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November 18, 2010

Rethinking résumés – Who am I?

by Rick Byrne


INTRO

At some point in your career you’ve been laid off or wanted to change jobs. At that point your résumé was dusted off, tidied up a little and the most recent position was added. And that’s it until the next time you needed it.

When it comes to redoing résumés it’s very easy to ask yourself “What have I done with my career so far?” and “How do I use that to get a new job?” Hence people often go down the route of listing jobs, responsibilities and skills. After all it’s what you know you’ve already done. Add a sense of panic to the process too in the rush to find a new job if you’ve been laid off or quit.

But the real questions you should be asking are more forward looking: “Who am I?”, “Who do I want to be?” and “Is it so obvious that I and the résumé are inseparable?”

OBJECTIVE

The résumé provides the linear part of explaining what you’ve done previously and demonstrates a pattern of behavior. It’s this pattern of behavior that potential hirers are looking at primarily to see if you’re worth taking an hour out of their busy day to interview you. If you’re a designer reading this you probably have a portfolio which should be considered your primary document as this will either grab a hirer’s attention or not. This is the lateral part of explaining what you can do.

Designers tend to spend lot of time developing a look and feel of your portfolio and then adding on a résumé afterwards. Non-designers are much better at seeing the résumé as a primary document. However it may be easier to consider the résumé as a brief for the portfolio i.e. define what you want to achieve and hone down the message – all done by expending far less energy. And of course this approach should be undertaken when you’re already working  – the best time to overhaul any résumé.

TARGET AUDIENCE

A résumé’s purpose is to give the potential hirer an idea of who you are and what you can do. As such they have to play amateur psychologist or detective to work out who you are from all he details. After all they may have to work with you for a few years. Sooner than that they may have to decide if you are worth taking an hour out of their busy day to meet with you. Although some kind of director will choose to hire you or not, it will be a recruiter, someone in HR or one of the director’s direct reports will hone down the choices. With this screening process in mind you don’t need to give the various people involved an excuse to treat your résumé like spam.

Most articles about résumés say to craft the document to the individual position being applied for. I actually disagree. I believe that if there are too many versions of events depicted in the various résumés tailored to specific positions you end up with a cloud of uncertainty over your head. Instead of thinking “Is this person right for the job” the hirer will think “Which parts of the résumé are lies/exaggerations and which are true?” If you really have to adjust your résumé to target specific jobs remember to keep track of which one is which by changing the file name.

However taking a different (and funnier) tack this can be used to your advantage: I once was at a talk by Caucasian actor Jerry Doyle who said he put the Harlem Gospel Choir, an all black choir, on his résumé. He figured if an interviewer didn’t spot that outright lie they wouldn’t spot the other lies on the résumé.

FORMAT

When it comes to laying out the information in a résumé the format is usually either Chronological or Functional.  Choose a chronological format if you wish to be defined by your previous jobs or to continue doing what you are doing now. Choose a Functional résumé if you want to be defined by your skills/personality or change industries.

Chronological résumés show a list of jobs through bullets points in reverse chronological order. It tends to account for time spent in jobs and responsibilities. LinkedIn uses this structure because it is by far the most popular way to write a résumé and because we are connected to other people through specific jobs. While all the key details are written down in a linear order the reader is left to work out for themselves if you are suitable for the position.

Functional résumés show achievements grouped around key experiences/skills. This is my preferred format since it helps the reader grasp what skills you have, what you’ve achieved and whether you are suitable for the position. All your accomplishments are listed under 3-5 headings, usually skill sets. The positions held can be listed in one line each at the bottom. Click here to see my functional résumé.

NARRATIVE FLOW

Once you’ve written your résumé send it to friends, previous co-workers or previous managers to get a gut check on whether it reflects all your skills. Your accomplishments may seem unimportant to you but might be huge in the workplace. Or vice versa. Ask yourself if you are casting the net too wide and sounding generic as a result? Be specific. It might make you less suitable for a lot of jobs but it will make you perfect for some and that’s the sweet spot you want to be at.

The aim of the résumé is to build up a picture in the hirer’s mind but hitting home specific examples so lead with your strengths in key points:
• Focus on the unique parts of your work as career unfolds.
• Give specific examples.
• List accomplishments.
• Add any quantifiable results of your efforts e.g. increase in click-thrus, pitches won etc.

Hopefully titles will be in ascending order to show clear growth and responsibility. Titles can be verified so it is not a good idea to lie/exaggerate these.

LANGUAGE

When it comes to reading résumés who wants to read a list responsibilities – these were in the job spec of each position that you held but says little about you. In order to communicate who you are, list your own personal accomplishments. Avoid phrases like “Responsible for”, “Experienced in”, “Excellent written skills”, “Team player”, “Detail orientated” and “Successful” e.g. instead of saying you ‘successfully pitched to new clients” you should say that you “won three out of four pitches at X company”. It’s a long painful process, writing and rewriting your résumé is par for the course.

Since you’ve done a lot of the same work across your career you may fall into the trap of using the same words or phrases to describe what you did. Check how many times the same words appear in your résumé. In one draft of my résumé I had the word “emergencies” 7 times – the reader is going to get bored after 2-3 times. Also, enunciate the finer details of your accomplishments to create more unique language in your résumé. This also helps further flesh out just who you are.

Knowing the right amount of personality to add/keep out requires a fine balancing act. On the one hand you don’t want to appear to be vanilla and on the other hand you don’t want to seem like a weirdo by sharing too much. Pepper your résumé with a few hints at your personality but keep it toned down. People are very judgmental when looking at résumés and there are a lot of people who will look at your one before you get to an interview.

You’ve seen your résumé so many times it’s probably really easy to miss typos and repetitions. While typos may be overlooked in day-to-day communications they won’t be on a résumé. A lack of typos says a lot about you – effective, detailed and goal oriented. Having typos says you are lazy, have low standards, miss details and can’t see an end goal. The final word on the language of résumés, in fact the golden rule of résumés, is spell check, spell check and spell check again. If you know a proofreader get them to look it over too.

CONCLUSION

As you’ve gathered by now I believe résumés are more than something you have to do to get a job. I see them as a honest manifesto for your future. Working out “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” will help guide you through the maze of uncertainties about what to write in a résumé. You may get just as many hits and misses as before but at least you’ll feel a lot more certain about yourself and what you are doing.

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