By Jane Heifetz
Harvard Business Review, May 16, 2017 —
You’re ready to make a career move, up to a higher level or into a different industry or an entirely new field. But your current title doesn’t match the titles on the job postings that most excite you. How do you avoid your applications getting tossed by HR or automated filters? How do you use your résumé to tell stories that match those new positions’ requirements?
It’s important to tweak your résumé for each opportunity. You can have a foundational version that compellingly articulates your most important information, but you may have to alter it, perhaps only slightly, for each position you’re applying for. Here’s how.
The first step is to carefully review each job posting. Make a checklist of its five or six most important responsibilities. Then make notes about past accomplishments that clearly demonstrate your successes in those areas. Note the problem you solved, how, and improvements that resulted.
Let’s look at how a couple of job hunters I’ve worked with, an administrative assistant and a C-suite executive, translated their notes into effective résumés.
Example #1: Applying for a position at a much higher level than your current job title
Sasha was hired several years ago as an entry-level assistant for a small department. Over the years she voluntarily assumed more and more responsibilities and is now running the department, administratively speaking. But her administrative assistant title — and compensation — bear little resemblance to her current work. So here’s how she made sure her résumé attracted the attention of hiring managers when she started applying for chief administrative officer (CAO) positions.
First, she zeroed in on a few interesting CAO job postings, listed their five common responsibilities, and made notes about her accomplishments relevant to each. This was her list:
- Identify opportunities for service delivery improvements and ensure implementation
- Collaborate with colleagues within department and represent department across entire organization
- Manage junior staff and evaluate performance
- Oversee resource allocation and budgeting
- Resolve unexpected issues in timely manner
Next, she wrote her résumé summary section to reflect these five aspects of CAO positions.
And she wrote her summary headline — a prime piece of résumé real estate — to immediately show that she had the experience these new positions require. Note that she didn’t use the self-evident summary headline “Summary,” which isn’t exactly an attention grabber! Nor would it distinguish her from any other candidate. This was Sasha’s summary:
Department Administrator – Efficiency Expert – Staff Manager – Crisis Handler
As indispensable right-hand to directors, have kept academic departments running smoothly for over 16 years. Create and improve systems to manage staff’s and students’ needs — schedules, records, facilities, personnel, and budgets. Go well beyond job descriptions. Initiate whatever needed to ensure projects’ success. Unflappable during crises.
She distilled the notes about her many accomplishments into an overview of the 10 years in her current role:
Keep University’s School of Design (eight graduate programs) running flawlessly for Director, other staff, faculty, and students — during routine operations and emergencies.
- Function as Administrative Officer, well beyond Administrative Assistant job description.
- Described by faculty as “the Hope Diamond among the many gems on staff” when received 2016 and 2013 Staff Excellence Awards.
- As “face of the department,” interact with current and prospective students, faculty, and staff across entire campus, as well as within School of Design.
- Manage and evaluate performance of work-study students and graduate assistants.
- Make the department user-friendly by always being upbeat, respectful, and considerate.
Note the first bullet in which she directly addressed the discrepancy between her current title/job description and chief administrative officer responsibilities.
She backed up these general statements with a specific example of “resolving unexpected issues in a timely manner.”
Voluntarily led response to 2015 flooding of School of Design building. Within 24 hours, orchestrated School’s relocation and reopening.
- After routine early morning email check, arrived on campus at 7:00 AM to roll up sleeves with Maintenance and emergency personnel. While water from burst pipe still pouring in, salvaged files, furniture, and supplies.
- Initiated contact with Director, staff, students, and faculty to minimize disruption of department’s operations.
- Collaborated with University Facilities, Safety & Risk, Risk Manager; ServPro; and Insurance Adjuster to plan and execute clean-up and equipment replacement.
- Six weeks post flood, ensured that high-stakes, once-every-seven-year national accreditation site visit proceeded without a hitch. Prior to visit, coordinated all documentation, including collecting relevant data. Throughout four-day visit, arrived early and left late to ensure that everything ran smoothly, including meetings, housing, transportation, and meals.
Wouldn’t you want her running your department?
Example #2: Breaking into a new industry
Meghna has been COO of a small market research company since she earned her MBA several years ago. She’s done just about everything a COO can to grow a company and is now eager to apply that expertise to startups in a different industry — wind power or alternative transportation, such as bike sharing. Here’s how she made her past accomplishments relevant to other industries.
In her summary section, she highlighted accomplishments that show she can grow startups and alleviate their common pain points:
Chief Operating Officer
Grow fledgling businesses into fully functioning companies that compete successfully against larger, more established players. Expand from U.S. into multiple global markets.
- Accelerate growth with new product/service lines that generate predictable, recurring revenue. Also selectively acquire companies and unify their disparate cultures and systems.
- Establish functions from scratch — Finance, Accounting, Marketing, Sales, and HR.
- Present clear pictures of businesses’ financial health by building models, budgets, and KPIs.
- Create order out of chaos and enable rational decision-making with data-driven reporting and analyses.
- Equally adept at managing people and operations. Treat employees and clients with respect and appreciation of diverse perspectives.
Then she provided an overview of her current role:
Over 15-year tenure, played key roles in growing this startup into a $15M niche player, holding its own against much larger, mostly public competitors. Ensured XYZ Company’s ongoing financial health by initiating annual subscriptions, its first recurring revenue stream, now generating the majority of its sales.
Built systems — financial, HR, CRM, PM — to ensure orderly expansion from ten to 150 employees and one U.S. to eight global offices, dispersed across multiple time zones. Relentlessly focused on process efficiencies while also building culture of mutual respect and engagement, both among colleagues and with clients.
Meghna made clear that her expertise is an excellent match for COO roles in startup businesses in many different industries struggling to compete with incumbents. She quantified the growth she generated and included one of her innovations that generated much of that growth. She also presented the range of her expertise — financial, HR, sales, and project management — and her success in building those functions from scratch, not just managing established systems. The rest of her résumé explained selected accomplishments in greater detail.
Is it worth the time to so carefully review job postings and then tailor your résumé to each position’s requirements? Absolutely, if you want hiring managers to immediately see why you’re an exceptional candidate worthy of an interview.
So don’t let your current job title hold you back. Use your résumé headline, summary, and brief stories about accomplishments to demonstrate how well you can meet hiring managers’ needs. And don’t hesitate to directly address discrepancies between your current title and the title of the job you’re applying for.
Jane Heifetz is the founder and principal of Right Résumés and a contributing editor to HBR. She was HBR’s Product Development Director and Executive Editor for many years.