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Creating An Exit Strategy for Career Change
September 2013

Hello Career Zone readers! You may have noticed that it has been several months since my last column. This month's topic is on career change and how to create an exit strategy. Gilda Radner once said, "Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next."

That quote perfectly summed up the last year of my life. The Cliff Notes version of events goes something like this: I was on track for a promotion, got a new boss (4th in a year), was told my role was going to change (in a way that I was not satisfied with), started looking for new opportunities, was offered an amazing role, relocated to Atlanta and have been off to a great start in my new job.

While I can sum up my past year in a run on sentence, the stress, tough decisions, hard work and planning involved was quite extensive. My situation was not a unique one, as most people will encounter a challenging situation at some point in their career and have to make a decision about change. Mine came in the form of my boss, a senior vice president, leaving the organization and a new boss coming in wanting to make her mark on the world. That mark included a dramatic change in my job duties that I believed would have a negative impact on my future opportunities for growth and advancement. I continued to give 110% of my effort every day in the midst of chaos at the office but I started planning my exit strategy.

An exit strategy according to Wikipedia is best defined as a means of leaving one's current situation, either after a predetermined objective has been achieved, or as a strategy to mitigate failure.

When you achieve all you can at an organization or adversity stares you in the face, what kind of exit strategy will you make?

Your goal in developing an exit strategy is to leave with your head held high and without burning bridges. The impression you leave as you walk out the door is as important as the first impression you make. You never know when you will bump into old colleagues or work with/for some people from your past.

When I decided to plan my exit, I asked myself "what next?" I spent time considering my options and tried to answer several of the following questions:

  • What type of work did I want to do? Did I want to stay working in financial services or a different industry? Did I want to be in a similar role or try something different?
  • Were there additional skills or capabilities I needed in order to be successful in a new role or organization?
  • Do I need to know more information about a specific industry or company in order to better assess what opportunities exist in the marketplace? How might I be able to get a foot in the door for those opportunities?
  • When the time comes, who are the people to reach out to for the best networking potential? What are the professional organizations and associations I need to be active in?
  • Do I need to update my résumé? LinkedIn profile? Develop a new personal positioning plan?
  • What can I do now in order to transition out of my job when the time comes? Can I begin to document key processes or programs at work or organize things for a successor?
  • Is my personal life in order? Am I taking care of myself? My sanity? My health? How can I keep my personal life in check and stress free while career change is going on?
  • Was I emotional about my situation? Angry? If so, what did I need to do in order to be in a better place so that it does not interfere with my job search?

Once I had some idea of what I wanted and needed to do, I started creating an action plan and timeline. I used a 3-6 month timeframe for my situation. I knew that I had a "job" at my former employer, it just was not the job or culture that I would be passionate about in the long term. Mine looked something like this:

  • Week 1-3: Decompress and do a needs analysis.
  • Week 4-5: Update résumé, LinkedIn and positioning plan. Identify target organizations.
  • Week 6-10: Network, "catch-up" calls, coffees and lunches.
  • Week 11-16: Interview and continue to network, transition out of job.

I know I was very anxious about all of the change that was in front of me at first. It was not until I started to outline and plan my exit strategy that I realized change can be good, and I don't have to be stressed because of work, nor do I "have" to work for someone who I do not connect with. Once I created a plan, I had a sense of purpose, I had confidence in my abilities to make positive change and I rocked my interviews because of that. I knew my value and how I could be a strong contributor to a new organization.

I created my exit strategy once I saw my situation taking a turn, but it is helpful to have your plan of action ready, tucked away for when you need it. Planning it out ahead of time will allow you to hit the ground running when you need it. It puts you in more control of your destiny so that you can make great things happen.

I was very lucky that this time around my network was very generous to me, and I quickly had several interviews lined up. I ended up with multiple offers and made the decision to relocate to Atlanta for a position with a larger, global organization. It was very hard to leave New York City after 11 years, but I am excited for my new adventure. I know I made the right choice for me with this change – but I have my exit strategy tucked away in a safe place if I ever need it again.