Twice a week or so I get a resume in the mail with a note saying “Can you please look at my resume and make word changes to improve it?” I can’t do that, but if I could I’d still have a problem. What sort of word changes could I possibly make to a resume, without having met the person the resume describes?
I could tell someone if there were typos in his resume. I could say that the resume font isn’t readable or that the resume was too wordy. But I couldn’t say a word about the most important question of all, namely “Does this resume represent me?”
It’s strange that the central question (Does my resume sing my song?) hardly gets a mention when the topic of resume-writing comes up. I came up with this resume taxonomy to help people see where their resumes are doing the heavy job-search lifting they should be, or failing to earn their keep on your hard drive.
How does your resume stack up?
LEVEL ONE: Skeletor
You’ve got a resume, so that’s a plus. That means you’ll always be able to recount your job history, even when you’ve missed a few hours of sleep or partied a bit too much the night before. You’ve got to start at Stage One, at least having a written record of where you worked, and when. If you don’t have a resume now, here’s where you’ll start.
If you can’t remember all your jobs and/or their dates, no big thing; call the Social Security office near you (socialsecurity.gov) and they can remind you which employers they collected Social Security taxes from on your behalf (heh-heh) and when.
LEVEL TWO: Application-Ready
Lots of people look at their Stage One, skeletal resume and think “I’ve got to do better than this.” Usually, they upgrade a Stage One resume by adding job titles and job descriptions to the mix. For each job they’ve held, they list their major responsiblities and duties. This is progress! You can upload a Stage Two resume to an online career site (that’s why we call it Application-Ready) or upload it to LinkedIn to save time cutting & pasting past jobs into your LinkedIn Profile. Pat yourself on the back! You’re in the game, now.
LEVEL THREE: Brand & Direction
If you asked me for my unscientific assessment of the evolutionary state of resumes across the U.S., I’d say that the majority of people have Level Two, Application-Ready resumes. We’ve used the standard resume format for so many decades now that most people are familiar with it. They know how to list company names, titles and dates, and they know how to create a few resume bullets for each job they’ve held.
Still, tons of people look at a Level Two resume and think, “Geez. It sounds okay, but it doesn’t sound like me. It doesn’t bring out one ounce of my energy or personality.” When you’re on the job hunt, those things matter. Anyway, don’t you want a hiring manager to know more about you than just where you worked, when, and what those companies gave you to do all day?
A Level Three, Brand & Direction resume digs deeper into your past and your future direction. A Level Three resume asks you to answer the question, “What do I want to do next?”
To move your resume up to Level Three, you’re going to look at your career history and decide where it (and your interests and talents) are guiding you. Once you know that, you can point the entire Level Three resume in the direction of that target job or set of jobs — or you can create a new resume that points in the direction of every ‘prong’ for your job search!
Here’s an example. Sally, a job-seeker, has a lot of jobs in her career history. She’s been an Office Manager and a marketing person and a membership person at a health club. She has a resume that tells the reader exactly what she’s done. What’s missing?
The reader can’t tell what Sally wants to do, or plans to do. Sally is a leaf in the wind, with her Level Two resume. The message she’s sending employers is “I’ve done some stuff. Can’t you use someone like me? How would I know what I’m good for? Won’t you decide for me?”
Employers will not. If they’ve got a marketing job, they want someone who already knows s/he’s meant to be doing marketing. It’s the same way with every function. We’ve got to pick a direction (or more than one) and brand ourselves for it!
A Level Three resume is not like every resume on the street. It is branded. It sounds like you. It’s got three new characteristics compared to the previous resumes we talked about. A Level Three, Brand & Direction resume has these three attributes that are missing from a Level Two resume:
A Level Three resumes uses a Summary at the top of it, to bring your power and personality across to the reader. (Look for a sample resume Summary at the bottom of this article.)
The Summary sets the tone for the whole one- or two-page resume. It tells the reader immediately what your career direction is (at least, the direction in this version of your resume, as you could have more than one) and why — why you’re drawn to this type of work. That’s a powerful message to convey to a manager who has his or her own passion for the job.
A Level Three resume pulls highly-relevant stories from each of your past jobs, and uses those mini stories to get your talents and abilities across to the hiring manager. Instead of a resume bullet that says “Responsible for daily, weekly and monthly sales reporting to three divisional VPs” (boring, robotic) you might use a bullet that says “When our three VPs diverged in their sales-reporting needs, I designed a weekly dashboard report that gave them all what they needed (and was adopted by our 12 divisions).”
RELEVANCE IN PAST JOBS
We already mentioned that a Level Three resume, unlike the just-the-facts Level One and Level Two resumes, is branded. It sounds like you, and it ‘points’ in the direction of a particular career direction (we call them prongs). In a Level Three resume, you’re going to choose story bullets that relate to the same kinds of problems you intend to solve for an employer in your next job. You get to pick the stories you use in your resume, of course!
You’ve got way, way more stories than you could ever fit on one resume. So as you move up to a Level Three resume, you’re going to choose stories that illustrate the very same qualities that you’ll use in your chosen career direction.
No one cares about the tasks and duties you were responsible for in your past jobs. We can usually extrapolate those duties from the job title. We care about what you got done in each past role. And to make the resume highly relevant to readers, we’re going to frame each past job in terms of its relevance to what you’re planning to do next in your career.
A Level Three resume is a massive, whopping improvement over a bare-bones resume. But we can still do more to bring what’s amazing and powerful about you to your next manager’s attention. In a Level Four resume, we’re going to make one big enhancement to our less-evolved resume versions.
Here’s how we’ll do it: we’ll give context to each of your jobs.
Earlier, our resumes used a company name (like Acme Explosives) and one or more job titles, plus dates of employment and maybe a city (the city where you worked for Acme, e.g.) to help the reader understand what sort of work you’d been doing in each shop. Now, in a Level Four resume, we will tell the reader a bit more about each of your employers, and a bit more about each of your jobs.
We want to bring to life how you made a difference in each of those assignments. We can do it through two resume statements for each job you’ve held. These new statements are called Framing Statements. You’re going to frame each job, for the reader who doesn’t know you (and may not be familiar with the employer, either). Here’s an example of framing a company and framing a role, to help the reader looking at your resume understand what you were responsible for and what you got done in each job:
Acme Explosives, Gallup, New Mexico
2005 – 2010
- Led the Southwest region in process improvement four out of six years, bringing quality training to 260 warehouse employees
- Hired and trained four line supervisors and three shipping/receiving staff members, one of whom became a team leader after two years in my group.
- Negotiated new rates with major truckers for 15% cost reduction.
- Led hazardous materials training.
We’re reading the lines on this resume, but we feel as though something is missing. We’re wondering, “Who are these people? What does Acme Explosives do? How am I supposed to make sense of this guy’s background — is he very senior, or not so much? Is he hands-on? I can’t tell. Quality is a good thing, but as a reader I’m still uncertain: how do I determine the scope of these activities I’m reading about?”
The language is very dry, and we can’t get any sense for the sort of person lurking behind the resume. We want to know more. Why was this guy in his job? Was there a problem he was hired to solve, or what? He could be an ace, or a big nothing. He did some cool stuff, but was it all his idea, or did his boss tell him what to do? We need context.
We can’t see the movie in our heads, the way we’d like to. We can’t see this guy running around the warehouse and helping people ship things left and right. We need a better sense of this job-seeker, and the best way to get that sense across on the page is by telling stories.
Level Four Resume Version
Acme Explosives, Gallup, New Mexico
2005 – 2010
Acme is the southwest’s largest, oldest (60-year-old) dynamite supplier doing $20M in sales/year. I was hired as the company’s first Operations Manager after our CEO heard me speak at an association conference.
- When I arrived, Acme had no inventory system and quality was a major headache. I installed Quality training and processes to cut product returns 75%.
- I coached line workers in supervisory skills; two of my supervisors are now managers and a 2007 entry-level new hire runs our Shipping team.
What has changed? We’ve got tons more context now! Level Four is all about context. The Level Three version of the Acme Explosives story left us wondering what this Operations guy is all about. In the Level Four version, we learn a lot more.
We used two fewer bullets in this version, but we got across a lot more useful information. What did we learn in the Level Four resume that the Level Three version didn’t tell us? Here’s my list:
- We learned how our job-seeker (we’ll call him Paul Bunyan) got the job. It’s a great story, so why not tell it?
- We learned why Acme needed Paul in the first place. They had a big problem. That’s context. Now we can see how Paul gets things done. He tells us the starting conditions, then tells us what he did to solve the problem.
- We learned something about Paul’s manner. He uses “I” which is a word traditional-resume purists eschew (those guys love words like ‘eschew’).
- We see some results. In Paul’s Level Three resume, we saw that he put in some Quality training, but we miss the most critical bits: why did he do that? What result did he get? The Level Four resume spells these things out.
LEVEL FIVE: Human-Voiced Resume
Perhaps you’ve been wondering what final resume goody we’ve been saving for the highest level of resume evolution. That level is Level Five, and the new element this time are Corners. Corners are the critical points in a story where you made a shift — a new job, a move across country, or some other bend in the path called Your Career. We’ve got to explain those corners. It’s essential to let the hiring manager thinking about you know why you made each of those turns.
Let’s add a third bullet to Paul Bunyan’s Acme Explosives story, above:
Now that Acme is moving operations offshore, I’m avid to run my own warehouse or manufacturing facility, from P/L responsibility to running three shifts and the office.
Now we get something incredibly important: Paul’s reason for wanting to leave Acme, and his furture direction. We could have put Paul’s direction into the Summary instead of the final Acme bullet, but we can see that wherever we put that massively important piece of the message (what Paul wants to do next, and why) it will resonate.
Paul wants his own shop. He wants profit and loss responsibility. Not every hiring manager wants to give those things to a subordinate. That’s fine! Paul doesn’t intend to work for just anybody, anyway. His statements convey mojo. Some managers will want that. Some won’t. Everyone gets what he or she wants, when we communicate forthrightly from one human to another.
When you think about it, why would we ever write a resume that doesn’t tell the hiring manager what we plan to do next? Unfortunately though, we’ve all been taught to write resumes that to exactly that. The traditional resume format, as it turns out, is terribly grovelly and deferential. That’s no good for job-seekers, or for hiring managers either! No one is really telling the truth in those awful, boilerplate-filled resumes. (Don’t get me started on the non-truth-telling that happens in most job ads. Next column.)
Perhaps it goes without saying that traditional-resume purists don’t ooh and aah over the human-voiced resume format I’m describing and illustrating here. I’ve been writing and teaching and writing about human-voiced resumes since 2007, after working as a corporate HR VP for a million years before that. It makes sense that human-voiced resumes are aversive to folks who write traditional corporatespeak resumes, because this human-voiced approach pretty much flies in the face of everything those folks are saying about what a resume should look like and include.
Undoubtedly you’ve heard the resume dogma before: Don’t use the word “I.” (Really? It’s a document about me. No, really. No “I.”) Don’t use complete sentences. Don’t use slang or non-Strictly-Business-Formal words and phrases. Try as hard as you can in your resume to sound like every other business drone on the planet. Try to disappear into the paper, in fact. If you sounded like a human being in your resume, the earth might stop turning. God knows what could happen. We could go flying off into space!
I avoid traditional-resume purists like crazy. I’ve noticed that traditional resumes can’t get across nearly the heft or excitement that actual human beings convey, when you meet them in person or even over the phone (or via text or email or almost any other medium). The human-voiced resumes can’t completely bridge that gap either, of course, but they do a better job than a traditional resume does in making a job candidate come alive for the hiring manager. But that’s only my experience. You’ll have to try the human-voiced resume approach and see for yourself.
Here’s the human-voiced resume Summary I promised:
Ever since I started writing business stories for my college newspaper, I’ve been a zealot for business storytelling and its power in shaping audience behavior. As a PR consultant and manager I’ve gotten my employers and clients covered by USA Today, CNN and the Chicago Tribune.
If you’re curious about human-voiced resumes and using a human voice in business generally, stop by and read more about those things. Join our Career Altitude Club for free and join us on a webinar (also free) or visit our Facebook page. Think about your voice. Listen for it. Sing!