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Some Modest Suggestions on Writing and Reading Resumes

Like most good stories, the idea behind this White Paper began in a bar. I have always liked to read obituaries. I know that sounds odd, and of course I don’t mean it in a macabre way. But an obituary is a life story. Here in the Philly area, the Daily News has won national awards for the quality of their obits. They take a seemingly average Joe or Jane and develop a full page life story that can end up as a revelation.


One day while meeting a friend for a drink, I mentioned an obit I had read that day. It told of a woman who had passed away at age 90. She was one of the first women to practice medicine here. She was an accomplished aviator. She raised a family, was a writer and, by the way, was also a musician. I mentioned to my friend that she led the type of life that makes a normal person feel insignificant. She set a high benchmark for the ideal of “a fulfilled life.”


My friend said something interesting. He pointed out that we, as individuals, write our own obituary. It is totally in our control every day, and if we don’t like what has been written so far, each new day is a blank page. In a rather blunt way, he told me to stop whining and be a better author of my life. Good advice.


A few days later, I saw an ad from someone offering to write effective resumes for people. It got me thinking. A resume is akin to an obituary in progress. It tells your professional, and some of your personal story, to date. As a recruiter, I am constantly asked to help write someone’s resume. The theory is that a burnished, well polished resume can advance an individual’s career. Well, I have a different outlook on writing a resume.


You write your resume every day. You perform in a job, have accomplishments and failures, and get promoted or transferred. You change jobs, companies and industries. A resume is nothing more than that the totality of the series of small decisions that you make daily. These decisions accumulate over years and decades, and are represented in a resume.


The word represented is important. The resume is nothing more than a reflection of your life to date. It is the subject matter, not an end in itself. To truly write a good resume, you must commit daily to doing a job well. A good resume cannot overcome a bad career. It might help on the margins or it might get you an extra interview now and then, for example. But, employers are not dopes. If you can’t back up the resume in an interview with substance and detail, the interview will end quickly.


Writing a good resume requires having a good career. Having an inspirational obit requires living a good life. Both are under your control. Remind yourself of that daily. I do.


My intent here is to provide some context for how an employer reads a resume. In an average day for me, I see 100+ resumes and read 10 or more of them. Multiply that by 30 years and I have seen a heck of a lot of resumes. There is a real chance that no one in the US has seen more resumes than me.


Most managers read a resume in depth and analyze it. They look at every sentence and try to get as much info from it as possible. That makes sense. After all, what manager wants to waste time interviewing someone who can’t do their job?


However, every word has a context. It is easy to miss the forest for the trees. There are subjective things to be aware of when evaluating a prospective employee’s resume. There are tools to help you visualize the person behind the paper.


Every once in a while, I send a client a resume of someone who has frequently changed jobs over a period of a few years. Often, when we go over resumes on the phone, I will hear “Wow, this person is a job hopper.” This is the perfect example of context in a resume.


Here are two things to look for in this situation:


1. What was happening in the economy at that time? Someone with 3 jobs between 2008 and 2010 may just be a victim of a lousy economy. Imagine being good at your job and being laid off along with the rest of the world in 2008 and scrambling to stay employed. There are periods in the economy when you can make all the right decisions and just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Someone with a spotty history between 2008 and 2010 with a stable background both before and after may just be a victim of circumstances. That could have been anyone. This could have been you.

2. Gaps between jobs. One thing to look for is how long did it take for someone to find work? In this situation, you are looking for a pattern. Someone who was out of work only once for 9 months but has shown consistent employment before and after may have been taking care of a sick relative. That person may warrant further exploration. The flip side is, of course, a resume in which every job change contains a 6 month gap before starting a new job. That is not a good pattern.



Promotions and title changes are hidden signs that can mean a lot but are often ignored.


Consider a resume for a key job on your team from someone who has had 15 years of experience spread over 2 different employers. The candidate has had at least 7 years of experience with two different companies and seems to have had job stability. Here is an important question —have they ever been promoted? If yes, that is good. If no, that brings up a possible concern—why have two different companies not thought enough of this person to promote him or her during 7 years of employment? The answer may be benign, but it is still a question worth answering.


Also, don’t confuse a meaningless title increase with a promotion. Going from Engineer 1 to Engineer 2 is not a promotion. It is a way to keep an employee in a salary band.


Of course there is the other side of the coin. Consider someone with 15 years of experience with 4 different companies. At 3 of the 4 companies, despite being there for no more than 4 years, the person has been promoted at each stop. Despite the job changes, that is pretty impressive. In these two examples, both employees have the same level of experience, 15 years. One seems like an ambitious, aggressive person. The other, may be a steadier contributor. Only you, as the manager, would know which is best for your particular opening.


These are very important factors, especially when considering a candidate from a smaller or larger employer. Here is an example:


A few years ago we had a Director of Operations job with a mid-sized (600 employee) client. It paid about 130k plus bonus. It was a nice job and had about 120 direct and indirect reports. One of the candidates we considered was a VP Operations at a 200 person company. Let’s call him Sam. Sam had the right background. He had about 100 direct and indirect reports. He looked good but our client’s HR Manager dismissed Sam because she said that Sam, with a VP Operations title, was a level above the position. She was solely focused on title and not the scope of responsibility. For Sam to move to a larger firm with a Director title was not a step down and it took a while to explain that but, she eventually agreed to see him. Sam did not get hired but was one of two finalists and gave our client a tough decision.


Titles only mean something within in the context of company size. At the extreme, imagine a VP of HR at a 150 person company applying for the VP of HR job at GE. General Electric. Those are two different jobs with the same title. It is a matter of scale.


Most people assume that it is easy to scale down and that the difficulty lies exclusively in scaling up from a smaller to larger employer. In my experience, that is not correct. Scaling down can be as tough as scaling up, especially if the person is not prepared for the personal touch and tactical focus involved in managing at a smaller firm. At a large company, your authority comes from the title on your business card. At a smaller firm, your authority comes from what you say and how you say it. An executive with skills honed at a larger firm may flounder at a smaller firm that requires a more personal touch.


So, when considering titles, consider the scope of resources managed, not just titles. How many people does the person manage and what is the scale of the resources under his or her direction? Those are the important questions.


We run into this a few times a year. In situations where we submit a resume for someone who will have a long commute (an hour), we often get push back from our client. We had one client who insisted that anyone we submit be no more than 30 minutes away. That was an extreme example of the concern that companies have for employees, especially key employees, who face a long commute. Will they be distracted? Will they leave because of the commute? How will inclement weather affect them? Those are all valid concerns.


But, if there is one thing I have learned, it is that commutes are a very personal decision. Some people actually like a longer commute. It gives them time to unwind and think before they walk in the door. Optimal commute time is like chocolate and vanilla – a personal taste.


Here is a little technique to analyze commute times for a specific candidate. If the commute to your location is an hour, ask the following questions. Has the candidate ever commuted that far before? If yes, for how long? Have they ever left a job for a shorter commute or, conversely, for a longer commute? What type of commute was their hour – lots of traffic or lots of open highway?


There is data in the details. Digging a little may help you make a more informed decision instead of a reflex reaction.


In a perfect world, you should have some sense of who the candidate is BEFORE they walk in your door for an interview. That is what we do for clients here at Right Recruiting when we send interview notes to our clients with each resume submittal. If you make it a regular practice to sit and look at the context of a resume you will be more efficient in your interviewing time and make better hiring decisions.


Hopefully, as a manager or executive tasked with making sense of a resume for a key role, the info here can help you see the person and not just the paper. Employment is, after all, all about people.


As ever, thanks for getting this far and, as ever, remember Right Recruiting for all of your recruitment needs.
Jeff –

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