It’s Not Just a Resumé: It’s Your Leadership Story
By Jason Baumgarten
It’s 2022. Do you still need a resumé? The surprising answer is “yes,” even for CEOs and board members. While digital bios are great, they do not take the place of a document that clearly communicates your career accomplishments and potential. Rarely do people put detailed metrics into their online profiles, and the medium still matters for controlling how your information is absorbed and emphasized. As an executive recruiter and leadership adviser, I have seen my fair share of resumés. The best ones are not laundry lists of completed tasks, but ones that tell the story about who you are as a leader. Here are some tips to help ensure yours fully reflects your personal brand:
1. Don’t just refresh. When updating their resumés, most people just dust off the last one they have (whether it was written two years ago or 20) and add whatever they have done since the document was last saved. Have you ever seen a house that has a lot of additions and nothing quite feels right? That’s what happens when approaching your resumé this way.
Instead, start at the beginning and write down everything you can think of. This “kitchen sink” document should include anything that was hard to do, had an impact or defines you as a leader. This isn’t your new resumé — it’s a starting point.
2. Aim for the Goldilocks balance. It can be a challenge to strike the “just right” balance of too few (e.g., deleting whole decades) and too many details, especially for highly accomplished executives. The goal is to convey not only your expertise, but indicate your potential to succeed in the next role.
I often read resumés where someone will write “CEO/GM/President” as their aspiration in the summary and then include bullets like “managed facilities procurement for five sites” in their experience. That might have been the most fulfilling aspect of the job and been an enormous area of accomplishment, but it is unlikely to be relevant for a CEO role. Therefore, I always suggest people do the following:
Take your “kitchen sink” document of raw material and sort it into the following 2×2:
Highlight the most relevant and impactful items first, and then add in other accomplishments. Remember that as an executive recruiter, I am trying to establish first whether you can do a specific job, and then I am trying to figure out if you are an amazing person/leader. You might have won an Olympic medal, and that shows enormous talent, grit and hard work, but without some relevant experience, it alone will not land you an executive job.
In addition, balance the ratio of impressive feats to those that are most relevant for what you want to do next. Include details on the scale of your work and success metrics that show the reader you will be able to perform well in this new role. The scale and scope of your oversight and highlights of your accomplishments are helpful, especially if talking to private investors who care more about EBITDA and not just revenue.
3. Add in “the what” and “the how.” Context and culture are often neglected in résumés, but are critical in painting the full picture of your leadership experience. Admittedly, it is legitimately hard to add context to resumés, but I always love it when someone unpacks even a little bit of a story around an accomplishment. Compare these resumé bullets:
- Re-energized the management team and employee base with significant double-digit improvement in engagement scores, and dramatically reduced employee turnover.
- Re-energized the management team and employee base after three years of cost-cutting and layoffs. Aligned the management team around a new strategic plan; reduced silos; de-layered the organization; introduced a regular cascading communication plan and promoted an executive to lead internal communications; worked with HR to develop clear performance metrics to outline accountability for every employee; and introduced regular engagement surveys and “any question is fair game” employee forums. Achieved double-digit improvements in engagement and retention — and promoted a cultural shift toward enjoyment and learning so that everyone had a lot of fun along the way.
- Restructured company debt because the balance sheet was over-leveraged.
- Restructured company debt to provide the runway to complete the cloud services transformation; created long-term equity value because the balance sheet was over-leveraged. Worked closely with the board and finance team to develop options, and aligned stakeholders around the successful option.
Which candidate do you feel like you understand better? Who would you rather work with? Whether it is the context of the situation, the culture of the organization or the steps you took to achieve an outcome, these nuances can help someone understand who you are and what you can do for them.
Dos and don’ts:
- Skip the long cover letter. Many still write these and most people don’t read them. Spend the time either getting a warm introduction or writing something short, punchy and data-oriented vs. a long, philosophical narrative.
- Write a compelling introductory paragraph. Most people I know who read resumés often skip this section entirely. However, they can be important when they truly are a high-level executive summary of you. A summary filled with aspirational comments about what you want to do (but haven’t) or adjectives like “risk-taking” or “results-oriented change agent” makes me want to learn more.
- Don’t shrink the font to fit on one page. If what you are writing is impactful, relevant and tells a story, add a page … or two!
- Dedicate more space to more significant roles. Is the airtime you’re giving a role proportionate with the time you spent in it? The description of a role you had for 12 years should be longer than one you held for 12 months.
- Use keywords that are common in the marketplace. If you are looking for a more technical leadership role, incorporate terms that will be captured by automatic screening or anyone searching for someone with a specific type of experience (e.g., e-commerce).
4. Don’t assume people know what you mean. One of the biggest assumptions people make in a resumé is that other people will understand the technical or company-specific terms they are using. Terms or language that are not universally understood can be cause for confusion. I find it helpful when someone adds a very brief description of the company, its ownership structure and the essential responsibilities of the job — unless you are the CEO, the scope for top functional roles like CFO and CMO can be quite varied.
Then take a copy of your newly edited resumé to a friend or family member. It should be someone who isn’t in your industry or function but has some general understanding of business — and above all, who will be completely honest with you. Then go (somewhat painfully) bullet by bullet and ask them what each one means to them. I will warn you that people will not want to admit when they have no idea what certain acronyms mean, but trust me when I tell you phrases like “Ran a transformational PMO to manage OKRs to reduce churn and 8x TTM” are not universally known terms. From abbreviations to specialized industry terms to company-specific names for divisions, stick to basics.
5. Who are you anyhow? Usually when we begin our careers, we have a lot of extracurricular achievements on our resumé. Over time, usually to cram everything on to a single page and appear more professional, we lose a lot of these experiences. If you feel comfortable sharing more about who you are and what motivates you, please do. Especially in a first conversation, these tidbits can break the ice and tell a story about who you are. As I said earlier, winning an Olympic medal won’t get you the career gold, but it sure does help me understand more about you as a person.
One final note: Many people don’t realize that the process of updating their resumé can be just as valuable as the end product. Rarely do we have time to take an inventory of our careers. Updating your resumé offers an opportunity to reflect on what you’ve learned and accomplished — and, most importantly, what makes your leadership story unique.
Jason Baumgarten helps organizations across industries to find and assess CEOs who drive results and inspire senior leadership teams to perform at the highest levels. He also works with boards on director recruitment, CEO succession and identifying next-generation leadership.