Well, it takes some real finesse to talk about your experience in a job gone bad. You actually don't want to make the situation too clear! If you do, you'll likely cast a heavy shadow over the positive flow of a good interview. Plus, there's really no way to explain a complicated, messy situation easily or quickly and you don't want to use up your precious interview time raking through the job gone bad coals when you could be talking about all the great ideas and innovations you've made in your career. At the same time, by avoiding any mention of your previous job, you risk not sharing some very positive skill development and projects. Worse still, you could raise the suspicion of your interviewer because your work history might seem to be missing something.
The trick is to talk about your previous work without going into too much detail or getting into the politics and personality of it all—easier said than done, especially if you frequently interfaced with the individual who was a, or the, major player in the job gone bad scenario! If you absolutely can't think of a way to give your interviewer a real sense of your previous work without touching on said individual, then you should frame your discussion by focusing on the skills you utilized and/or developed from dealing with a complex situation. You might want to provide as innocuous an example as you can of your ability to negotiate, empathize, or get work done, despite obstacles. For example, let's say that for some reason an interviewer asks you directly about your working relationship with the president. This isn't very likely to happen, but a small dose of disaster planning isn't a bad thing, if only because it might help you feel less self-conscious about what happened with him and avoid having an "Oh my God, not that!" facial expression if asked about him. You could start by saying something like:
We had pretty different working styles, which was challenging at times. But I really worked hard to keep my focus on delivering outstanding work. I'm particularly proud of x project which I'd love to share a bit of information about at this point, if I could.
We were not an optimal supervisor/supervisee fit. But I really deepened my skills in communicating openly and clearly and keeping my focus on the work rather than on our differences.
We were quite different professionally so I learned to assess what would be most helpful to him, then flexed to his needs as much as I could while always bearing in mind and working to fulfill my charge and any goals and outcomes I had committed to.
In all three statements, the individual is acknowledging that things were not peachy keen with his supervisor, but also that he was aware of the challenge and did his best to focus on doing his best work—not on getting caught up in blaming or trying to change his supervisor. The statements also pretty quickly shift the focus off the supervisory relationship onto the work. Almost all potential employers understand that not everyone is easy to work with and also that a new staff person will likely encounter some difficult situations on their new job, too. The key is always how you deal with difficulties, not that you never have them.
A special note on how to deal with talking about a previous job in which you were actually let go. Optimally, if it's at all possible not to mention that you were let go, by all means don't! At the same time, it's important to be prepared to say something brief about what happened as it's possible that you will be asked, and particularly likely that you'll be asked about your most recent jobs. The key to this preparation is managing any residual feelings of anger, shame, or general annoyance you have about the situation. Exactly how you respond to a potential employer's question depends on why you were let go.
If you were let go as a result of performance or another more personal issue, it takes real finesse to navigate explaining what happened.
But it's still possible to do. As in the examples above, try to be as matter-of-fact as possible; don't get into the details or bemoan the situation. Instead, be sure that you acknowledge the difference between you and your supervisor or the organization's future directions and then quickly move into talking about what you accomplished on the job.
If you were let go because your organization was downsizing, you should relay some broad information without dwelling on what happened so that you don't leave a lot of questions hanging in the air. You might say something like:
The organization went through an in-depth strategic planning process and as a result decided to shift its focus from work with homeless teens to work with homeless adults.
The organization lost a major government grant and needed to cut some of its workforce so it decided to let go of all employees hired in the past year.
And, in both cases add:
But I was really grateful to have had the opportunity to complete some very exciting projects before I left, which I'd love to share a bit of information about at this point, if that's alright.
In a funny way, a job gone bad can become an opportunity to show your mettle and Emotional IQ to a potential employer, not to mention the opportunity to revitalize and expand your reference team.
Lastly, in your case, it sounds like you did a lot of great work at the job you're leaving. I suggest focusing on that rather than the situation with your supervisor; as I've said before in this column, if you shift your focus away from what didn't work in a job, potential employers and colleagues are likely to do the same. I suspect that in the not-too-distant future, you'll find yourself in a new position that could very well become a job gone good!