Career Advice

Resume Help: How To Give Context To Your Career Accomplishments

Dear Liz, 

I like how you are teaching us to view our career histories differently and more creatively. I never liked saying on my resume that I have seven years of progressively more responsible blah blah blah. But I am stuck when it comes to listing exciting accomplishments. I have done mostly staff assignments in HR and Benefits where I pretty much did the same thing all day. I resolved Benefits issues for employees and created reports and sat in meetings and worked on projects related to cost allocation and vendor quality. How would I make these tasks more exciting in an accomplishment-focused resume?

Thanks,

Tamara 

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Dear Tamara,

We have picked up a lot of useless ideas (I call them barnacles) during our years as corporate Joes and Sallies. One of the worst, most hard-to-shake barnacles is the notion of describing our work histories sideways. What do I mean by that? Let’s think about it this way.

Employers want to know that when we encounter a problem or a hill to be climbed, we’ll have the will and the skill to surmount the challenge. They want to know that when we’re confronted with a vexing and unfamiliar puzzle, we’ll jump into action, gather the information we need, and go to work. They want to know that we understand the impact of our work, that we make thoughtful decisions as we devise an attack plan, and that we understand the consequences of our actions.

These are reasonable expectations on an employer’s part.

So why is it that when we’re taught how to write a resume, we’re advised to leave out the most important information, namely, the context for our actions in the past?

We’re taught to describe our experience sideways — to tell people about the number of times we completed a task (without mentioning why the task was needed in the first place) and to note that we created a certain report (without telling anyone what the report was for, who read it, or why anyone bothered to read it when it could have gone straight into the trash bin).

We’re told to say that we have six years of experience in yada yada whatever. Big deal! Years have almost nothing to do with anything. As the old saying goes, “Do you have twenty years of experience, or one year of experience repeated twenty times?”

We’re advised to say that we filed this report and went to this meeting. Who the heck cares about reports and meetings out of context? Let’s tell the prospective employer what the report was for, who used it to make which decisions, and what the purpose of the meeting was! Let’s tell our next employer what was discussed in the meeting and why that topic was important at that point in time.  Who gives a fig about a nameless meeting and a disembodied weekly report?

We’re taught to list areas we’ve worked in (“Experience in Purchasing, Inventory Control, Production Management and Shipping”) without the critical information that would give these words any power for an employer — namely, the stories that attach a generic term like “Purchasing” to real-life, flesh-and-blood experiences that any hiring manager could consider and give weight to.

We’re counseled, it turns out, to convey our experience sideways, in the least-powerful, most boring way ever! It’s as though we took Albert Einstein’s career and described it this way:

Albert Einstein is a researcher and instructor with a broad range of experiences in physics and astronomy. His background includes laboratory research, the writing of papers for publication, extensive speaking to professional organizations, and related duties.

Poor Albert turned classical physics on its head and changed life on Earth in ways that can’t be overstated. Yet, when his background is described in the traditional, shoot-me-now resume format, he seems as dull as a chalkboard eraser.

A sideways description — that is the what without any information about why, for whom, and how — would make anybody seem dull. In the traditional resume, we’re sharing the outline of a career, without the context and detail that would give it life and energy. This is a crazy way to represent ourselves!

I’ll bet you an iTunes gift card Tamara that your accomplishments are awesome and plentiful. Here’s a list of possibilities to get you started:

  • Tell us about a time when you saved the day for an employee with a benefits problem. Tell us about it in detail: we’ll boil it down to a mini-story (bullet length) for your resume, later.
  • Tell us about a time when you spotted a billing error that saved your employer money. Tell us how much you saved!
  • Tell us about a time when you changed a process to save time and/or improve communication.
  • Tell us about a time when you got a vendor to improve its service delivery to your organization.
  • Tell us about a report that you created. Who used that report, and for what purpose? What decision did that reader/leader make based on your report, and what was the impact of that decision?

Let me give you some examples to get you started:

  • Spotted an obscure connection between overlapping policies to provide coverage for a critical prenatal procedure, saving our employee from six weeks of bed rest.
  • Dug into a billing irregularity to uncover a process error in our vendor’s shop, saving us $8.5K/month and recovering $35,000 in overpaid fees.
  • Devised a claims-by-category report that showed our second-highest modifiable claims source to be musculoskeletal injuries a/k/a “Weekend Warrior” issues. Launched an educational program that cut these claims by twenty percent the next quarter.

Folks far more junior than you have tremendous accomplishments to share, Tamara. We’re not used to looking at, much less describing, our backgrounds head-on, the way we’d describe a vacation to our friends or share a story with our family members. It’s hard to learn a new language, and telling pithy stories about ourselves at work is a slant on our backgrounds that is unfamiliar territory for most of us. Keep at it, Tamara! Leave a comment below if you’d like some pointers.

Best,

Liz