Why Most Resumes Suck

help-wanted-signI am not a professional recruiter nor a professional resume coach. I have, however, had to hire hundreds of people over the years for performance improvement roles of all types as well as provide career-coaching to many others. Speaking as an executive who has had to design, build and run many teams over the years, one thing I have learned through sheer repetition of observation is that most resumes I see either add very little value or are actually impediments to my efforts as the hiring manager and to the person who is job-seeking — in short, a waste of effort.

In this piece I’ll refrain from recommending a particular page layout or style — there are probably hundreds of effective permutations of font, graphics and use of white space as well as hundreds of example of poor choices of layout and design to avoid. Rather, I’ll focus on what content I have found most useful and often missing from resumes.

Credible Cumulative Capability Themes

Once an individual gets to more than 10 years of work experience, and especially as it climbs to 15 or more years, I find it becomes increasingly useful to identify the two, three or perhaps four major things that over those 10, 15 or more years add-up to a significant cluster of experiences around a common theme or capability. These themes cut across different jobs within the same employer as well as across firms.

For example, a person might have worked in two or three organizations over an 15 years span, representing five distinct roles and/or levels, but the job requirements of several of the roles required large project management skills. The job titles might not say “Project Manager” but the reality is that project management skills were required and experience accumulated over a significant period of time.

The “credible” in the heading refers to concrete experiences; “cumulative” refers to the years of experience garnered over the years regardless of firm or role title; “themes” refers to the two, three or perhaps four main capabilities a hiring manager can get expect to get when looking at you as a candidate.

Without this sort of capability-based summary of your career, the reader of a traditional resume has to piece together these themes by going through the details of the traditional year-by-year, job-by-job listing. This takes effort and, truth be told, the reader will almost never go through that effort given all the other things on their plate.

Short Summary of Chronology

That said, a short, year-by-year summary of the chronology of your career and educational experiences is important, however it is now reduced to a much more basic timeline without all the details that you’ve placed in the capability. I think a simple horizontal or vertical timeline graphic is worth considering; after all, it’s probably what many readers are consciously or unconsciously doing when they read a set of dates — they’re placing it on a mental time line running from left to right (or maybe top to bottom).

Something to Avoid or Minimize: the Breathless Adjectives

One suggestion is while it is important to highlight these main capability themes, one thing to consider is how much fluff you put into your self-descriptions, specifically too many breathless adjectives. For example: “A tireless, ingenious, passionate and goals-oriented visionary;” or “A values-based, problem-solver and leader.” I mention this because from some hiring managers such descriptions are, ultimately, meaningless without some sort of context and standard. Frankly, probably the only reasonably credible source of such descriptors is a reasonably credible referral. Even then, most times the proof is in the pudding: on-the-job performance is generally the only time when one earns these kinds of adjectives.

But What If You Don’t Have Experience?

This post focuses on the issue of recasting the resumes of people with 10 to 15 or more years of full-time work experience. For those exiting school the challenge (and in today’s economic climate it is a considerable challenge at times) is trying to get any kind of experience. That said, while the young job-seeker may not have years of work experience to summarize, it is worth considering what themes exist in your school, extra-curricular, and part-time work experiences (for example, having to take accountability in various jobs or tasks).

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