Friday, June 15, 2012

Building Your Resume - What's Your Story

Part of my soon-to-be ex-occupation involves interviewing candidates and reviewing resumes. One of the most common observations is that candidates tend to throw everything including the kitchen sink into their resumes. Perhaps this is the Malaysian culture, where people are supposed to be impressed with resumes that are 10 pages long, padded with every little thing they have done, including decorating the class notice board or something like that. At least, this was what one of my career guidance counselors told me in secondary school.

But many years later, I studied in the US and found out that the requirements over there are a lot more stringent. You are only given a one-page limit to tell your story. Subsequently, I began to believe that if candidates are not able to share their most important achievements within one page, that just means that they either have no idea how to prioritize, or have no idea which achievements matter. The more cynical part of me wants to believe that some of these candidates actually have no significant achievements, which is why they are throwing every little thing they have ever done into their resume.

Let me be clear on this. I am no expert in resume writing. I think after a few years of reading resumes, I have become pretty good at reading them. But writing requires a completely different skill set. Penelope Trunk gives some pretty good advice on resume writing. I have always wondered how one can stand out in the midst of the hundreds, if not thousands of resumes that employers receive on a regular basis. Of course, you can do something like this:

But of course, you have to be as awesome as Barney Stinson to pull something like that off. On a more serious note, I believe that your resume should not be a list of things that you have done in your life, be it during your schooling years, your university years, or your work. Your list of responsibilities is not your resume. Unless you are one of those guys who have to keep typing in 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42 into the computer to keep the world from self-destructing.

I am not the only one who believes this, but I do think that your resume should tell your story. It should be a tale of who you are, and how to got to where you are, and how you plan to move forward. Interviewers are also people and people love stories. If you give interviewers a good story, they would be most certain to remember you. Of course, telling your story is no easy task. In order to tell a good story, you need to be convincing, and to be convincing, you need to tell the truth, and to know the truth, you need to know yourself very very well.

Apart from getting yourself remembered, telling your story helps you fill in the gaps in your resume. Most resumes that I have seen are just lists of the things that the candidate has done in the past 3-5 years or so. This may not be so relevant to a fresh graduate out of the oven, but for some of you who have worked at two or three places, the foremost question that is on your potential employers' minds would be, "Why did you change your job?". This will happen even before they call you up for your interview and the potential employers would start formulating their own hypotheses on why you have worked at three companies within 12 months. Are you a serial job-hopper? Are you a problem employee? And sometimes, these are the sort of little things that makes an employer hesitate when calling a candidate, no matter how many As you carry on your back. That is what is missing in most resumes. The turning points are usually not explained. While the achievements at your jobs and schools are important to demonstrate your capabilities, your motivation for change tells the employers about who you are.

So the question that remains is, how then can you tell your own story? My role is to get you started on thinking about that question. The first step you can take right now is to read this article here (pdf). This 7-page article entitled "What's Your Story", is written by Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback and provides a detailed account on why you need a story and how to tell a good one. I believe this article is crucial to get you started on preparing a great resume.

And telling a good story needs practice. Lots of it. It is important to be ready to examine yourself, and constantly improve your story. Be aware of your weaknesses and your strengths. Know yourself. Even if you are not thinking of a change right now, think about your story. Hopefully, by the time you need to prepare your resume for your next transition, you will have a damn good story ready.