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Rules for Resumes

Your resume is your professional calling card. Put your best foot forward. One person's "Rules for Resumes".

I am not a recruiter, but as a long time CFO I have been asked by board members, VCs, and both private and public company CEOs to help them find CFOs (usually in the form of vetting/interviewing candidates). The state of resume writing out there is pretty poor. I see piles of undifferentiated resumes telling me absolutely nothing that would make a candidate stand out. You need to do better.

When CFOs ask me for help, one of the first things I do is offer feedback on their resume so they can put their best foot forward and stand out from the pack. Even in completely closed job searches (that is, those where the position is not advertised) there are dozens of candidates who you have to stand out from. It's actually not enough to be referred in by a board member. Why? Because the board may have referred in 8 or 12 or 20 people. And on top of that, the executive team, the auditors and corporate counsel and certainly the CEO themselves may have thrown any number of candidates in. A "closed" process may have 40-60 or more candidates. An open process has far more (hundreds, these days). It's not enough to be referred, you have to do everything well. And resumes are an oft neglected area which will kill a candidacy before it can even get going.

I have a handful of simple rules for resumes. They may or may not work for others, but they work for me and I hope that by putting these out here I can provide some useful insight to job seekers. Please add your feedback and suggestions so that others may benefit.

  1. Your name. Only. That is, don't list "CPA" or "MBA" or the like unless that's all you want me to think of. When I see "MBA" next to the name of someone applying for a CFO job I stop and wonder whether that's your biggest accomplishment. Same for CPA. You can list your credentials in your resume (see below), but don't give it the topmost billing in your entire resume.
  2. Contact information: Yes. That is, please give me some. Your best email address and phone number. Neglecting to put any of these in is either a)careless, or b)tells the recruiter, "I am more important than you". You are going to make the recruiter/manager take time to hunt you down? Really? Hmmm.
  3. Include your city and state. Yes, some jobs are completely location-dependent and you are going to lose most of those if you are not in the right place or can't get there. But it is simply dishonest to intentionally leave off your location in order to get someone to contact you. If you are a great fit for the job, they will reach out to you and you can figure out location issues. But leaving it off just makes it easier to disqualify you in the vetting process and speaks poorly to the all-important "credibility" issue.
  4. Should you use an Objective Statement? Sure, but don't use it to re-hash your resume. Use it to tell me what you want to do going forward, and keep it to 2 lines max (1 line is better). Avoid "management consulting" language - the kind you would see Dilbert making fun of. Simple is better.
  5. For each job:
    1. Dates: Month and year for every job. I will simply assume that you had gaps in between jobs if you leave out the months. Only if your resume goes back 2 decades or more am I okay with the years only.
    2. Company name, city, state (country, if not U.S.) on first line
    3. Job title on second line or offset on the first line
    4. 1 line about what the company does, e.g., "Privately held, 125 employee company that developed, manufactured and sold video-on-demand hardware to consumers." In that brief sentence you give me the context for everything you did in this job. Was it publicly traded or private, big or small, hardware or software, HQ'd in the U.S. or elsewhere, etc.. Don't assume anyone will know anything about the company. Context is critical for helping the reader put your accomplishments in perspective and this is an easy place to establish useful context.
    5. Outcome. If your company had an outcome while you were there or which you were directly involved in, say so. E.g., "Company sold to Intel for $100M." Append this to the end of your company description statement.
    6. The bullets: One bullet for what you "did", the rest for what you "accomplished". Most people spend all of their bullets on what they did, e.g. "ran the finance organization of 6", or "led the monthly close", or the like. I suggest using one bullet, two-three lines if necessary, to say what you did. Keep it very brief. Once again, context.

      Then spend the rest of your bullets on what you accomplished, such as, "led restructuring that resulted in G&A expense reduction of 20% in the midst of 15% year over year growth", or "took company through successful secondary offering in 45 days in a challenging environment that raised $X in a unique structure". Give the reader 4-5 "accomplishment" bullets max, unless you were there for a long time through a variety of positions.

      This is where you need to spend 90% of your effort on your resume. It is critical to tease out the impact or uniqueness of each event. These are the things that will make you different from the 50 other resumes I'm going through. These are pretty much the ONLY things that will make you look different. You should acknowledge that your Objective Statement will not sway me. Your titles and companies are only the barest of qualifiers. What you accomplished and how it effected your company's outcomes; that's what will set you apart and allow me to begin to put your candidacy in context to that of these other ostensibly qualified and recommended folks I'm looking at. Once again, the fact that you were referred in (if you were) is not enough - you're still just part of the pile that was also referred in.
  6. How far back should you go? All the way. Few things are as annoying as when someone is obviously trying to hide their age. We can see the gaps between your education and your jobs, or we understand that you did not enter the working world as a Corporate Controller, etc.. Hiding this only tells the reader that you yourself think your age is an issue. I, for one, love to know full context. It's great to see that you worked in sales for your first job out of college, or that you spent 8 years at an accounting firm before going into "industry" for 20 years. That's seasoning, and that's useful information, especially for executives. If the recruiter or company are going to be ageist in their hiring process, hiding your background will not help you.
  7. Education: keep it brief. Years, school name, location (city/state) and degree (list honors if "meaningful")
  8. Credentials: keep it brief. If you got or still have a CPA, give the state and year and whether it is still active
  9. Personal/Hobby: Not my favorite, but if you must... . Most people's hobbies are not so unique. Even if you think they are unique remember that I'm looking at a pile of resumes . Is this really how you are going to "win the day" or stand out? Not sure you want that. I recognize that many people are supremely proud of what they do outside of work, and that's wonderful. But think hard about whether you are helping me qualify you or disqualify you in this process.
  10. Spell check, read and re-read, and give it to friends to read. Sloppy spelling and grammar do not reflect well.

Is there a primary message here? Sure: focus all of your time and attention on not making mistakes, giving me useful context, and making the most of those "accomplishment" bullets. And don't give me reasons to toss you onto the "pass" pile. Remember that how you got your resume into the hands of the recruiter or the board member or the CEO does not much matter. It's how you stand out in ways meaningful to the position at hand that will win the day. Board members can be told "not a good fit" or whatever. They are usually not the hiring manager and they typically won't push a particular candidate unless they have a great reason to do so. If you are that person in that process, congrats. If not, sorry. But most of the time, having an informative, useful resume based on accomplishments is what will get you to that next round. From there, you're on your own :).


Topic Expert
Mark Richards
Title: VP Operations and Finance
Company: VP / CFO - Private Company
(VP Operations and Finance, VP / CFO - Private Company) |

As for ordering of bullets points (when not specifically tailoring it to a company)

Revenue generation
Cost savings
Team/Career development
Process improvement

For all companies, the revenue generation is always key - so start with what's most important.

Topic Expert
Cindy Kraft
Title: CFO Coach
Company: Executive Essentials
(CFO Coach, Executive Essentials) |

My two cents ...

1) White space is critical. So is bolding to make things stand out that are of particular importance. Resumes are rarely read initially, they are scanned. Without sufficient white space and bolding, nothing stands out on a scan.

2) The most valuable real estate on a resume is the top half of the first page. If you haven't sold them by then, you probably won't.