June 10, 2013

How (not) to use a resume

Filed under: Ask The Headhunter Products, Fearless Job Hunting, Getting in the door, Q&A, Readers' Forum

In the June 11, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wants a resume template:

I need a template for a two-page resume that will help me get in the door at a company I want to approach. Can you help?

Nick’s Reply

Resumes are a weak, passive way to get in the door (or to represent yourself). Using a template or any kind of boilerplate to demonstrate your value to a company is the worst thing you can do to yourself when job hunting.

resume_packageYou’re supposed to be uniquely qualified so the company will choose you instead of some cookie-cutter drone — right? Do you really want a “template?”

But you asked, so if you insist on distracting yourself with resumes, I’m going to offer you my suggestions. If you’re going to use a resume, here are two things to think about. Understanding these points might help you see the distinction between the resume itself, and what’s behind a truly effective resume. (In the end, this distinction should reveal to you why you don’t really need a resume.)

Talk first.

First, have a substantive discussion with the person you plan to give your resume to. That is, the manager must already know you and you must know the specific needs of the manager. So, the person you give the resume to should be the hiring authority in the company you want to work for — not someone in HR and not some unknown contact. Your initial personal contact with the manager prepares you to produce a relevant resume. (Does that sound backwards? It’s not. Read on.)

Tailor to fit.

Second, the resume should accomplish one thing: Show how you’re going to solve that manager’s problems. That’s a tall order. (I’ll bet you’ve never seen a resume that does that. Few managers have, either. That’s why most of the hires they make come from truly substantive personal contacts.)

The resume needs to be tailored to the specific employer and job. That’s why job hunting isn’t easy — and it’s why you need contact with the employer first. Obviously, we’re no longer talking about resumes as a “marketing tool” but as a tool to prove you can do a specific job. This essentially voids your question and puts us into a different ball game. I never said I’d support the mindless use of a resume; just that I’d give you my suggestions.

Tailor to fit exactly.

When you write the resume, sit down and describe as best you can how you’re going to help that specific employer, and do your best to provide proof that you can pull it off. That’s hard to do in writing. There is no boilerplate (or template) that’s good enough, because every person and every employer and every job is unique. Writing such a resume is hard work, and there’s no way around it. If it were easy, every resume would produce an interview, but we know that doesn’t happen. (Have I talked you out of it yet? Maybe I’ve talked you into a whole new way of looking at job hunting without resumes.)

A resume can’t answer questions (especially if it’s muffled under the weight of 5,000 other resumes sitting on top of it). And a smart manager will be full of questions. This is why I don’t like resumes as a job hunting tool. (See The truth about resumes.) I’d rather go straight to the hiring manager and have a talk with him — but only after I’ve done my research so I can demonstrate how I’m going to bring profit to his bottom line.

The magic words are not in a resume.

How does anyone get to that manager? Well, it’s sort of a Zen thing. You can’t approach the manager until you have something useful to say to him. Heck, you don’t even know who he is. So do all the necessary homework. Talk to people who know the industry, the company, its business, the department, and other employees. FJH-3Follow this trail to talk to people who know the manager. You’ll learn a lot. And that’s how you’ll identify and meet the manager, too — through people he knows. The big bonus: After all these dialogues, you’ll know a lot about the manager’s business, and you will actually have something to say that he will be eager to hear.

Where does a resume fit into that? Why waste your time trying to figure it out? Why submit a resume when the research you must do will put you in front of the hiring manager?

Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition) is one of my 9 new Fearless Job Hunting books. It’ll take you where no resume can and get you there in person.

Do you rely on a resume to get you in the door? Does it work? What do you think makes a hiring manager invite you for an interview?

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27 Comments on “How (not) to use a resume”
By Charles
June 10, 2013 at 9:56 pm

I do believe that Nick’s method is the best way to find an ideal position, but as he frequently points out, the vast majority of us are unwilling to “do the work” outlined in his post.

So, for those of us using resumes, I believe the following is the most important aspect of putting one together.

From Indeed’s blog:
“To illustrate the value you’ll bring to a prospective employer, your resume’s ‘Work Experience’ section should emphasize the results you’ve delivered with specific examples that show how you did it and what measurable results you achieved. Use concise sentences and bullets to make these results stand out.”

While a resume may get you in the door — don’t count on it. You need a strong cover letter. Your cover letter should be tailored to the position you’re applying for. I recommend highlighting accomplishments most relevant to the position and explaining how you meet (or exceed) the job requirements.

By Stephanie Clark
June 11, 2013 at 7:09 am

Yes, this method is the ideal, however, as Charles pointed out many are not willing to do the work. Or, don’t have the skills to cold-call or network. Or, live in a country in which that type of communication is seen in a negative light as too bold or brash.
For those who fit the above, take heart as many people do land interviews relying on the standard method of sending a resume and cover letter. The key to landing an interview using the traditional documents is that these must be written with strategy – with that position and that company in mind – showcasing past work that fits the strategy. Drilling down to methodologies, inspiration, motivation and relating performance to profits will go a long way in differentiating you as an applicant from other applicants.

By Jo Ann Bullard
June 11, 2013 at 8:44 am

I think Nick’s recommended method is ideal, but realistically how many hiring managers are willing to speak to potential candidates, unless its a personal reference. In my case the interviews I’ve been on were based strictly on my resume/cover letter. I typically check to see if any of my LinkedIn contacts had any connections to the hiring manager/recruiter/ or employee that could help me get my resume in front of the right person. I’ve always tailored my resumes and cover letters to fit the posting, once you get the interview it’s all personality after that.

By Nick Corcodilos
June 11, 2013 at 9:29 am

Looking for interviews via resumes is a time-honored method that people will indeed keep using. But when we keep saying, “people are not willing to do the work,” all we’re doing is tacity encouraging people to sit behind their computer screens while their competition is out talking to hiring managers. We’re telling them it’s okay to be lazy and to follow the herd.

The fact is, the ratio of interviews to resumes is so tiny it’s almost meaningless.

There are some very good resume writers out there who can help people improve their resumes. And a resume is very useful to a manager — but I think only after an introduction has been made and the manager needs to “fill in the blanks” about a candidate. That resume should be clear, well-written, and even a bit “inspirational.”

But counting on a resume, a cover letter, your website, a video, or any other “summary of information’ to get in the door is simply foolish. Such documents rely entirely on the employer to figure out what to do with you — and they’re not good at it. The candidate with the edge is the one who goes directly to the manager or gets introduced through a mutual contact. That’s who gets the best crack at the job.

I know people will use resumes and cover letters anyway. But they need to stop thinking they must keep doing it this way because that’s how everyone does it and how employers expect it. It’s time to get over the brainwashing.

By Nick Corcodilos
June 11, 2013 at 9:31 am

@Jo Ann: Managers are always willing to talk to potential candidates, if they are introduced by people the managers trust. This is hard work for a candidate to set up, and it should be. Consider your choices: Mass attack with resumes and cover letters and hope for the best. Or invest the time and effort to meet people you’d like to work with. I’ve never met the manager who prefers to hire from resumes, when he or she can use trusted referrals.

By Jo Ann Bullard
June 11, 2013 at 9:37 am

Nick:

In my comment I did state that hiring managers are willing to speak to potential candidates if it’s coming from a personal reference. But like many of us that don’t have the networking contacts to get a connection with the hiring managers we have to resort to submitting resumes/cover letters.

By Jo Ann Bullard
June 11, 2013 at 9:42 am

The resume is just a stepping stone to get you into the doorway, once your in front of the hiring manager it’s all about personality. I’ve been told time and time again that I have an impressive resume, but what happens when the hiring manager or recruiter does not know what they are doing when it comes to choosing the right candidate when they have it right in front of them.

By Nick Corcodilos
June 11, 2013 at 9:51 am

@Jo Ann: Please don’t take my comments as an attack on how people like to search for a job. They are a critique and suggestions for an alternative approach. If resumes work for you, go for it. But the fact is, the world is awash in resumes, but people are not beating off job offers with stick.

But I don’t understand why the solution to not having networking contacts is to “resort” (your word, not mine) to resumes. Why isn’t the solution to develop contacts and learn to network?

By Jo Ann Bullard
June 11, 2013 at 9:59 am

No offense taken, I am not only resorting to resumes, I am also networking thru personal and business contacts, but in my industry of HR it is not easy. If you have any suggestions on how to approach getting hired in HR or go about it a different way, I would welcome it.

By Kent Vincent
June 11, 2013 at 10:43 am

Well, there’s an iconoclastic job coach doing webinars who gives you all the inside poop on why resume submissions are hopeless– they get snared by ATS systems and are subject to numerous other new blockades. He even claims the Patriot Act obstructs resumes being walked in by trusted contacts.

Then he sells you on a coaching class that helps you to do guess what as a first order of business? Why, produce a “better” resume of course! He claims that ultimately there’s no way around it, so make it as good as it can be so that instead of 1 in 10,000 odds you give it 5 in 10,000 odds (he provided the first statistic, I’m interpolating the second one.)

Advice abounds from other former headhunters along these lines who concede that in their former roles they knuckled under and demanded these obsolescent documents. Where does that leave us except confused and immobilized?

As for talking to people around the manager before approaching him, that was the theme of a 90′s book “The Power to Get in” that said you should surround and pin down the manager by sweet talking everyone around him who then talk you up with the boss. Then it’s like falling off a log for the boss to welcome your call and admit you in. All well and good if you can track the king’s court down and if they’ll talk to you. What’s in it for them to do that unless they’re just good sports about playing along? They’ll likely send you off at the end with a jovial “good luck” and get back to the thing that contains much in it for them.

That said, I believe in theory in this contrarian approach. It’s truly “organic” in every way right down to the work plan instead of the resume. Most likely, though, you’ll only be able to do it for a tiny handful of employers and those aren’t odds I like. (What’s 5%, say, of 9?) Bottom line, it’s the right way forward, but we’ve got a long way to go to make it work when few others believe in it enough to carve their own time out for it or to ultimately create an unplanned position.

By J.C.
June 11, 2013 at 11:46 am

I find that my resume is getting me some interviews but I’m trying to use some of Nick’s approaches as well. I’m frustrated that the people I try to contact DO NOT respond back! Couple that with a recent disappointment during a phone interview with an actual hiring manager. It was a position I really wanted and I was thrilled to get the call. But she peppered the conversation with personal issues and it left me feeling like I didn’t fit in her group. She emailed a few weeks later saying they are pursuing other candidates. I do know someone who works there but not in that department. This person told me she couldn’t help me with the hiring process! So I feel forever planted at square one. I believe Nick’s processes are successful but it helps when others play nicely, too.

By Jo Ann Bullard
June 11, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Hi J.C.:

I am with you 100%, 95% of the hiring managers that I was interviewed by never responded to any of my feedback inquiries that I made by phone or by email. Two weeks ago I went on a 4 hour interview from a well known company for a Bilingual HR Manager. I was told by the internal recruiter that was one of the three people who interviewed me that she would give me feedback within a week. I let the week go by and she never contacted me so I emailed her and she told me that the position was currently on hold and thanked me for my interview. Meanwhile if I had not made the attempt to contact her she would have never taken the time to contact me and let me know. This is a chronic condition.

By Nick Corcodilos
June 11, 2013 at 12:16 pm

@Kent: “ultimately there’s no way around it”

Yah, that’s the rejoinder almost everywhere, because that’s the nature of the racket.

“What’s in it for them to do that unless they’re just good sports about playing along?”

Please think about this. How people react is up to how the job hunter approaches them. Do it like an opportunist, and you’ll get nothing. Do it honestly, with people you are really interested in getting to know, and it’s a different story.

Why do so many people think this is a game of conning managers? (I’m talking generally here, not about you.) It’s not. The reason you will “only be able to do it for a tiny handful of employers” is because only a handful are worth it. The choice of employers is yours. Choose carefully. And yah, this is a lot of work. “We’ve got a long way to go.” And why should it be easy? :-)

By don
June 11, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Ah Resumes and cover letters!
In spite of fashionable declarations of their death via Twitter, LinkedIn etc. they are alive and kicking. So it’s a good use of one’s time to have good ones at hand.

What’s a good one? That’s the rub. If you talk to ten recruiters/people you get 10 different views. If you think you’ve written the world’s greatest, there’ always another suggestion.

My view is that a good resume is the one you like, that you are comfortable with, and that trumps format, rules etc. After a gizillion years of writing them and reading them I picked up a bit of wisdom that seemed to validate this. She said “A good resume is one you can talk to” It should have the look, feel and flow that you can comfortably guide someone through the points you want to make. If you force fit into some template, or someone else’s idea of the perfect format, you’ll fall outside of your comfort zone & it will show.

There’s an irony to deal with. A well constructed succinct resume is a cold blooded compilation of facts. You trade off context for brevity. You may offer stunning accomplishments..but no context. And it’s the context that highlights value. You have bullets noting the projects you managed, but its way more meaningful if I can see you did that within raging budget cuts, downsizing, loss of key personnel. etc.
So resumes to a casual reader infer…hint…hypothesize about value. Sans the up front homework Nick talks about…the hiring manager has to try and connect your bullets to my his/her needs.
That’s why I like stories..stories provide the context, and they tell a lot about you. To me that’s the real purpose of cover letters…they aren’t meant to regurgitate the resume but to restore one’s persona and the context, the story behind those bullets on a resume.
If you are fortunate enough to talk to a hiring manager, you want to have your stories at the ready, to connect the dots to his/her real current need or future desire.
You still need a resume & in my case I like cover letters as the way the game is played, a resume is your ticket to play. Again, if you connect with someone in your targeted company..they will need your ticket to play..inside. That’s when it has its maximum value..AFTER you’ve gotten traction. So it does have to be professional and well done.
Like most plans, the big value in a resume and cover letter, is their creation. Writing whatever you think is a good one, means you will have to confront yourself, and dredge up your history, organize it, and challenge yourself..what are your value adds. If you can’t convince yourself, and articulate it to yourself, how can you expect to do it with others…and walk them through it?
There’s a lot of talk around & some discussion here in on “adding value”. Nailing a job description does not add value, it meets a value or meets a need. The question is add value to what? it’s isn’t about working harder on that job. That’s performance. The big win in connecting with a hiring manager is the vision thing. Yes that person needs work done which in many cases is to simply replace a loss and maintain status quo. What you want to know from a hiring manager..is what are they trying to accomplish, what do they thing their value add is to the organization? Adding value means you can bring something to the table that manager doesn’t currently have in his/her team…that will help fulfill their vision of how they in turn add value to the corporation. What can you do to make them look good, in simple terms, and in so doing help you professionally grow?
A good resume, supplemented by a good cover letter, supplemented by a healthy inventory of real stories will position you to sit down with a hiring manager, walk him through your bona fides and take him/her to where you ADD a missing piece to their visionary jig saw puzzle.

By Rob Aught
June 11, 2013 at 3:11 pm

So this is an interesting approach and I agree in general that you should work your network when looking for a job. I had a hard landing a few years ago and my lack of network made finding a new job very difficult. Working on those introductions is very important.

That said, don’t undersell the power of a decent resume. While I know I may not be typical, I read every resume that hits my desk regardless of how it got there. What I find is that many resumes are just poorly done. I try to look past that and focus on the content, but guess which part is usually lacking.

You can worry over templates and formats all day long, but if I come away with no idea of what you’re bringing to my group why would I hire you?

Also, while I am a big advocate of networking and using that network to get the introductions Nick talks about, I think this can backfire as well. There is such a thing as an artificial contact. If someone introduces a candidate to me I’ll want to know more details, including if they vouch for them. If I find out it is just someone they know casually and not someone whose work they can vouch for, guess what I am going to use to determine if I talk to them?

Their resume.

In the contemporary job market, the resume alone is not what it used to be. It is still important and needs to be done well. If it doesn’t “sell”, it sucks. That’s been difficult for a lot of people to swallow because many people think their resume is great.

The reason why the ration of resumes to interviews is so small for me is because so many of the resumes indicate someone is a bad fit or don’t offer me enough information to convince me I want to talk to them. Believe me, I want to talk to EVERYONE that I think will be good. I’ll happily interview a dozen people for one position even though it’s a huge time sink for me. The reason why I typically don’t is that I rarely get enough quality resumes or references.

By Scott
June 12, 2013 at 1:57 am

I agree that Nick’s way is the best. But lots of hiring managers, especially in large companies, are hidden, in that they have no outside presence except for maybe a LinkedIn page.
That’s also why I’m not a big fan of “doing the job” resumes, since often the job is not going to be known until a candidate comes, and sometimes not even then. I got one job where they refused to tell me what I was going to do – it didn’t work out well.
So, how about tailoring a resume to what you can do for the company instead of what the company can do for you? I hate resumes where the objective given is for the candidate to grow in some way. That is good, but I’m more concerned about the company growing. I think anyone doing any decent amount of research about a job can tailor the resume to show the employer how hiring the person will help the employer. That means you don’t send out 20 resumes a day and think you’re doing a good job of job hunting. But I think it is a feasible back up method if the best one doesn’t work.

By Nick Corcodilos
June 12, 2013 at 8:55 am

@Scott: I think that’s a great way to use a resume. In fact, I think a resume should never be about the job applicant. It should be about the employer and the job – and it should show how the applicant is going to make a contribution.

If that makes no sense, imagine trying to ask someone out on a date. Do you lecture about who you are, where you came from, what you’ve done? Or do you tell the person you’re interested in them?

By Jo Ann Bullard
June 12, 2013 at 10:13 am

How would you apply this method if the job posting does not reveal the name of the employer, like many postings seem to be.

By Don Harkness
June 12, 2013 at 10:38 am

@Jo Ann
you blow past it. Not worth your time. they’ve told you everything you need to know..by not declaring who they are. and to try means you’re just chasing job descriptions.

By Jo Ann Bullard
June 12, 2013 at 11:56 am

Ok, got it.

By Nick Corcodilos
June 12, 2013 at 12:01 pm

@Joanne: This is sort of a Zen approach. You ignore the job posting altogether. (I think that’s what Don is referring to as well.) Don’t get distracted by the advertising. (Thanks, Don!)

By Jo Ann Bullard
June 12, 2013 at 12:23 pm

I got it, many moons ago when I was about to get my undergrad degree I attended an on campus workshop on job searching for college grads, and one of the key points discussed in the workshop was NOT to apply for blind postings.

By Citizen X
June 13, 2013 at 10:16 pm

The base question is What does it take to get you in for an interview? I wish I knew. I really do believe that it is a crap shoot, but the more you roll, the better your chances of getting in. I don’t mean sending out bazillions of resumes, but targeting a handful of companies and alternately answering posts or making inquiries.

Even if you’re working with a good recruiter, a periodic rattling of the cage can help. I got a job more by accident than design when my recruiter got my email while a position had crossed her desk. (Yes, that how it works–they don’t “keep you in mind”.)

Once you’re in, though, you have some opportunities you can prepare for.

I try to push the interview as far out as possible to give myself time to research the company and prepare for the interview. If you’re not spending several hours doing this, you’re not only putting yourself at a disadvantage for this position, you are missing an opportunity to prepare yourself for the interview for your “dream job”.

Every interview is an opportunity not only to develop your interviewing skills, but to discover things about yourself, business, people, and the world that you can’t get anywhere else.

That’s why I never turn down an interview.

Another aspect of the interview is that it is really networking in disguise. I’ve made friends that I’ll never work for, but learn from and teach in a peer-to-peer relationship.

But the one thing I recommend to the resume-driven crowd (of which I am one) is a professional portfolio of accomplishment.

The portfolio is merely copies (notice I said copies–keep the originals at home!) of documents, charts, graphs, or even photographs (see the bright, clean DC!) that show what you’ve been up to. Sometimes called proof of accomplishment, my portfolio follows my resume point by point. If the manager points to a line on my resume, I can instantly flip open my portfolio to illustrate exactly what he’s pointing to.

My goal is to keep the conversation going. What might be a ten-minute cursory interview could be transformed into an hour of enthusiastic dialog.

If the conversation stalls, I open the portfolio to my pride and joy, and try to get the dialog moving again.

This was so effective the first time I used it, I’m the one who turned down the offer twice before accepting the job on my terms the third time.

Try it. You’ll like it.

By marybeth
June 17, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Good points, all. I still use a resume, but I use it when I’m going to an interview, because I never assume that the person or committee interviewing me will have a copy of my record/accomplishments. I’ve shifted away from resumes to sales letters because the resume format is more limiting. But I still have a basic resume because so many employers still want one (although I try my best not to provide one until the interview stage or later). And I still tailor each letter and/or resume to each job or employer…my “generic” resume and letter are there for my benefit, and serve as the starting point from which I edit the hell out of it.

By Joyce
June 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm

There will always be people who get job interviews through sending resumes out. But the most effective way to get hired in the majority of cases is to connect to the person who can make the hiring decision. Even if you can’t connect through someone try anyway, directly – add something of value for that person. I have seen the most introverted introverts as well as the extroverts and everyone in between be successful at it. It is a job in itself to get to the right person, but in my over 10 years of working with clients seeking employment, I can say that it DOES work.

By Ask The Headhunter® | Nick Corcodilos – Illiteracy is a sign of ignorance
June 23, 2014 at 8:17 pm

[…] This is one of the many ways resumes (or LinkedIn profiles) can sink you. They are dumb pieces of paper (or characters on a computer screen) that cannot defend facts, spelling, or credentials. When resumes are screened by personnel clerks, you lose. That’s why I advocate using personal contacts to get interviews. Your friend got lucky. Don’t rely on luck. (See How (not) to use a resume.) […]

By Ask the Headhunter: The sign of ignorance all employers hold against you – PBS NewsHour | Latest News Portal Info
July 8, 2014 at 4:31 pm

[…] This is one of the many ways resumes (or LinkedIn profiles) can sink you. They are dumb pieces of paper (or characters on a computer screen) that cannot defend facts, spelling or credentials. When resumes are screened by personnel clerks, you lose. That’s why I advocate using personal contacts to get interviews. Your friend got lucky. Don’t rely on luck. (See “How (not) to use a resume.”) […]

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