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Writing a great executive résumé requires more than meets the eye

Contrary to what many award-winning executive résumé writers champion for senior leaders, résumé development for an executive or senior management professional in the Fortune 50 isn’t all about power verbs and cutting-edge design.

Jared Redick presents on executive résumé writing at the CFA Society of Minnesota

Jared Redick presents on executive résumé writing at the CFA Society of Minnesota

I know this because I work with Fortune 10 to Fortune 100 leaders every day—including those whose new appointments are announced on sites like Fortune.com—and today’s executive résumés for this narrow band of professionals are built around a clear equation:

Long-tested résumé concepts + new ideas, storytelling clarity, and carefully made decisions = a realistic representation of how a professional’s background and experience intersects with his or her career direction.

Sounds simple enough on paper, but there’s a lot of work to getting that clarity, so let me share some of my thinking about how to write the best executive résumé you can to reflect your career intentions.

These methodologies are built on my early career experience in retained executive search, and as an executive résumé writer partnering with management professionals across Europe, Asia, Australia, and North and South America.

Your résumé’s audiences and their expectations

As technology has added layers between you and your résumé’s recipients, the humble résumé’s requirements have become increasingly fragmented and frustrating.

You may have heard about the most aggravating “reader” of all, the applicant tracking system (ATS), which is used in some form by nearly every major corporation today. Probably yours, in fact.

I wrote several years ago for a CTO who went on to head up a leading cloud solution that offers an ATS component. Nevermind that I had to explain what an ATS was when we worked together….

A few things you’ll want to know about applicant tracking systems:

  • There are several (ahem, lots of) firms developing and redeveloping applicant tracking systems, so there are general guidelines for where content should go in one’s résumé. Unfortunately, there is not universal agreement.
  • One look at a slightly nauseating applicant tracking system comparison, which doesn’t include many of the more well-known names, and you wonder, “How can they all agree on protocols?” What are they all thinking will set apart their service? And what does that mean for the Average Joe, who likely knows nothing about optimizing his or her résumé, much less tuning his or her résumé to a specific ATS. Nevermind that s/he doesn’t know which ATS any company is using per se.

As such, I use ATS knowledge to guide the résumé-writing and design process—it’s a good litmus test—but I don’t recommend that my senior management professional and executive clients put a lot of stock in their résumé ever having to face one.

Indeed, 70 percent of all jobs are found through networking, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is even truer in the highly specialized accountabilities performed by senior management professionals and executives. Those roles are not likely to be announced and vetted en masse.

Those roles are frequently filled through networking and word-of-mouth, or handled by an executive search firm. So your résumé is not likely to muddle through an applicant tracking system.

Beyond the widely reviled applicant tracking system, there are traditional (human) audiences we must think about when considering who will review your résumé. These include:

  • Retained search and contingency recruiters
  • In-house recruiters
  • In-house hiring managers
  • Assistants to all of the above

These are audiences we most frequently consider during a job search. Unfortunately, they see tons of résumés every day, so they develop understandable biases that none of us can control, only hedge toward and around. They will frequently look only for what they are searching. It’s part of their day-to-day job. They will frequently not read your résumé in any detail before meeting you for an interview, and only sometimes go back to repurpose sections of your résumé into the dossiers that ultimately get forwarded to the groups for which they are recruiting.

Who are those groups? They are the frequently forgotten, but exceedingly important. Groups that matter to senior management professionals and executives include:

  • Board members
  • Search committee members
  • People senior to you in a company’s org chart
  • Peer groups
  • Would-be direct reports

Unlike the traditional audiences we’re always fretting about (e.g., recruiters and hiring entities), these secondary audiences look at far fewer résumés, so they’re more inclined to read them in detail. They will make notes in the margins and craft questions around certain included or missing elements. They may even read your cover letter! Gasp!

The “is the cover letter dead” question is frequently asked provocatively online.

Articles with those themes are great for getting clicks and eyeballs, and for some there may be truth to the notion that cover letters are passé (so my question is resoundingly, “Why are they still being requested?”), but odds are high that a senior management professional’s cover letter will indeed be read by someone along the way.

Your résumé’s purpose

Opening a Microsoft Word document and shoehorning your story into a great design you found online is akin to wedging your new business line or product idea into a competitor’s high-end shoes.

Yes, there are important best practices to follow—and today’s résumé-writing practices are more diverse than ever—but if you don’t start with your purpose, you’re already off to a false start.

Every executive-résumé writing project should begin by looking out the windshield and determining which parts of your career to date will intersect with the career direction you’re architecting. Too many times, however, we start by looking in the rear-view mirror and basically writing an historical biography. Well, there are parts of history that matter and parts that don’t, so setting up a vision and strategy—and a clear intention—is step one to ultimately developing an executive résumé that serves your purpose.

My private clients go about this step in one of two ways:

  • Clients who engage in The Redick Group’s Career Planner / Changer or Career Explorer programs—both long-term “coaching as writing” approaches—work through Jared Redick’s Job Description Analysis early in the process. I developed the tool in 2009, and the simple but intensive exercise guides people through a process that has solved many a question without me having to say a single word. They pick up the phone or arrive at the office with a certainty they didn’t have when we first spoke. The completion of the Job Description Analysis results in a 45-minute strategy call, during which we make a variety of decisions critical to taking the next step: my intensive Digital Workbook.
  • In contrast, clients who engage in the Rapid-fire Résumé Design Package provide an annotated job description that reflects the direction they want to go. Since this package is designed for people who need “something better, sooner than later”—based on their existing résumé. There isn’t a lot of discovery and soul-searching involved; however, the single annotated job description helps me not write in a vacuum.

In presentations and trainings, as well as one-on-one work with private clients, I stress the importance of emphasizing purpose and intention as the litmus for everything that follows.

Keep in mind that your résumé should be branded to align with your LinkedIn profile. You’ll find that I talk a lot about the conundrums LinkedIn presents for people who are either using LinkedIn for business, or exploring a purposeful career shift.

Whereas a well-designed résumé can be tailored to individual opportunities, LinkedIn is actually quite static because a single online presence must speak to each of potentially many varied audiences.

This is where I actually begin to sweat when working with private clients, incidentally, but it’s also where the challenge can be a lot of fun. It’s exhilarating when you finally find the right approach to and tone of your copy.

Your résumé’s content

So far, we’ve covered your résumé’s purpose. We still need to cover content and design, so hang with me. It’s all surprisingly important.

Once you’ve defined your executive résumé’s purpose, you’ll need to make decisions around its content, which will ultimately support that purpose. And yup, that’s harder than it sounds. Partly because we’re all too close to ourselves, our needs, and our wants to be objective, but also because we’re tempted during active or stealth job searches to suddenly become all things to all people—even twenty-five years into a career.

I see it all the time. Even the most remarkable careers, externally speaking, can feel ordinary to the person who has built that career. And again, even professionals who are twenty-five years out of school will instinctively resort to the same “pick me! pick me!” mentality they adopted when they embarked on their first job search out of college.

Here are a few truths to consider as you move into a new reality—ten to twenty-five years into your career:

Senior management professional and executives cannot be all things to all people. Even if you’re making a career shift, the reason you are paid what you are paid is usually because of your expertise and seniority, not to mention professional gravitas. And perhaps your connections.

I’ve borrowed heavily over the years from the concept of niche marketing, which to put it simply, means you are going to be a dead ringer for some roles and not even close for many others. A managing director client who makes an annual salary of $600K, recently said, “There are probably only twenty jobs in the U.S. that would be a match for my interests and background, not to mention my wife’s interests in my career.”

Meanwhile, he went from wondering if he’d shot himself in the foot for developing such a specific set of skills and relationships, to being recruited by the absolute perfect job on earth. (For him.) He emailed me from a plane on his way to and from the Silicon Valley company that had found him via his LinkedIn profile, and the rest has been history making, including a mention on Fortune.com.

Senior professionals are rarely sought for what they can be taught. They’re sought for what they bring to the table. So making a career shift of any kind involves a great deal of intention, care, skepticism, and strategy. Part of that effort is the realization that you’re not going to be a fit for some if not many roles, then getting accustomed to and leveraging that reality.

Should your résumé content be keyword rich? Yes. Should it be gimmicky? Obviously not. I mention it because there’s a fine line between the two.

Your résumé’s design

Résumé design is the last piece of the puzzle. Again, it’s counterintuitive for many to think of résumé design as falling last, mostly because it’s the first thing a résumé’s reader notices.

But when you think about it, you won’t know which components your executive résumé should contain, and where those components should be installed, until you’ve pretty-well defined your purpose and content.

That understood, there are obvious standards, expectations, and best practices when it comes to executive résumé design. Most résumés have a masthead with the subject’s name and contact information; a branded executive summary; an experience section complete with company names, job titles, dates, scope of work, and accomplishments; and then an education section and sometimes an addendum.

But there’s a lot of design wiggle room beyond those basic concepts. Some résumés are highly creative. A senior marketer and I last year created a clearly written, logically flowing résumé using Helvetica font in a traditional black and white format. It served him well. But two months into his search, he heard that Facebook likes creative résumés for creative folks, so he added some time on the clock and we designed a colorfully interesting version of his résumé.

The résumé was still clear and easy to read, but it included text boxes that would have prevented an applicant tracking system from reading the document if he had submitted the résumé via an expected or customarily traditional route.

Instead, he had inside intel from a contact through whom he was sending the résumé.

The recipients loved it, and while my client ultimately went with another opportunity, it was a good lesson in the differences between a buttoned up, conservative, executive approach with a few unexpected design elements, and a full-on creative explosion of color and creative résumé design.

I’ll confess that many of the award-winning résumés I see from colleagues are fascinating, and I wish I could indulge in them, but they wouldn’t fly with the recruiters and hiring entities for most of the management professionals and executives with whom I work.

If your reader (board or committee member, retained search recruiter, HR recruiter, hiring manager) can’t quickly understand and digest what they’re reading, you will only frustrate them.

Hyper-creative résumé design—which, again, I love to look at—is not always the best choice for executives and senior management professionals in the Fortune 10 to Fortune 500. And it’s not restricted to traditionally conservative industries like finance and law. Even recruiters working with Silicon Valley’s elite want to quickly and clearly understand what they’re reading.

Résumé design should be attractive at a glance, while serving your ultimate purpose and making your content easy to read and understand.


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