Adjectives are not Accomplishments
The language of business is numbers. Companies quantify as much as possible and use financial statements to keep score (sales, expenses, profits, capital, assets, liabilities, etc.) Every business has a CFO or an accountant, but I’ve never heard of a firm who has a Chief Words Officer. And yet, one of the most common mistakes I see on resumes is a heavy reliance on describing oneself at the expense of quantifying contributions made to the business. And isn’t that why companies hire employees to begin with? They believe the incremental investment in another person will yield a positive financial result.
Here are some very common words and phrases that people frequently use on their resume: creative, strategic, driven, self-starter, dynamic, flexible, collaborative …. Those are great qualities, and they should be called out. You can effectively use these words when you are sharing a quantifiable success story as part of the how or why the achievement was made. Think of it this way, the accomplishment is like a black and white picture, the adjectives are the color that makes the picture come to life.
Relatedly, often the bulk of the bullet points people have on their resumes are just job descriptions. They are helpful in terms of understanding the scope of one’s responsibilities, but they don’t say if you actually did any of those things. Unfortunately, people get fired for not doing their job descriptions!
So, what’s the solution? The best advice I have seen comes from Laszlo Bock, the former SVP of People Operations at Google. In this post from a few years ago, he lays out his XYZ formula for articulating specific accomplishments. (I accomplished X as measured by Y by doing Z). Here are a few examples to help get your creative juices flowing:
One way to help you think about what can be measured is in the context of did it Make Money, Save Money, or Mitigate Risk? Try to think about things you worked on that helped the company sell more stuff, reduce expenses, or prevented something bad from happening.
Sometimes people are in roles where the immediate impact is less clear. In those cases, one idea that has helped a number of folks is to reach out to former colleagues or clients and ask them what ultimately became of the work you were a part of. This is also a good way to help when your memory of the situation is not as strong as you’d like.
The other major benefit of this approach is that it makes the stories you tell during an interview so much more impactful (we will cover this in more detail in Lesson 10 – STAR Stories). With the XYZ bullets on your resume, you now have a rich library of success stories to tell that help an employer clearly see how you will be a contributing member of the team.
As you have probably already discovered, there are as many opinions on resumes as there are people.
So with that said, feel free to take the following guidance with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, you and only you own your resume. It should represent you the way you want to be viewed. Otherwise, resumes can quickly become crazy quilts of everyone’s opinions and you’ve lost control of your message. I believe for most professionals, a two-page Hybrid format resume is more than sufficient. By hybrid, this example from jobscan.co is helpful:
City, State Zip | (206) 555-5555 | email@example.com
Add a strong resume summary here that highlights what it is you do, the types of companies you’ve worked with, and why you’re great at your job. Experience, specializations, areas of interest, etc.
SKILLS AND PROFESSIONAL MILESTONES
Company 4, Location
Job Title, (MM/YYYY)-Present
This is where you write about your experience. Do not simply list your day-to-day job duties. Work in keywords from the job description that are most relevant to the job for which you’re applying. Provide context to the skills and accomplishments above.
Company 3, Location
Job Title, (MM/YYYY)-(MM/YYYY)
Because you listed skills and accomplishments above using this hybrid format, you can afford to write a little bit less in your experience section.
Company 2, Location
Job Title, (MM/YYYY)-(MM/YYYY)
Unless the experience is crucial, you can also go into fewer details on older positions.
Company 1, Location
Job Title, (MM/YYYY)-(MM/YYYY)
Barely relevant positions deep in your work history can be summed up in a quick line or two.
Degree, Graduation Year (YYYY), College Name, Location
You can see in this example that we are leading with an Objective (essentially a Tell Me About Yourself statement). From there we have Skills and Professional Milestones. The Skills allows you to weave in some of the softer aspects of your background like transferable skills as well as important certifications or other qualifications. The Professional Milestones section is key here. It is serving as a “greatest hits” harvested from the bullets found in the chronological section that follows. This assists the reader by prioritizing what you want them to learn about how you contribute in measurable ways. This is also why it can be the “discussion guide for the conversation you want to have.” The reality is not every interviewer is as engaged in the process as we would like to believe. Embarrassingly, I have personally had my 1:00 PM interview come into my office and I might have glanced at their resume earlier in the day (or not). Suddenly, I need to act like I’ve taken the time to read, understand, and formulate relevant questions for the candidate (which I just admitted to you I didn’t do!) The Professional Milestones becomes my cheat sheet to quickly find some interesting career highlights to ask about. Even more importantly, these are the exact same things YOU want the interviewer to ask you about. The bullets that populate your greatest hits should be in order of relevance to the role you’re interviewing for, or at least in terms of your personal #1 through #5. They do not have to be in chronological order which allows you to bring to the fore a significant accomplishment that may have been 10 years ago but is now in the middle of page 2 on your resume (which is like page 5 in a Google search – a kind of no man’s land).
Moreover, you should have a key accomplishment that can be used in the interview to answer the most common interview questions (Lesson 8 – Research and Preparation). For example, you might be asked about a time when you had to work as part of team to accomplish an objective. The interviewer just teed you up to knock it out of the park! “That’s a great question, Christina. On my resume, you’ll see the third bullet under Professional Milestones talks about the successful $5M launch of DynaFoam. I’m really proud of that project because it was the culmination of leading a cross functional team of R&D, Product, Marketing…”)
Relatedly, the interviewer hopefully will find one or more of your highlights particularly interesting and will directly ask you about one of your greatest hits. It is probably a safe assumption that there was something in the bullet point that they found relevant. Again, we will visit this more in Lesson 10.
Another Pro Tip here is to selectively use bolding to highlight the numbers where you impacted the business, the X and Y of our XYZ formula. Just like a savvy tooth paste package designer uses color, fonts, and other design tools to draw your eye to what’s most important (Whiter Teeth, Gum Health, or Sensitivity), you can use bolding to create a little bit of “pop” to showcase your results.