“You could, if people would share that kind of thing in their resumes,” I said.
“I know you tell people to use a human voice in a resume, but the vast majority of job-seekers don’t do it. They give me the standard name, rank and serial number – strictly by the book. That information is practically useless to me in deciding who to interview. They tell me where they worked, and when – big deal! I want to know what they got done.
If you’re responding to a job ad for my department, I want to know how you approach your work, what you’re proud of, and why I should talk to you about my open position.”
“What about the cover letter – doesn’t that help you sort through the resume stack?” I asked.
“My company’s Applicant Tracking System doesn’t let a job-seeker to add any free-form comments that might perform the cover letter’s role,” said Cherie.
“Some genius decided it’s more important to learn what every applicant earned at every job he’s ever held, the name of each of his past supervisors, and the specific duties at every assignment. As if we hiring managers are too dim to extrapolate the duties from the job title.”
Cherie isn’t the only hiring manager who’s frustrated with the outdated resume format still employed by most job seekers (not the mention the talent-repelling Black Hole recruiting systems that keep Cherie and her next great hire apart). Of course, job-seekers didn’t start writing resumes their resumes in Zombie Style all on their own. They’re just imitating the same Zombie Style that employers use in their job ads!
Here’s our list of eight essential-to-know things that the standard resume won’t tell you:
The standard resume format doesn’t say Jack about how the job-seeker got into the field s/he’s in. We see that he or she went from Company A to Company B, but we don’t get the answer to the question “why” at each juncture. That’s the most important element! We want to see the logical through-line in the resume, and that’s exactly what’s left out.
The traditional resume doesn’t tell a hiring manager why the job-seeker left each job to go to the next one. Did you see the CEO speak at a conference, and get excited about his mission? The resume has nothing to say about job transitions.
The typical resume doesn’t say a word about what the mission you took on at each new job. We don’t know the mission, so how would we know whether it was accomplished?
What Would You Be Like to Work With?
The by-the-book resume format doesn’t give us any clues to what you’re like to work with, or what your working (or even writing) style might be. Are you sprightly, sober, analytical, chirpy or theatrical? The standard resume format all but wipes out any traces of a job-seeker’s personality and style.
How Will You Approach the Role?
Hiring managers would love to know how you approach problems and take ownership over your job and career. They want to know how you’ve grown as a businessperson over the years. The standard format, laden with tedious, factual bullets, tells us “Here’s what the job required – which is to say, the tasks that anyone in the job would have performed” versus “Here’s what I brought to the job, because of who I am.”
What Were the Stakes for Your Past Projects?
Hiring managers want to know the conditions on the ground when you took each past job. When we see an employer name like Acme Explosives on a resume, we don’t know whether that company is large, small, struggling, booming, or even still in existence. The standard resume format throws context (the most important element!) out the window.
You Say You’ve Got Skills – But Do You Know When (and How) to Use Them?
With its emphasis on Skills, the standard resume format doesn’t tell a hiring manager how well you can pull those abstract Skills (negotiation, communication, or administration, e.g.) off the shelf and use them when the situation requires it. When a job-seeker trumpets “excellent negotiation skills,” for instance, we can’t tell whether the guy negotiated peace accords between warring nations, or talked the coffee vendor into throwing a couple of extra creamers in with the order.
How Are Your Instincts?
We’d love to know what instincts you’ve got and how your judgment and business radar have served you and your employers in the past. When we see lists of tasks and duties – even projects – on your resume, we can’t tell whether the projects were your own ideas, or whether you were commanded to fulfill someone else’s agenda. That’s a pity, because good instincts are at least as important for Knowledge Worker success as Skills, certifications and diplomas.
Traditional Resumes Don’t Cut It Anymore
If we want to understand just how outdated and unhelpful the traditional resume format has become in a Knowledge Worker ecosystem, consider this. Think of a person you know, a present or former colleague who is an ace and a superstar. Get the picture of this person in your mind — someone who’s brilliant, insightful, helpful, resourceful and fun – the greatest person you’ve had the privilege to work alongside, so far.
Now, think of the biggest slacker, idiot or bully you’ve encountered in your travels. I’m referring to the kind of person who inspires his or her colleagues to wonder, “Does s/he have incriminating photos of the boss tucked away somewhere? There’s no other way to explain the fact that this turkey is still employed.”
Think of the standard resume format, and the typical Applicant Tracking System. No hiring manager could tell the difference between the superstar employee and the bottom-of-the-barrel one as long as they both held the same title in the same company at the same time. That’s ridiculous.
We should ask job applicants for information that will make those distinctions clear as day, not who-cares?-type information like “what were your tasks and duties?”
The system is broken. We can surmount its built-in challenges by writing a resume with a human voice in it. Let’s take a look at a few of our resume-won’t-tell-you issues again, and this time include a sample of resume language to vault over the obstacle each format-driven resume failing creates.
I started out in Accounting but discovered that I love marketing and sales. Now I’m an Account Specialist who thrives on managing $1 million-plus relationships with Fortune 500 businesses, growing relationships and helping my client managers spot issues on the horizon and steer around them. At Acme Electronics, I pushed for 18 months to install a Sales-Service-Consulting team structure for our largest accounts; when we got that done our sales grew 25% in six months.
In this Summary we see the job-seeker’s brain working. We know why s/he got from Accounting into Account Management, and we see that s/he’s internally driven and eager to win. We learn that s/he pushed for an organizational change and sold the idea internally, with good results.
Do we want to interview this person? That’s an individual hiring manager’s call. We can see at a glance that there’s a real person behind the resume, someone we’ll find to our liking or not – no guesswork needed.
We can answer the question “Why’d this person leave this job?” in the bullets that describe the assignment. The final bullet can tell that ‘goodbye’ story. We only need three or four bullets, once we’re using our resume bullets to tell ‘dragon-slaying stories’ rather than listing boring tasks and duties:
- When Acme began moving away from direct sales toward a two-tier distribution scheme, I was recruited by our VP of Sales to work for him at Angry Plastics.
We can use a short framing statement to tell the reader about the mission you took on when you accepted each position, and use the resume bullets to describe completing the mission:
Acme Explosives, Los Angeles, California
Purchasing Manager, 2008 – present
I was brought into Acme, the Southwest’s oldest and most-established maker of stick dynamite for the coyote market ($10 million in annual sales) after the CEO heard me speak about supply chain management at an industry conference. At the time, Acme was fourth-place in market share and aiming for the number one spot.
- I revamped the Purchasing organization and systems during my first six months, taking 15% of our process costs out (saving $1 million per year) and vastly improving our supplier relationships and supply-chain visibility.
- In three years, we’d become the far-and-away market share leader with 48% share in our top 10 markets.
What Would You Be Like to Work With?
Your resume Summary (and a conversational tone throughout the resume) will bring your style, wit and personality across. Your choice of stories will also make the ‘you’ behind the resume more real for your next boss.
Step Out of the Standard-Resume Frame
You can get the most important information across in your resume, but it won’t happen if you stick to the dusty, traditional resume format. You’ll have to step out of the standard resume-writing frame to let your next manager know how you roll and what you’re like to work with. If you haven’t updated your resume in a while (or if you’ve just done that, and found the document staring back at you a poor reflection of your power and energy) try adding a human voice.
Once you leave old notions of Resume Do’s and Don’ts behind and write to hiring managers the way you talk to your friends, you’ll be amazed how much heft you can convey. Try it!
About the author
I was a Fortune 500 HR SVP for ten million years, but I was an opera singer before I ever heard the term HR. The higher I got in the corporate world, the more operatic the action became. I started writing about the workplace for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1997, but it took me ages to find my own voice. Now I write for the Huffington Post, Business Week, LinkedIn, the Harvard Business Review, the Denver Post and Forbes.com and lead the worldwide Human Workplace movement to reinvent work for people. Stop by and join us: www.humanworkplace.com.