Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Few Thoughts On Résumés

I frequently receive calls from people who either want help writing their résumé or simply want someone to do it for them. Most people seem somewhat surprised when I share my belief that having someone else write their résumé is a waste of time and money.

Why? Two reasons.

First, informal research as well as my experience as a career coach and former recruiter tells me that most résumés--well over 95%--are completely ineffective. If the thousands of résumé writing services in the world were doing a good job, that wouldn't be the case. Second, the only person who truly knows the details of the experiences and accomplishments is you.

Until we can download our entire life experience from our brain to someone else's (isn't that a scary thought), you simply can't throw money at the problem and expect to get a good result. A far better approach is to work with a coach who can ask the right questions and help you quantify your experience in a meaningful, compelling way. It has to be a TEAM EFFORT. More importantly, you, the person working on the résumé, has to be willing to commit to a thorough self-assessment. Sadly, most people aren't willing to spend the time and effort.

It has always amazed me that people will spend hundreds of dollars and weeks of their lives taking Kaplan tests in an effort to get a higher score on the SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, GMAT, MCAT, and countless other tests, but they balk at the idea of spending a single afternoon reflecting on their experiences and quantifying their accomplishments. This is exactly backwards.

When A Résumé Isn't The Best Tool

It also fascinates me that people expect résumés to perform miracles. The fact is, there is a limit to what a résumé can do. For example, I have worked with countless clients who spent a decade or two in one position before they decided to pursue a completely different job in a completely different industry. More often than not, our first conversation started like this:

"Rob, I got your name from ______ who suggested I give you a call. I really need help with my résumé..."

To understand why this reasoning doesn't make any sense, think about what a résumé is. People familiar with my work have no doubt heard me say this before, but it bears repeating. The way dictionaries define résumé is incorrect. According to, the word résumé is defined as follows:

1. a summing up; summary.
2. a brief written account of personal, educational, and professional qualifications and experience, as that prepared by an applicant for a job.

That is NOT what a résumé is. Instead, I propose an alternate definition:

The accomplishments of your life, outlined briefly on a few pages, as they relate to what you want to do (i.e., the next logical step in your professional development).

No matter which definition you use, a résumé is of little use to someone who wants to change careers for one simple reason:

The résumé can't tell the story.

For example, when I changed careers from advertising to options trading, not a single accomplishment or experience I had at Leo Burnett, no matter how impressive, supported my decision to change careers. In other words, the story of why option trading made sense did not come across in a résumé. It did, however, come across quite well in a cover letter where I could easily communicate the three key qualities: Passion, Initiative, and Resourcefulness. Like many career changers, the evidence I could offer that what I wanted to do made sense and, more importantly, didn't represent a risk from the employer's point-of-view, was found in what I learned from mentors and experienced on my own initiative. The evidence didn't come from my past employment or even my educational background.

Think about this next time you want to change careers. Ask yourself what evidence most strongly supports your desired outcome. Chances are, it won't be on the résumé.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Taking Ourselves For Granted

Not long ago, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at an award ceremony honoring the Temporary Staffing Employee of the Year. The recipients were nominated by the staffing firms.

In an effort to personalize the keynote, I requested a copy of the nomination forms so I could read what other people had to say about these remarkable employees. Reading page after page, it was obvious that every one of these people had the three magic qualities: Passion, Initiative, and Resourcefulness. It was also clear that each person took seriously his or her role as a representative of their respective staffing firm. Given the number of temps who don't always have the best work ethic, this was especially impressive.

As I read each nomination, I was struck by the degree to which each person exceeded expectations. For example, one firm's best temporary employee was Stan, a gentleman in his late 50s or early 60s who relied on his bicycle for transportation. One particularly snowy day, a suburban client had an urgent need for help. Unable to find anyone in the immediate vicinity, the staffing firm called Stan to see if there was any way he could get to the client. Without the slightest hesitation, Stan hopped on his bicycle, rode 20 miles in the snow, and arrived with icicles literally dangling from his beard. Later that day, the astounded and grateful client called the staffing firm to say how impressed they were with Stan's dedication and performance.

Like many of the nominees, Stan received and declined many offers for full-time employment because he enjoyed the opportunity to work for a wide-range of companies. Given the stories I read, the job offers were not surprising. What was surprising was a discovery I made at the ceremony itself.

The day of the ceremony, I arrived early because I was anxious to meet the people behind the stories. As the nominees arrived, I spent well over an hour meeting them and asking questions. Strangely, not one person had any idea why they had been nominated. This wasn't false modesty either. I can spot that a mile away. A few people speculated that their willingness to accept difficult assignments at the last minute may have played some role, but no one could point to a single event that might have captured the attention of the staffing firms or their clients. I found this fascinating because the nominations included story after story of specific situations in which these people made a difference.

This experience, more than almost any other in recent memory, reinforced in my mind the importance of continually asking yourself the question:

What did I do this week that was above and beyond what the average person in this role might do?

To gain any meaningful insight, you have to develop the ability to be objective. You also have to be a keen observer of what other people do and don't do. After all, this is an exercise in comparison. If everyone shared your work ethic, insight, and ability, it wouldn't be special. Since not every has the same standards or performance, you have to know how you compare.

Why is this important?

Two main reasons.

First, your bosses, coworkers, and clients are VERY clear how you compare to other people who have held that position. They may absolutely love you. Or they may think you have a million opportunities for improvement. Whatever the case, they have an opinion. You owe it to yourself to know what that is.

Second, when you have to market yourself for a promotion or a new job, you have to share specific examples of the impact you have had on the business. If the nominees for Temporary Staffing Employee of the Year have difficulty being specific about what makes them special, it is a safe bet that the average person does as well.