • If it is a particular role, rather than the company, that you find unacceptable, you should test the waters for a transfer to a better fit internally.
  • Try to ensure a sufficient financial buffer to reduce the pressure associated with changes such as establishing or acquiring a business, a new corporate role or moving interstate or overseas.
  • Do not wait for a work situation to turn sour before contemplating your options. Remember, a single change in your work circumstances could radically alter your satisfaction with the job.
  • Having an exit strategy does not dictate that you must make a move or change organisations. It is also about personal empowerment, enabling you to be master of your own destiny.