Job Hunting

Getting a Résumé Right

Six tips from executive recruiters about how finance executives can catch their eye, and then win them over.
Marie Leone and Roy HarrisOctober 11, 2007

One might think that asking the opinion of a half-dozen executive recruiters on an issue might get you a dozen answers — or more. But in their day-in-day-out experience dealing with résumés and deciding which executives to represent, there’s surprising unanimity. Indeed, they seem to agree that there are six areas where job-seekers must pay special attention when submitting a résumé to recruiters and asking for help.

Their central theme: Make sure you present a concise, clear record of problem-solving, and the strong character that’s needed for such a critical calling.

We talked to top recruiters — either finance specialists or those most familiar with finance at their firms — and broke down their suggestions:

Tip 1: Keep It Short

With all the substantive suggestions that recruiters are aching to communicate, to a man and woman they start off with brevity. To paraphrase the old adage: “Brevity is the soul of search.” But it’s a special kind of abbreviation they seek, of course.

Most experts suggest preparing at least two versions of your résumé, but paying special attention to a “short form” that may not see a second page, and never sees a third. “Résumés should be two pages, period,” says Lorraine Hack, a former CFO herself who’s now a Heidrick & Struggles partner.

“A recruiter is going to make a decision probably within 30 seconds whether they’re going to read it or not,” says Walter Williams, a partner and finance-search specialist with Battalia Winston International. But that brief introductory résumé should just be one of a number you prepare, holding back longer ones for other purposes once you’ve got your recruiter. “If you’re really thinking about two or three different directions in your career, you probably want two or three different ésumés. Hoping to go from finance into operations? Prepare one for that.”

For that more-detailed version of the résumé, “I don’t have a problem with length because CFO searches usually involve people with 30-year careers,” says I.H. “Chip” Clothier, managing partner of boutique search firm HFC. “But you have to know when to stop.” Enough said.

Tip 2: Prove You’re a Problem-Solver

After briefly dealing with length, recruiters turn quickly to suggesting ways that finance executives can highlight their ability to solve the many problems that a CFO is heir to.

That calls for being specific about areas of experience or expertise. “IPO experience, M&A or international experience. I would say those things would be highly noticeable, and you don’t have to use a lot of words to express it,” says John Wilson, CEO of J.C. Wilson Associates. “Simply put under ABC Co., ‘I helped them go public in June 2004.’ That’s a simple way to telegraph something that’s really noticeable.”

“I like to see an element of creative problem-solving that ties back to accomplishments,” says Clothier. “For example, describe how your Sarbox compliance program was completed for less, in terms of cost, than at comparably-sized companies. Or note how one of your initiatives changed upstream business processes to deliver better data to the finance department.”

One step to doing that may sound too simple: “Write a résumé that shows you understand the role of the job you are applying for,” says Cary Morrill, vice president of OakBridge Inc. And it’s here that creativity — that characteristic that goes beyond “guidelines” — comes into play on the résumé, as well as on the job.

Tip 3: Show Progress

Part of the challenge of being brief “is to focus on the last three or five years, and possibly the last 10,” says John Challenger, CEO of outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Make sure the résumé is not jammed and is well-edited, focusing on key accomplishments that might catch the eye of the company leader — potentially your next boss.”

Adds Hack: “Some senior résumé writers do things that make them look junior, “like including a college grade-point average,” says Hack. And if you really WANT to, don’t even consider it unless you had a 4.0. “That’s achievement out of the ordinary. A 3.5 is not.” If you went to a good prep school, “I think it is better bring that up in an interview, and leave it off your résumé.”

In his frequent dealings with venture capitalist firms, San Francisco-based John Wilson notes, they often seek “a track record with successful companies.” So he recommends emphasizing the growing size of the company as you change jobs, if that’s possible. “In our own research, we’ll look into that pretty deeply to figure out ourseleves whether the company was successful in that period of time,” he says.

Whether or not your successive jobs are with larger companies, as you illustrate your pattern of progress make sure that the company is sufficiently described. “Put a brief description of what the company is. I don’t want to have to go to Hoovers to figure it out,” says Williams. “Is it a subsidiary? Public or private? Tell us.”

And pay special attention to the title vice president of finance, he cautions. “That’s sometimes the CFO, but not always. If you served as the CFO for a division of the company, say so. You need to define what the job is, and to whom you reported.”

Tip 4: Embrace the Gap

Gaps in the chain of experience are huge problems for recruiters who scan short-form résumés. They agree that you should account for all periods. While you want to show progress from job to job, you must explain what you did when the normal ladder-climbing seems interrupted. But don’t be afraid to put the spin of true personal benefit on years that, without an explanation, might appear “lost.”

“Don’t hide dates,” is the simple way Lorraine Hack puts it. “Include all years when you list current and prior jobs, as well as the year you graduated college.” Afraid it will show your age? Get over it. “We are going to find out anyway when we check you references,” she says.

As for time away from work, “you can describe it as time off. But to leave it out creates huge question marks,” says John Wilson. It can often be a positive — and proof of a well-rounded candidate — to describe non-work things that happened in your life. Explain that you took time off to take care of a sick family member, or even to travel. “Did you write a book? Sail around the world? That’s okay?” says Wilson.

In fact, who’s to say? That sailing adventure could win you a key job with Larry Ellison at Oracle.

And as for any strategic work outside the finance department at a company, that can be special. “A CFO résumé should include non-financial experience, including being a sounding board for the CEO or getting involved in operations or sales,” says Clothier. “You have to show that you think about strategy, and that you’ve made decisions that were not just numbers oriented.”

Tip 5: Pay Attention to Design

In the form of the résumé itself, reverse chronological order is a must, emphasizing those most recent years and showing your progress. Most recruiters love bullet points, which are crisp and clear and allow you to avoid the “Next I Was…” syndrome. But mainly, avoid clutter.

Recruiters are divided, however, on just where to include credentials, although most seem to suggest they be put at the end.

“Listing a CPA up-front may be the one exception, if you are looking for a corporate finance job for which having that credential is required,” says Challenger.

“Don’t take up space with the line, “References upon request,’” says Hack. References eventually will be checked, if the candidate moves through the hiring process successfully.

Tip 6: Be Clear and Use Action Words

Crisp, clean, concise: Write your résumé the way you would explain and defend a business decision to other senior managers. “An executive should be able to drive home a point in a résumé,” says Hack. Do that by using “plain English” and the active tense, insists Morrill, who quips that an executive résumé “is not a college term paper, where you score extra for using big words.” Further, using action words creates a more engaging résumé, she says.

Direct all that clarity to helping the reader understand how finance department efforts advanced the company’s business goals during your term there. For instance, if you had a hand in improving costs, include a single sentence that explains how much was saved, over what period of time, and how the results pushed corporate goals forward.

Note: Watch for a second installment soon of what we’re calling Tips & Traps for résumé writing. It’s called Third Rails for Résumé Writing.