Let’s be very clear, résumés are exceedingly important, but they are not everything. No one’s career chances have ever been made by a résumé. You need much more than a great résumé to succeed, and your entire value proposition as a candidate or employee is not locked in the document waiting to be read.
On the other hand, while a résumé cannot make your career, it can certainly break it. Résumés fail every day. They make a candidate look too scattered, too junior, too specialized or too much of any other trait that is undesirable in general or a particular case and not enough of what an employer actually does want. In the hundreds of résumés I read last year alone, I can say that the greatest point of failure is that the résumé writer did not step back and consider what he or she was trying to communicate.
When I say the “résumé writer”above, I don’t mean a professional résumé writer, who through experience and detachment generally possesses the big-picture perspective. (That’s a large part of why you might hire one.) I mean Joe, Sally, Larry, Latisha, Ricardo, Li-Shin and every other job candidate out there who is writing a résumé on his or her own. If Latisha doesn’t put on her “résumé writer’s hat” and Larry doesn’t put himself in the shoes of the reader, neither of them will be very effective at communicating through the résumé medium.
Why is this task of writing a compelling résumé so important? Without exaggeration, millions of employees worldwide are held in the shackles of their current employment, unhappy, unmotivated and unable to move internally or into new jobs, because they have not mastered the skill of communicating their value through their résumés. Millions of others are unemployed or underemployed for the same reason.
You have one or two pages to make your case. Without fail.
THE FOUR THINGS RESUMES NEED TO DO
- THE RIGHT AUDIENCE
- YOU ARE COMPELLING
- TO INTERVIEW
In certain limited circumstances, as a job candidate you are already a known quantity as a professional, and the résumé serves more of a “confirmation” function. Most of the time, however, the résumé itself needs to build your case.
In certain limited circumstances, as a job candidate you are already a known quantity as a professional, and the résumé serves more of a “confirmation” function. Most of the time, however, the résumé itself needs to build your case. As far as we have moved as a society into business-driven social media (LinkedIn profiles, etc.), in most professional fields the résumé is still the common currency and core document. We are a long way from the phrase “send me your résumé” being replaced with “send me your Twitter feed.”
Résumés fail because they don’t convince the right audience that you are a compelling candidate to interview.
#1 – Know Your Audience
When I work with résumé clients, the first point we tackle is knowing the audience., which is #2 above. To know who is your audience, you need to first know what roles you are targeting. In the attorney field, for example, a litigator résumé written to target a law firm won’t convey the key points if the candidate wants to move into an in-house role, public policy, human resources or education. The audience in each case is different, and what is needed to convince your audience that you are a good candidate is decidedly specific to each type of role. If you are writing a résumé on your own and in doubt about what your audience is looking for, the first step is to find out as much about the actual “work” of the target position. Job descriptions, informational interviews and other investigatory measures will help you clarify what is expected in each role.
#2 – Convince
Second, once you know your audience, your job is to convince the audience you are a good hire. Too often, candidates try to do this by putting more on the page. They don’t know what to emphasize, because they haven’t taken the time to get to know themselves or their audience, and they expect the reader to sort it out. The résumé in that case does not present a logical step-by-step narrative that walks the reader through the candidate’s strengths, talents, experience and value-add. The reader, of course, is busy and has much better things to do, like read the résumé of someone who has figured out how to write one properly (or get on with the business of actually working).
How do you convince employers to hire you through your résumé? Show them you can solve their problems and capitalize on their opportunities.
You can’t close the deal with readers/interviewers/recruiters/hiring managers/networking contacts if you can’t convince them you are a compelling candidate. And you won’t be a compelling candidate in most cases if you don’t know your own value proposition.
The most compelling way to close the deal is to know the problems, issues, opportunities, strengths, risks, threats, etc. of a particular employer (or class of employers) and present yourself as someone who can solve the problems and capitalize on the opportunities. Here are some concrete examples to make this clear. Imagine you had a class of jobs in front of you, and you needed to figure out what problems needed to be solved in each case: (1) the receptionist of a busy pediatrician’s office, (2) the safety manager at a manufacturing company, or (3) the execution trader for a hedge fund trading international equities. What are the so-called “pain points” of each? Does the doctor’s office need someone client-focused and organized? (Clearly.) Do they need to have experience in a similar setting? (Depends on what else they bring to the table and the employer’s biases, history of hires and successes/failures on that front.) What else does each role require and request of a candidate?
I have worked with many candidates who have not even considered what an employer’s needs are. So many, in fact, that I am no longer surprised by this omission of the key reason that companies hire in the first place – to fill a need.
Let’s think about #2 above for a moment – safety management. Say you want to move into (or move up in) this type of role, which is admittedly a very specific field. Here’s a sample job description (click here) from Lauren, an EPC contractor. If you were serious about this area as one or more possible targets for you, and this employer in particular, I would suggest you read related job descriptions to flesh out how “this type of job works.” While the present blog post is not about how to read a job description (stay tuned, one may follow), let me highlight a few key points that would help your résumé communicate that you a compelling candidate for this job or one like it. Start not with the writing, but with the thinking, namely:
(1) What does this employer do? At a very basic level, what is EPC (engineering, procurement and construction), what is the heavy industrial sector, and how does this translate into their day-to-day operations?
(2) Who are their clients?
(3) What markets do they operate in?
(4) Who are their competitors?
(5) Since they are in a highly-regulated field that affects everything that they do, who are their regulators, what regulations are they subject to, etc.? (Note: see the references to OSHA, for example, in the job description. If you do not know what OSHA is and have not mentioned it on your résumé, you will be a very hard sell. Find a cheap training online, at the very least, to get you started, or do the research on your own. In other words, if you don’t have what you need, find a way to get it.)
(6) Note that all of the above points are about the employer. Only after you have considered the macro-view – what are they trying to accomplish and how does that play out? – then ask yourself the question, how does your targeted role serve to lead, manage and/or support the bigger picture? How can you help solve the employers’ problems, issues, opportunities, strengths, risks, threats, etc. How can you make them money, save them money, raise their reputation in the marketplace, keep them out of trouble or otherwise add value to the company?
#3 – Be Compelling
You will notice immediately that this is a completely different approach to résumé writing than creating a “laundry list” of what you have done in the past. If you are perceptive, you will also notice that “it’s about them, not about you.” Compelling candidates won’t just want to fill jobs because they need a paycheck. Compelling candidates are compelling because they move beyond what’s in it for them and are focused on what they can do for the employer. (Which is how and why we all get paid, after all.)
If what I am proposing sounds like a lot of work, it is. Yet if you cannot find the energy to be fully engaged at the outset of a job, how will you possibly summon it up once you are in the job? The same attention to getting you hired will keep you employed and progressing along your career. If you don’t have it and cannot create it, you are in the wrong field, industry or life.
Referring back to points 1-7 above, you may ask how each of these are reflected in your résumé, which is the decisive question. The art of writing the résumé is to translate the employer’s needs (without simply repeating words) to show that you have the “right stuff” to meet their objectives for the role and the company generally. If you are applying to a set of roles that are similar (e.g., safety management roles across a range of companies or industries), the communication of what makes you compelling may be quite similar for each employer that you are trying to “sell” on your candidacy. Keywords play a role, certainly, and the essence of a compelling résumé is that it allows the reader to picture you in the role.
The essence of a compelling résumé: allow the reader to picture you in the role.
#4 – Focus on Getting the Interview
On the fourth and last point of failure, résumé writers often forget that they are generally competing for an interview with their résumé, not yet competing for the job. In other words, not every single point about why a company should hire you needs to be in the résumé. In fact, it shouldn’t run on that long, lest you run the risk of coming across as a candidate who cannot succinctly and effectively communicate. Remember: the résumé is the appetizer, not the meal. Your résumé’s job is to convert the recipient of your résumé into a reader and then into an interviewer.
Once you have the interview, go back to those 7 points above (and others), and make the same sale all over again. Convince your audience you are a compelling candidate to hire.
Anne Marie Segal is a résumé writer and a career and leadership coach to attorneys, executives and entrepreneurs. You can find her website here.
WRITING SERVICES include attorney and executive résumés, cover letters, LinkedIn profiles, bios, websites and other career and business communications.
COACHING SERVICES include career coaching, networking support, interview preparation, LinkedIn training, personal branding, leadership and change management.