Your resume needs more than content – it needs context

Let’s talk about your resume.

Most resumes I see contain a career history; a list of jobs where the person has worked, and often some description of their duties or responsibilities.  But what is missing is context.  Someone may tell me they managed this, or implemented that, but there is nothing to suggest that they managed it well or what impact the implementation had on the organization.  Without the context, their “responsibilities” are interesting, but not particularly helpful.

A list of accomplishments tells the recruiter what you’ve done and how successful you’ve been. It provides context to your work history.  The premise is that what you have accomplished for prior organizations, you can accomplish for the next one.  The good news is, that premise is usually accurate.

Separate your career history (which you still need) from your accomplishments.  Include a section where you quantify what you’ve accomplished.   A “responsibility” might read: “Responsible for managing a staff of 14 with an operating budget of $500,000” which is impressive.  But imagine instead that the “accomplishment” said “Successfully managed a staff of 14 with an operating budget of $500,000 with turnover substantially below the organizational average and expenses within budget,” then we’d know a lot more about you.

Put together a list of 10-15 of your career highlight accomplishments, then pull the 5-7 that really fit the job you are applying for, and sort them by order of importance to the job you are applying for. Now you have a customize resume for a specific position.  In your cover letter, highlight the top one or two accomplishments.  Tell the hiring manager how much you increased sales or profits, reduced expenses, expanded market share, etc.  That is what will open their eyes, and get you the interview.

If you are struggling with your job search, this might help.

New Year – New Resume

For a successful job search, you need three consistently good pieces of paper (or electronic documents for you young ‘uns). You need a resume, a cover letter, and a target list. (I’ll talk about the Target List next time). If you search this blog for Resume or Cover Letter (and I encourage you do that) you’ll find lots of good information. Resume Magic Parts I & II and The Second Most Important Bullet in Your Gun are great starting points. But for the impatient reader, here are some highlights:

Both documents must look good – clean, well-formatted, PERFECT spelling and punctuation, good white space, one font, etc. They need to look like they came from the same person – same formatting, same letterhead, and same style. Here’s the deal – if you cannot execute a flawless resume and cover letter – how can I trust that you can do your job correctly – whatever job that might be?

They need to be specific to the job you are applying for – highlight your quantified accomplishments that prove you have the ability to do the job you are trying to get. Make the recruiter want to know more about you. Sequence the information so the most important information is on the top half of the first page.

You must submit both documents every time. A resume is a like a photograph of you – who you are and what you are made of; but the cover letter is the background of that photograph, the context that explains why you are sending this resume and adds more color about your interest and excitement. A resume without a cover letter is lost and uninteresting.

Include lots of enablers and avoid the limiters (read more). Don’t put your photograph on either document.

Include your full name and contact information (mailing address, email address, phone number) on both documents. Make sure you are using a professional email address like instead of

Your cover letter should reference the job you’re applying for. Throw in some facts about the company so that you can show you’ve done your research and you really are interested in this job for this organization.

Whenever possible send the documents to a specific person. Use LinkedIn or other sources to find out who the hiring manager is and send it to her/him. If HR says you must apply via their processes do that too, but always try to get to the hiring manager. If you’re sending it to HR try to find out the name of the recruiter, or the department head. If you are stumped, send the letter to “Dear Hiring Manager” or Dear Human Resources Professional”, not “To Whom it May Concern.”

I had not planned for this post to be a “best of” kind of post, but I’ve given you several links to posts with more information and more detail.

The bottom line is that if you want to start this new year off with a bang, you need to have the best looking, most complete resume and cover letter you can. Take the time, do them right, and they’ll open doors for you.


If you want more advice on how to write a resume, how to, network or just how to find a job, check out I’m Fired?!? A Business Fable about the Challenges of Losing One Job and Finding Another. Click here for more details.

Enablers vs. Limiters

I realized that a few weeks ago I wrote about Enablers and Limiters, but I didn’t explain myself well. Let me try again.

Your resume and cover letter should be packed with information that makes the reader (recruiter or hiring manager) want to know more. That information needs to relate directly to the job you are applying for. It needs to make the connection that since you’ve done this activity successfully for someone else, you can do it form them also. That information is what I call Enablers.

Enablers tell your story and make links between your skill set and the position requirements. Some enablers might be in your accountabilities – proving you have accomplished before what needs to be done again. They may be in your career history. Sometimes the organization you worked for is not a household name. Giving a 10-word description of the company/industry may help the reader better understand your experience. Maybe your enabler is your education and training.

The dark-side of providing more information are the Limiters. These are statements that cause a reader to stop reading and decide you are not a fit for the job they are trying to fill. Some limiters are obvious like misspellings and poor grammar. Some come from revealing too much personal information like hobbies – if the recruiter is a golf-widow, she may not like to hear that you love to golf, plus, your love of golf is generally not related to your ability to do the job – which is what your resume is for.

Other limiters are a bit trickier. Listing responsibilities rather than accomplishments may suggest this was what you were supposed to do, but maybe you didn’t do it well. Sometimes the companies you worked for can be limiters – touting yourself as a proven executive from Enron or Tyco may be a limiter.

The key to both enablers and limiters is to read you resume and cover letter from the perspective of a hiring manager (have a friend help you do this). Make sure that every word and phrase encourages them to want to know more about you. Avoid mistakes and topics that allow someone to discount your experience or pigeon-hole you in a hole you don’t want to be in.

This is not easy, and it is the main reason that you should review and customize your resume for every job. Information that may be an enabler for one company may be a limiter at another. As you get better at balancing this information, you’ll get more calls, more interviews and more offers.

Are you trying to decide on the perfect holiday gift for an unemployed friend (or spouse)? Give them a copy of I’m Fired?!? A Business Fable about the Challenges of Losing One Job and Finding Another. Click here for more details.

What Are You Accountable For?

Many people list their former job responsibilities on their resume. I suggest in lieu of responsibilities, you list accountabilities. Unfortunately, that often causes quizzical looks.

I believe that the term accountability has gotten a bad rap. These days, about the only time you hear “accountable” is when something has gone wrong and there is a call to see who will be held accountable. In other words, who will be punished because they didn’t do their job right? Or, maybe they are the leader of an organization that was not successful and regardless of the circumstances, it was their fault. Accountability is used a bit like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland shouting “Off with their heads.” If being accountable means that if you fail you are punished, why would anyone want to be accountable?

According to Andy Wood and Bruce Winston, accountability is much more than that. Accountability is a combination of the individual’s willingness to accept the responsibility, her openness in relation to her actions, and the understanding that she will be answerable to her constituents. From an overall business perspective, there is much more to accountability than punishment for failure, but let’s take this back to your resume.

A responsibility statement only states what you were supposed to do. An accountability statement says what you did do. A person typically won’t be punished for managing a call center. A person might be held accountable for managing an outbound call center with 25 operators making 10,000 calls per week and generating $35 million in annual sales. The accountability statement combines the responsibility – managing the call center – with the expected (or even better yet, the actual) results. Now that responsibility has context and scope.

Here’s another example. A Restaurant Server might be responsible for taking customer’s orders. But, he might be accountable for taking order from 37 tables per shift with an average daily revenue of $4,400. This accountability statement says so much more about the amount of work that was completed, and about the person that completed it.

Update your resume and make sure you are not just talking about what you were supposed to do. Instead, proudly state what you were held accountable to do – because if you did that for another organization, you can do that for the next one too.

For more details about I’m Fired?!? A Business Fable about the Challenges of Losing One Job and Finding Another, click here.

You have 10 Seconds – Go!

I attended a symposium recently focused on ending homelessness among veterans. One segment was a panel of larger local employers giving advice to agencies who work with Vets, and two of the speakers gave very similar advice.

The first said “When I look at resumes I spend about 5 seconds on each one. If I can’t find something in 5 seconds that tells me I need to learn more about this candidate, then I move on to the next one.” The second panelist looked at the first with a quizzical expression and said, “Wow, you’re harsh. I take at least 10 seconds per resume,” and laughed. There you have it. You have – at best – 10 seconds to impress a recruiter with your resume.

Are you familiar with the old newspaper adage “above the fold”? Back in the day, when newspapers were still printed on paper and everyone read them, reporters would fight to get their stories on the front page. But the really great real estate is on the upper-half of the front page – up above the fold. That was where the most important news went.

Your resume needs to be treated the same way. You need enough content on the top-half of the first page to make the recruiter keep reading. Then if there’s a second page, the rest of the first page needs to make them want to turn the page. That is one reason that newspapers start lots of stories on page one, but rarely end stories on page one. They want you to open the paper so you’ll see the ads and read other stories.

The other resume advice I heard at this event was one I’ve said here before. Every time you send out a resume to a company it should be tailored to that job and that organization. Emphasize the parts of your background based on the job you’re applying for.

So when you’re getting ready for to send out that next resume, push that pertinent stuff, be it education, experience, accomplishments, what-have-you, up above the fold on page one. Make sure that in 5 to 10 seconds the reader will be hooked that you might be the one. If you do that you’re chances of success will skyrocket.

Resume Enhancement – Think Twice

Let’s face it; very few of us have truly reached the pinnacle of our careers.  Many have earned good educations, held responsible jobs, and been respected in a communities.  But there still may be (or we think there are) holes in our resumes.  It can be awfully tempting to “enhance” that resume to fill those holes and make ourselves more desirable to recruiters.  Some might call this “putting the right spin on your experience.”  In more extreme cases others might call it “lying.”

Let me be crystal clear, I do not advocate in any way or at any time lying on your resume.  Listing jobs, responsibilities, accomplishments, education, etc. on your resume that are not true and accurate is wrong and should not be tolerated.  If you hire someone who had blatant likes on his/her resume or application they should be terminated immediately for a lack of honesty. Never, never, never lie on your resume (or any other time for that matter).

That being said, there is also no reason to draw a red circle around every hole in your resume and intentionally bring those issues to that attention of every recruiter you talk to. Let’s try a simple example.  Say your job was eliminated from company X on February 4 and you found a new job with Company Y on November 24.  If you use the full dates in the Job History section of your resume it will be obvious to everyone that you were out of work of just over 9 months.  However, if you simply list the year on your resume the only thing that is obvious is that your changed jobs in 2009, but the gap disappears.  You’ll want to be honest about that gap if it comes up in an interview or when you complete an application, but there is no need to volunteer the information.

When constructing your job history, it’s okay not to list jobs that don’t fit your career objective.  If during the gap in previous paragraph you worked at McDonald’s because you needed income, you don’t need to list that on your resume, unless it supports your career objective.  You should include it on a formal application, but let it come up in the interview, rather than when your resume is being screened.  Similarly, if you’ve had lots of jobs (I’ve had 10 professional jobs since I graduated from college) there is no need to list all of them on your resume – unless they show a clear progression that supports your career objective.  Only list the most recent ones that best support the position you are applying for.

What I’m advocating some might consider simple common sense.  Make sure to include factual information that supports who you are and why you are the best candidate for a position.  At the same time, don’t include anything on your resume that does not support that same objective unless leaving it off will create more questions than including it.  Your resume is just that, your resume.  You get to decide the best way to present yourself.  You choose the format, the style, and the contents.  Choose the things that present you in the best possible light.

Honesty is clearly the best, and the only acceptable policy.  But, discretion may be the better part of valor.

Shhh- It’s a Secret …

I was working with a friend who was in a tizzy.  She was trying to apply for a new job that she really wanted, but she was stuck on one blank of the application – “Reason for Leaving.”  She had been fired from her last job for performance reasons and she was afraid that if she said that on this application then she would not get hired.  But, if she didn’t say that, and they found out, they would fire her for lying on her application.   What to do?!?!?

First thing – honesty is the best policy.  You should never lie on your resume, cover letter or a job application.  Making false statements is a lousy way to get ahead and will ultimately come back and bite you.  However, not telling a lie is a long way from telling 100% of the truth.  There are some options – any of which might be the right thing for you.

Be straightforward – “Terminated for performance reasons”.  Hopefully the company likes enough about your overall qualifications that they still interview you and you can explain (assuming you have a good explanation).

Misdirection – “Involuntary Separation”.  That could mean fired, RIFed, Laid Off, or anything.  Again, it gives them the opportunity to ask and for you to explain.

Avoidance – leave it blank.  You should not assume that because you leave it blank they will assume you were fired.  Leaving it blank gives them an opportunity to discuss the situation.

You can even try “Mutual Decision” approach – “they fired me before I could quit.”

The bottom line is you need to be prepared to explain why it didn’t work out for you at that job plus how you’ve learned from that so whatever happened won’t be a problem at your new job.

You also have to be honest with yourself.  If you were fired because you really were not any good at your job, save yourself the trouble and don’t apply for that kind of job again.  Find something your good at and do that.

Finally, here is what I have found to be true.  If you were meant to get this job, then you will get the opportunity to explain yourself and that explanation will satisfy the interviewer.  If they choose to be so short-sighted so as to pass on your resume just because you were asked to leave a job, then that is their loss.  Not only will they not have the pleasure of working with you, but there are lots of other good people they are going to miss.

Bottom line – tell the truth, as briefly as you can, and be prepared to explain.  That’s all you can do.

The Second Most Important Bullet In Your Gun

Even in this technology laden world, job search is still all about the documents.  You’ve got to have a good resume, a target list (see my earlier post), a reference list and a salary history.  All of these should be formatted similarly so that they’ll help to support your personal brand. Clearly your resume is the most important but what is the second most important document?  I contend that it is the often neglected cover letter.

To continue the gun analogy (perfect for a Friday evening) a resume is like a shotgun blast.  It covers your entire employment history and range of skills.  While you should modify it for every job you apply for, it is still intended to tell everything a recruiter needs to know.

The cover letter, on the other hand, is a rifle shot.  A well written cover letter gives you the chance to focus the energy of your resume on the specific requirements of the job you are applying for.  It is your one, and often only, chance to show the recruiter why you are the perfect candidate for this job.

Cover letters need to be concise and direct. They need to point specifically to what the company needs and how you are uniquely qualified to meet those needs.  I suggest you avoid fluff and a lot of jargon.  Don’t talk about what you are looking for – the recruiter could care less.  Talk about what you can do for the company and support those assertions with proof from your experience. (What if you don’t have that experience? That’s for a future post but one key lesson is don’t lie.  Dishonesty is not the answer.)

As to format and style there are two main considerations.  First, this is a business document and should appear as such. It should be well laid out, typed of course, with no spelling, grammar or punctuation errors and, very importantly, if you are addressing an individual you must spell their name and the name of the company correctly.  On the flip side, like your resume, your cover letter is a personal document.  It needs to reflect your style and help you to reinforce your brand.

Be original but don’t get too clever.  I once had an applicant send me their resume and cover letter folded into a paper airplane with the tag line “if you want your sales to soar, then hire me.”  I didn’t – but I did remember the resume.  I also had one resume arrive with a Staples Easy Button. The pitch was “That was easy – just hire me.”  Personally these approaches are too “cute” for me, but clearly they were memorable.  You need to find out the best way to professionally distinguish yourself from the crowd.

So the moral of the story – don’t neglect the cover letter. Always include one or you may find yourself holding a Starter’s Pistol and firing blanks.

Resume Magic Part II – Accomplishments vs. Responsibilities

You’ve been working on creating the perfect resume.  But something seems to be missing. What is it?

For most resumes that I see, what is missing is context.  Someone tells me they managed this, or implemented that, but there is nothing to suggest that they managed it well or implemented it successfully.  Without the context, their “responsibilities” are empty statements.

A list of accomplishments tells the recruiter what you’ve done and how successful you’ve been.  The theory is: what I’ve accomplished for my prior organizations, I can accomplish for you.  The good news is that theory often holds up.

Rather than highlight your career and various functions you’ve been responsible for, your resume needs to quantify what you’ve accomplished.   Your resume might say “Responsible for managing a staff of 14 with an operating budget of $500,000”, but what it does not say is if you did those things well.  If instead it said “Successfully managed a staff of 14 with an operating budget of $500,000 with turnover substantially below the organizational average and expenses within budget” then we’d know a lot more about you.

Showing that you’ve improved operating margins by X percent or reduced expenses by $xxx gives context to your statements.  Tell the recruiter how much you increased sales or profits, reduced expenses, expanded market share, etc.  That is what will open their eyes, and get you the interview.

Here are a few more resume guidelines to consider:

When emailing your resume, send it in a PDF format rather than in Word (or your word processor’s format).  This will ensure that it looks like you want it to, rather than how their word processor formats it.  This also avoids problems if you have a newer version or an incompatible software.  (There are several free software packages to publish your documents as PDFs.)

While a well formatted resume is great, often times a company wants you to copy and paste your resume into a text box on their website.  That typically means that all formatting is stripped away and your once beautiful resume is not very functional.  So, keep a .txt version handy.  After you’ve “finished” your resume, convert it to plain text and clean up the formatting so that it looks good again.  This will ensure that those nasty uploads work well and still look good.

Back in the day when I was starting out we were taught to put a “Career Objective” as the first thing on our resume.  We’d craft a bold statement like “To use my education and analytical skills to allow me to grow with a strong and forward looking company.”  While that might have been good advice in the early ‘80s (emphasis on might have been) it’s not anymore.  Now recruiters want to see a 2-3 sentence (or bullet points) elevator speech that tells them exactly who you are and why they need to read the rest of your resume.  Words like proven, experienced, customer-focused, market leader, etc. show energy and drive.  Craft your summary so it makes peoples say “wow, tell me more.”

I imagine some of you are shaking your head or rolling your eyes.  I’ll admit, some of these suggestions are a lot easier for me to say than they are for you to do, but trust me, they work.  If your word processing or editorial skills aren’t up to the task, get some help.  Find a friend who can help.  If necessary, use a consultant.  But if you get help, make sure they give you “your” resume and not “theirs”.  Make sure it reflects you, because that’s what you’ve got to sell when you land that interview.

A great resume can open doors.  Spend some time on yours and you’ll get more interviews, which will lead to getting the job.  Happy Holidays!

Resume Magic – What Makes a Great Resume – Part I

There are lots of resources on the Internet for making a resume with tips and templates galore.  Out of all that, what is the most important?  We’ll I’ve talked with some search pros and we’ve put together these suggestions for creating resume magic.  Unfortunately I couldn’t get all of these tips in one post, here is part I – stay tuned for the remainder.

Let’s start with why you’re doing this at all.  What is the purpose of your resume?  Is it simply a written version of your career history?  Is it your opportunity to tell others your goals and aspirations?  Is it a chance to detail everything you know and highlight your incredible mastery and technical expertise?  Well, yes … and no.

The purpose of your resume is to be your personal brochure and sales pitch indicating why someone should hire you.  With a resume you’re not trying to meet your needs, you’re trying to meet the needs of the recruiter and hiring manager.  You are attempting to show them that you are the perfect candidate for the job they are trying to fill.

Your resume is a paper representation of you.  It should be a personal statement that reflects your technical skills, competencies, expertise, involvement, awards and accomplishments.   While templates and sample resumes are great for giving you ideas, your resume needs to be distinctly you, not a template.  As you expand your brand, make sure that your cover letter, reference page, thank you letters etc. all have the same look and feel.  They need to consistently support your brand.

Here are some guidelines to remember:

  • Choose the format that is best for you – Chronological vs. Functional (we absolutely prefer chronological).  Use your career progression to support that you know what you know.
  •  Lead with your strengths. Start with a summary of why you are the best candidate. Add your accomplishments to support those statements. Show your career history as proof of your success and list your education as the foundation for it all.
  •  Be concise and keep it to no more than two pages – and one page is better.  Remember, if you are lucky a recruiter will read the first half of the first page.  If you haven’t caught their attention by then you are not going to get that job.  If they have to wade through 4 pages of jobs, references and citations you have no hope.
  • Customize each resume based on the position and/or company you are applying to.  Research the company and tailor the resume to fit what they are looking for.
  •  Be industry specific, but here’s where some balance is needed.  You should include industry buzz words so that companies who use computers to scan and evaluate resumes will find the keywords they are looking for.  But, don’t include so much jargon that others can’t understand what you are talking about.
  •  Be truthful – enough said.
  •  Make it look good.  Use a bright white paper and clean, simple font.  Make sure you have sufficient white space so it doesn’t look cluttered.  Use formatting to make it easy to read and to highlight the most important parts.
  •  Make it perfect.  Use multiple proofreaders.  Your spelling, grammar, and punctuation need to be perfect.  Your formatting (bold, underline, italics, centering, line spacing, etc.) needs to be consistent. Your margins should match.  Take the time to do it right.

A great resume won’t get you the job, but a bad resume will keep you from it.  Stay tuned for some more tips and a focus on accomplishments, the real key to success.