Resumes are highly individualized documents that share the highlights of your professional career to date. They should be brief and concise, be a chronological account of your different roles, and be written in your voice.
I see a lot of resumes given what I do. And I love reading each and every one, as every person is different and tells their story in their own way. Sometimes, sadly, they say “I’m not a good candidate”.
They are not necessarily easy documents to write. But, there are some common mistakes I see all the time which I feel can be easily rectified with minimal effort.
What should your resume actually say?
Your resume should say only the following:
Triple-check. You might be surprised to hear that most resumes I read contain some sort of error. Many people have looked at it 20 times and are unable to see the mistakes. When I can point these out prior to representing you to a firm, it is fine, as you get a chance to fix them. But when you’re submitting your resume directly to a firm, they notice this and will likely not move forward because of a perceived lack of attention to detail. My advice: read your resume out loud, or, read it while pretending that you’re reading someone else’s document with the intention of looking for errors.
Style versus substance. If you’re going to seek feedback on your resume, ask only for their substantive comments. Its really important your style and voice stays in the document. And many people make the mistake of correcting on style only (because substance involves a higher knowledge base).
Brevity. Be brief and concise. A resume is not a place to list everything and hope something resonates. It is a summarized version of your professional self that is tailored exactly to the role you are applying for. (The interview is the place to elaborate and hand pick great stories to show your experience.)
One of the most common questions I get asked by candidates is how to tell their own career story. And I never get tired of hearing this question; it is a fundamental question that discerning candidates ask in order to give themselves the best possible chance when job-seeking.
Messaging your story, your career journey, your career trajectory – however you wish to frame it – is really important.
The most important thing I share with my candidates is that it is your story. What I mean by this is that there is no one ‘right’ way to come into marketing or BD in a firm, and there is certainly no hard and fast rules about how you get there. Your career is truly that – your career – and now its just up to you to tell it in a way that resonates with the person who is listening. And, whether you’re in person trying to relate to your listener, or getting the story across on paper in resume form, there are some guidelines to follow.
Here are my top tips as to how to own and tell your story:
Unapologetically own it. Your story will be unique. And that is a good thing. Every single person is different. I know often – particularly in an interview setting – we can be fooled into thinking that we must have a certain type of experience or background. But the fact is that everyone is different and it is those different experiences and perspectives that make up teams of truly unique and wonderful people. So, embrace it, and don’t feel defensive or apologetic about something that might be a little left of center. It is part of you, so own it.
Start at the beginning, but get there quickly. A good story has a start, a middle and an end. Everyone starts from a different place, and I’ve found those initial early years are very influential in shaping a professional (and it also typically gives you insights into their personality and softer skills). So, start at the beginning. But, be mindful of how much information the listener wants. Listen and watch to see if they want brevity or more details, and this will tell you how to concisely move through your career story. The last thing you want is to either: have explained your 15 year career in 45 seconds when the listener really wanted a 5 minute run-down, or, you’ve taken 20 minutes to describe only your first role.
What does the listener want to hear? There will be something that you have in your background that is going to be significant to the listener. Figure out beforehand what that is and leverage that experience. For example, in a job interview you will know from your own research the top 2-3 things they are looking for in a person’s experience. In a networking setting, you’ll hear common interests or hobbies that you can relate to. In a meeting with a partner, they will naturally start to hone in on something that is important to them. These are all signs for you to pull out of your tool kit a piece of your story that relates to what they’re telling you.
“Tell me about this gap…” Ah, the classic interview question. The best way to deal with any gaps in your employment timeline or regrettable occurrences is to proactively talk about them. Truth be told, just about every person has something in their past that they don’t like too much. Get in there first and tell the listener about the experience, but then why you moved on. The key here is to provide a balanced perspective; be honest that it wasn’t right for you, but share what you learned and how you took that forward into your next role.
Your personality, your ‘edge’, your motivators. I love asking questions to create discussion around finding out more about the human behind the piece of paper. Some people will offer up this information, and others need to have it teased out of them a little. I have found out some delightfully wonderful facts on people when I probe into who they are as a person. And, these traits all link back to who they are as a professional, so don’t think of them as time-wasters or irrelevant questions. For example, think of the grit and commitment someone has to have to train for a marathon. And think of the organizational capabilities someone has to have to work and study full time.
Your story on paper vs. in person. Your story on paper will be a highlighted version of you. When you tell it in person, you can elaborate and emphasis the things you know your listener wants to hear. But, keep resumes brief and concise. My view is that a resume should be a short document that intrigues the reader, and an in-person meeting or interview is where you elaborate.
Ask for feedback. In person, it is easier to sense the listener’s reaction. Not so much over email or over the phone. So, asking for feedback along the way to see if you’re giving enough (or too much) information is really important. That way you know your story is resonating.
Messaging your own story to show your career journey is one of the most important things you can do when considering a new role. And, its perfectly ok to emphasize or de-emphasize skills and experience as they relate to the role you’re exploring. The key is to relate, to be specific where you can, and to be unique so you stand out.
Kate Harry Shipham is the Principal of KHS People LLC, an executive search firm for BD and marketing people in professional services firms. Kate has done search and recruiting for nine years and prior to that was an attorney.