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Your Resume Should Be an Ad, Not an Autobiography”

W2O’s Chief People Officer Deborah Hankin offers advice for a persuasive executive resume.

Does your resume represent your best self?

Are you proud of the way it conveys your experience to the world, or did you decide a while back “not to let perfect be the enemy of good?” I love that phrase too, but since your resume informs employers’ first impressions, it’s worth getting 100% right.

If you have more than 10 years of experience and a few promotions, resume updates aren’t as simple as adding your most recent role. You have to take a step back and think about the story you’re telling. You need to summarize and trim, and therein lies the rub: How do you talk about your best self?

“Your resume should be an advertisement, not an autobiography,” recommends Deborah Hankin, Chief People Officer at W2O. I’ve sought Deborah’s expertise because she regularly reviews resumes for the agency’s most critical hires. I want to understand how she evaluates senior-level candidates and decides who to bring in. She continues: “Your resume should make me think: I like this ad. I want to find out more.

In this article, we’re going to get right to it: How to move from what I call “bricklayer resumes,” one experience layered on another, to a breathtaking pitch that is undeniable. We’ll talk about what hiring decision-makers expect to see at this level, what the red flags and pitfalls are, whether to hire a resume writer, and why your resume shouldn’t be in MS Word. But I must warn you: Just as you wouldn’t work backwards from a novel to write an ad, you must be prepared to be ruthless with every single word, tossing out what no longer serves you.

Your Superpowers

What do you do with the prime real estate that is the top third of your resume? This Forbes article recommends that you “offer the best first.” Begin with your most impressive career wins, which are linked to your unique superpowers. Not the table stakes, but the things you do better than anyone else.

Rather than sifting through your current executive summary or accomplishments, you can invite more creativity by going back to your childhood, when your innate abilities were first revealed. What were you good at? What did you like to do? I used to make up businesses for my sisters and neighborhood kids. I had a restaurant, newspaper, library and legal services for stuffed animals. ‘Imagination’ and ‘ability to package my ideas’ are more interesting descriptions that ‘entrepreneurial’ or ‘marketing acumen.’ Of course, declaring these things is not enough. You must provide evidence of your superpowers in the form of accomplishments and contributions. The biggest miss here is failing to quantify results.

The words you choose on your resume should set you up to tell your story during the interview. A memorable story can act as an emoji: Oh, I see what you mean. I recently asked a candidate what attracted her to political advocacy and she said she knew it was her calling when her third-grade class was asked to write letters to President Bush. Instead of welcoming him to the Oval Office, she chose to argue against ANWR drilling based on her concerns for the wildlife. In her story, I saw a precocious worldliness and an uncontrollable urge to be vocal on public policy.

Their Superpowers

What are employers looking for in leadership roles? Here are the 5 skills Deborah considers most important:

  1. Strong career progression. “Even if someone has moved around a bit, I want to see increasing levels of responsibility.” Too many lateral job moves or lack of promotion at a single employer make me think I’m not getting the full story.
  2. Thought leadership, whether it’s being on a panel, publishing articles or hosting an affinity group.
  3. Network. “Great people know other great people.” I agree, and use LinkedIn to get an initial read on this. Not just number of connections, but the quality and relevance of those connections, the endorsements they’ve received plus the ones they’ve given. The most instinctive networkers celebrate the success of others.
  4. Can “land & expand” business.
  5. Innovator. Deborah describes this dirty, overused word as the ability to come up with an idea and get people on board. She wrote a thoughtful post on the definition of innovation here.  
  • What is definitely yours? Your role and distinct contributions to a large, sweeping project. Is this a credible representation or an overreach?
  • How you quantified results. The same Forbes article recommends that you “script all your accomplishments so that they begin with the metric or impact.”
  • Your career narrative. Is there a sensible rationale about where you came from and where you’re going?

Skills represent the first pass, then Deborah reads the resume more deeply to discern:

Consistency of Voice

Then it’s time for tone, because it’s not just what you include in your resume, but how you say it. Here’s where you can get into trouble employing a resume writer or letting industry jargon crowd out your own words. A veteran resume writer from your industry can offer a valuable outsider’s perspective on what to prioritize and how to lay it out, but your tone must remain authentic. Remember that Friends episode where we’re led to believe Phoebe is an amazing songstress right before she belts out Smelly Cat? Nobody wants that. You should be able to speak to every item on your resume, and that requires ownership.

While we’re talking about consistency of voice, your resume presentation should match your LinkedIn profile and other social platforms. Not just the dates and job titles, but how you describe yourself. Here, Deborah invokes the analogy of a bathroom remodel. It’s not until you update the bathroom that you realize how tired the rest of the house looks. Once you establish your signature style, it should be carried across all channels, and reflect “the look” you’re going for. For example, I’m not going to talk about myself in the third person if I want to appear relatable.

A jury of your peers can be helpful here. Deborah recommends having 5 people review your resume. They can tell you if the finished product sounds like you, and offer a barometer of whether documenting great things has crossed the line into boasting that’s unbecoming.

Final Thoughts

At some point, you may have heard that resumes shouldn’t omit experience, they should be prepared in Word, and a picture can make you more relatable. These are well-intentioned untruths.

“One of my earliest mentors told me resumes should be shaped like a V,” Deborah tells me. “Your most recent contributions should receive the widest expanse of real estate at the top. You can whittle down the rest as you go back in time. That’s the V shape.” As you ascend in your career, be sure to re-weight your resume properly. It’s perfectly fine to describe your earliest roles by title and date only, to demonstrate career progression. “A resume that’s longer than 2 pages tell me you can’t edit, prioritize or be succinct,” says Deborah.

MS Word is to resume formats what the wrap dress is to interview attire. The standard, the safe choice. But there are more stylish, visually-arresting presentations that receive much higher read rates. Since the average job posting can receive 250 resumes and hiring managers typically spend 6 seconds scanning a resume, using a format like InDesign can help your resume stand out. Or not. The one murky area here is whether ATS tools (Applicant Tracking Systems, the databases that companies use to manage candidates) can read keywords effectively in PDF and InDesign formats. A Muse article offers this advice: “If you’re applying to a role with no referrals or internal connections, you should play it safe and submit your resume via Word because you need all the ATS help you can get.” Deborah agrees: “Submit your resume in Word, then send the prettied-up version to the hiring manager or bring it to your interview.” For formatting ideas, Google and Etsy offer hundreds of templates. Many will tell you if they’re ATS-friendly.

Several of these templates include headshots, which is not something Deborah endorses. “Choosing to include a picture in your resume tells me how you want to show up in the world. It makes our jobs more difficult because then we have to question if we’re permitting how you look to influence our impressions.” In a time of heightened awareness around gender, race and age bias, the best advice is to leave off the picture. The exception, of course, is online platforms like your LinkedIn profile or portfolio site, where it might accompany a bio. In social communities, not including a picture makes your profile appear outdated or neglected.

That is our best resume advice taken from over 20 years of recruiting and talent management. Hope you’ve found here to help you present your best self: A breathtaking pitch that is undeniable. In addition to these tips, Deborah is teaching a course at Parsons this fall 2019 called Navigating the Field, offering her insider’s perspective on how to excel at your job search.

Deborah Hankin is Chief People Officer for W2O, an innovative, analytics-driven marketing and communications firm specializing in healthcare. The firm employs nearly 800 people in 15 offices across the United States and in Europe. Prior to W2O, Deborah founded and led the Talent function at SYPartners, a design and innovation management consultancy, and managed Talent at Geometry Global, a 1,000-person WPP agency. Earlier in her career, she was a headhunter at a boutique design recruiting firm, Sam & Lori, and she worked in account management and strategy at BBDO, Dentsu, Wunderman, FCB and Deutsch.

About the Author: Jen Selverian is the Founder & President of Nadexa Group, an executive search firm that partners with leading advertising and digital marketing agencies to deliver exceptional talent. Since she began her recruiting career in 2004, she’s placed over 250 marketing professionals in jobs. Prior to recruiting, Jen held account management roles with New York and San Francisco digital agencies.

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