The notion of saving the “exit interview” until someone is ready to exit is a huge mistake. 

It’s a familiar story. Maria leaves. She quits! A better offer came along and she headed out the door with only the briefest of notice. If we’re lucky, we get the chance to do a quick exit interview but that’s normally conducted by Human Resources and we really never get to ask the important questions.

It’s a mistake. The whole notion of saving the “exit interview” until someone is ready to exit is a huge mistake. An interview conducted at the end of days means that the individual sharing the data no longer has a stake in the organization. They don’t have a vested interest. As such, the interview’s value is severely diminished.

The Solution

The solution is something I call a “legacy interview”. It’s the exit interview without the exit. And it’s something we should do on a ritual basis with any employee we value (which, ideally, is every employee.) We should be asking for a lot of the same information we’d ask for if they were leaving. If they have some useful or powerful answers, we may be able to get them to help leverage those alternatives/approaches.

The Rules

Before starting a legacy interview, there should be rules. The basics are pretty simple. The interview is semi-confidential. Information about peers, personal matters or internal conflict will not become public knowledge. Information about approaches, challenges and tricks of the trade will be shared extensively and freely. While there may be other rules, these are the most important.

The Questions

This is not a surprise or “gotcha” interview. The questions need to be shared in advance to allow the interviewee to think through their answers. Thoughtful responses will have a much higher value than the glib, off-the-cuff answer. The questions should drive us toward a better understanding of what we’re doing right, or how we can more skillfully enable good behaviors. (Note that I’m studiously avoiding “What’s WRONG with the organization?” That’s important. Whining rarely drives us to better outcomes in the long term. The win is found in the positive pursuits.)

Some of the sample questions for a Legacy Interview might include:

  • What’s the best thing the organization has done in the past year? Timing matters. Keeping the interview current means that you’re not diving into ancient history. The recent past is the past the interviewee will remember best.
  • In your dealings with our organization internally, what department, group or individual has the best approach to serving your needs (how and why?) While the interviewee has license to talk about his/her own organization, many people prefer to look outside and idealize other components of the enterprise.
  • In your dealings with our customers/clients/vendors, what department, group or individual has the best approach to serving your needs (how and why?) Sometimes we can see things in other organizations that we can’t find in our own.
  • How do you succeed in this (environment, project, culture, organization, client climate?) Knowing the critical success factors for the climate and the culture is crucial. Without an understanding of the assumptions, implementation will be by luck, rather than planning.
  • Any particular people, channels or departments that help you a lot? As the old adage goes, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” Getting real names of real people can be the most valuable tidbit of information shared.

The Challenges

Many people still believe in the timeworn adage that “Knowledge is Power.” Realistically, however, knowledge is only power when it’s shared. We must convince our “legacies” that knowledge is power only when it is shared freely. We achieve that far more readily when they know they’ll get credit for their thoughts. It’s one thing to share information. It’s another entirely to get credit for what you’ve shared. Instead of simply being “an approach,” if we identify, log and catalog the idea as “Janine’s approach,” everyone wins. We dig out great new ideas. We create a stronger organization. Janine gets the credit that she merits.

The other challenge is the doom-and-gloom syndrome. When people are exploring their recent past, they can easily be sucked into an energy vortex. Negative thinking invades reflective moments and we should studiously avoid it. Keep the legacy interview positive, upbeat and energized. When interviewees stray into negative territory, we need to remind them that we’re going to be solutions-oriented and positive. The solutions orientation is a key to gathering more information.

The biggest challenge is getting started. It doesn’t require a formal process or a formal repository. The first legacy interview can happen today. Find someone you believe knows the organization well and someone you can trust. Explain the process, invite them as your guinea pig and be prepared to take notes. The more detail you can capture, the better and then start the archive. The first libraries date back almost 2,400 years. The first “you” library has some catching up to do.