Career Advice

Resume Writing? Think Cathedral, Not Bricks

My friend Julie was job-seeking, and she had a big asset: she’d just completed her Masters in teen counseling. Julie was looking for a job working with at-risk teenagers. She’d already spent years, even prior to her collegiate education, working with teens at summer camps and in after-school programs.

Her resume showcased her new degree, of course, and it listed all of those low-paid after-school and summer-camp jobs as well. She described those summer-camp and after-school tasks in the usual way:

  • “Supervised arts & crafts activities.”
  • “Taught water safety.”
  • “Led hikes, organized campfire story-telling sessions.”

This is the conventional, ‘task-y’ approach to describe our past work experiences. Resume-advice books and seminars are full of this stuff.

But Julie is a different person now than the person who led those campfires and supervised those arts & crafts projects. She has a Masters degree now. She understands what is at the heart of all the teen-supervision-and-coaching roles she’s held in the past. She can look back on those years leading arts & crafts projects, and reframe her activities in a new way.

Julie rewrote her resume. In place of “led arts & crafts programs” her resume now says “taught self-esteem and conflict-resolution skills to young adults.” She is talking about the greater purpose – the reason for the work – rather than about the specifics. She is talking about the cathedral, and not the bricks.

In a recent job-search workshop I led, a participant named Jane spoke about her fifteen years of experience leading a wholesale distributor. This woman was the CEO of the company, but her resume said “Managed Operations, Sales, IT, Finance and HR. Supervised forty-five people. Responsible for operating budget of $X and sales of $Y.”

“My gosh!” I said to her. “You were the CEO of that organization, not to mention its founder. Why would you describe your experience in such a tactical way?”

“I went to a career coach, who used to be an HR person, and she told me to list the skills that I deployed in that job, like managing Accounting and Customer Support,” said Jane.

There is a lot of that sort of job-search advice around. It seems that we are addicted to skill-listing. It is very unfortunate advice, because when we reduce our rich histories to their smallest parts, we lose their power. Instead of “created reports for our senior management team” we want to say “Built analytical tools to inform strategic distribution and pricing decisions.” In place of “Supervised fourteen call center staff” we can say “Built our first call center from the ground up, enabling sales growth from $10M to $19.5M in eighteen months.”

When we talk about the larger purpose and mission rather than tiny pieces of the puzzle, we make it clear to the reader that we know how the bricks we laid or the frescoes we painted contributed to the glory of the cathedral we helped to build. When we boil down our amazing stories to their smallest parts, we reduce ourselves to bundles of skills and competencies. That’s a personal disservice to us! The listing-skills approach also sucks the power out of our resumes.

If we want hiring managers to understand the great value and insight we’ve brought to the organizations who’ve employed us in the past, we need to frame our experiences in terms that allow the person reading our materials to know that we understand why we did what we did. We need to make it clear that we saw the bigger picture, and that we understand the impact of our personal efforts on the larger mission. We need to get across the powerful idea that we saw a need and responded to it – whether that link was clear to us at the time, or not.

Here are a few more bricks-to-cathedral translations to help reinforce the concept:

  • “Took customer calls when my manager was out of the office” becomes “Resolved thorny customer issues for our largest clients, including Target Stores and FedEx”
  • “Sat on a change management task force” becomes “Designed the communication plan and roadmap for a 10,000-employee change management undertaking, following our acquisition by Oracle”
  • “Developed a new employee orientation course” becomes “Conceived, championed and launched our first new employee information-and-enculturation day, reducing turnover by ten percent”
  • “Strong html skills” becomes “Taught myself html on the fly when our web person was climbing Everest and we needed to launch a critical direct-mail landing page”

Focusing on soaring cathedrals helps us tell our story, too. Let’s reframe our resumes to share more of what we brought to each challenge we’ve encountered – and get the bricks out of our resumes.