Ask Annie

Top 5 mistakes on executive resumes

June 3, 2011: 10:30 AM ET

If you haven't updated your resume in a while, you may be surprised by some of the changes in what recruiters and employers want to see.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: So far in my 27-year career, I've always gotten new jobs either through promotions or through headhunters who were already so familiar with my track record that they didn't ask me for a formal resume. Now, however, I'm job hunting and trying to write a resume, and I'm confused about a few things.

First, in my current position (where I sometimes hire junior managers), I see resumes that start with an "objective statement" at the top, briefly noting what kind of position the person is seeking, but these are mostly hot air. Should I include one on my resume anyway? Second, do I need to squeeze my experience of nearly three decades onto one page? And third, is a cover letter always necessary, or can I let the resume speak for itself? — Winging It

Dear Winging It: It's no wonder you're a bit mystified, since there really is no one-size-fits-all formula for constructing a winning resume. Moreover, fads and fashions come and go.

Those "objective statements" you've seen, for instance, were recommended for years by professional resume writers and coaches -- until recruiters and hiring managers began to deride them as mostly fluff. You'd do far better now to start off your resume with a succinct "executive summary." More about that in a minute.

As for your question about cover letters, these documents seem to have lost a lot of ground in the current economy, due to the simple fact that no one has time to read them. Indeed, your resume itself may get no more than a cursory glance.

Consider: For his forthcoming book Unbeatable Resumes: America's Top Recruiter Reveals What Really Gets You Hired, Dallas-based veteran headhunter Tony Beshara surveyed 3,000 hiring managers and human resources executives. More than three-quarters (77%) admitted they spend less than 5 minutes reading each resume; 56% devote less than 60 seconds to each one.

It figures, then, that cover letters are frequently tossed aside: 86% of those surveyed said a cover letter is "not important." With that in mind, your resume alone has to create a clear, instant picture of who you are and what you can bring to the party.

"It's becoming a cliché to talk about a 'personal brand' -- meaning, what's unique and desirable about you -- but your resume needs to convey that in no uncertain terms," says Howard Seidel, a partner in Boston executive coaching firm Essex Partners. "Most resumes don't."

Why not? Seidel sees five mistakes that executives commonly make when they put together a resume:

1. Starting with an "objective statement." As you note, these paragraphs, describing what kind of work a job candidate envisions doing, often contain no useful information.

Instead, Seidel recommends an "executive summary" paragraph that concisely sums up your major career achievements so far. "You can include a few bullet points emphasizing particular skills," he says. Done right, this will intrigue the person who reads it enough to ensure that he or she will keep on reading.

2. Trying to be all things to all employers. "Senior managers with a wide range of experience sometimes have trouble articulating their niche," Seidel observes. "But recruiters are very category-driven. They get paid to find a square peg for a square hole. If you try to convey that you're good at a whole lot of things, you can end up not conveying anything."

The solution: On your resume, emphasize one or two areas where your work has made the biggest impact. Once you're sitting down with an interviewer, you can mention other skills and accomplishments if they seem relevant.

3. Using language that is too vague. "A really common mistake is writing a resume that is basically a list of job titles, followed by the phrase 'responsible for' -- responsible for this, responsible for that," says Seidel. "The trouble is, many titles don't travel well. Outside the company where you held a certain title, it may not really tell what you actually did. And 'responsible for' may not be specific enough."

Seidel advises putting your accomplishments in dollars-and-cents terms, or at least in percentage terms: "You increased sales by X, you cut costs by Y, you improved efficiency by how much. You want to make crystal-clear what you've done" -- and, by extension, what tangible results you could produce for a prospective employer.

4. Squeezing everything onto one page. Contrary to the widespread belief that resumes should be limited to a single page, Tony Beshara's survey of employers found that 95% of them will read, or at least skim, a two-page resume. (In some fields, including health care, information technology, and academia, even 3- or 4-page resumes are okay.)

"You really can't fit a career of 20 years or more onto a single page without it becoming cluttered and hard to read," notes Seidel. "The important thing is, the first page should have an immediate impact and tell your story clearly, starting with the executive summary and your most recent achievements. Then, as you go back in time on the second page, you can go into less detail, giving just the highlights and how they connect to the rest of your career."

5. Forgetting that a resume is a sales pitch. In the course of counseling hundreds of executives in transition, Seidel is often struck by how modest they are. "Even the most stellar managers will downplay their truly remarkable achievements by saying, 'I was just doing my job,'" he says. "They don't want to brag. But on a resume, it's okay to brag. In fact, you have to. This is a marketing document."

Seidel adds, "Of course, you don't want to come across as arrogant, but you have to sell yourself. If you don't, you're in trouble, because your competition will."

Talkback: If you're a hiring manager, what impresses you (or doesn't) about the resumes you receive? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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