Do you want to quit like the Goldman Sachs exec?

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY I wonder how many people nurse a secret desire to exit like Greg Smith, the Goldman Sachs (GS) executive who blasted the firm as he walked out the door: telling the world what you think of your (former) employer and colleagues? I suspect it's a pretty common fantasy with all the rage and energy of a six-year-old whose tantrum ends: I'll leave -- and then you'll be sorry.

Don't get me wrong: I'm a big fan of truthtelling, of which we haven't seen nearly enough inside or outside of board rooms. But I know that very few executives exit as Greg Smith has. They might share his rage but very few people tell the truth as they leave their jobs.

Silent Exits

Most firms conduct exit interviews, relying on these to gather insight and data on what makes people leave. In theory, this is how you find out if there are toxic bosses, systemic problems or cultural tensions of a kind likely to make it hard to recruit and retain talent. In reality, however, most executives say nothing meaningful in a ritual which they distrust. They know their employer may be called upon for references. Even global industries are incestuous and they don't know when they'll next encounter former colleagues. They don't want potentially damning words on their record. It's just easier to utter bromidic niceties and move on. Why invest further in a firm you've already chosen to leave?

Goldman exec blasts firm as he walks out the door

What this means is that most exit interviews have become meaningless rituals. And that's a shame because all companies always lack, and need, insight. Is there a better way?

"I think it would be helpful if..."

I understand if nobody really wants to bother exiting well. But I do think it can be done. You look a lot smarter if you can leave with some genuine and positive recommendations for measures that might make the company stronger. These aren't complaints: they're sincere suggestions. If you can leave your sense of personal grievance behind and formulate positive recommendations, you may have conveyed your message but in a way that makes you look good. Reframe the questions from "why are you leaving" to "what would make the company stronger" and you may get the idea.

If you want to make a graceful exit, there's one further thought to consider. Almost everyone I've ever talked to has said, after a job move, that they should have made the move earlier. Breaking up is hard to do and most people don't start looking until they're very unhappy indeed. Deciding the next move usually takes about a year, by which time they're fuming and bitter. It's better for you, your old and your new employer, if you act earlier on your frustrations and get out while your enthusiasm and your reputation still remain intact. "I don't know why I didn't do this earlier" is the refrain I hear constantly.

Is it time for you to look around?

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.