Job Hunting

Third Rails for Résumé Writing

Six traps that recruiters warn will make them toss a finance executive's résumé.
Marie Leone and Roy HarrisOctober 12, 2007

After offering an assortment of positive suggestions for writing résumés — about keeping résumés short, clear, and well designed, and letting them display problem-solving prowess, progression in finance, and candidate well-roundedness — recruiters were eager to follow up with warnings. Some of the faux pas they cite reflect pet peeves, while others target errors of a caliber that could end an otherwise promising job search very quickly, and perhaps painfully.

Some of these views are fairly subjective, but candidates should dismiss them at their peril.

Trap 1: Don’t Go Long

We know, “Keep It Short” was Tip 1 yesterday. But according to the recruiters we spoke with, it bears repeating in this Trap section. The concern of executive recruiters relates to that first résumé that comes to them; they all say it’s good to have several résumés handy for various purposes beyond introductions. Battalia Winston International’s Walter Williams proposes that candidates consider the “30-second rule,” recognizing that this is how much attention a recruiter will spend looking at the first unsolicited résumé. “In that 30 seconds you want to know what level they’ve achieved, what scale of enterprise they’re working in, and only then the quality of their earlier experience and their degrees.”

Trap 2: Expressing an Opinion

“I hate personal opinion in a résumé,” says I.H. “Chip” Clothier, managing partner of HFC Executive Search, who happily doesn’t have the same problem with comments to a reporter. The fault is epitomized for Williams in the cover letter that starts: “I’m the one you’re looking for” or “I’m the answer to a recruiter’s prayer.” Nightmare is more like it.

Call it the Jack Webb rule, named for the most famous line uttered by the actor’s “Dragnet” detective, Joe Friday: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Trap 3: Gamesmanship

“I hate games that candidates play with education,” says Clothier. Specifically, list degrees separately from certifications or executive-education programs. “Do not give these programs the same weight as your undergraduate and graduate degrees, even if it’s a Harvard certification.” And in general, in both your experience and your educational qualifications, “Don’t trump up your résumé to make it look better. The truth will come out in the interview, and if you’re stretching the truth, you could lose a lot of credibility.” Not to mention your shot at the job in question.

And especially now, “with so many CFOs tainted by Securities and Exchange Commission inquiries and bad press,” it’s important not to slough over finance-department problems that might have involved you, says John Wilson, president and CEO of J.C. Wilson Associates. “You’ve got to explain yourself very clearly, and what the outcome was if something happened.”

Trap 4: The Flabby “Objectives” Opener

“I’m not a fan of listing an objective; you don’t need it on a résumé,” says Heidrick & Struggles partner Lorraine Hack. “These paragraphs take up space, and can limit opportunities for a potential candidate by pigeon-holing their skills.” Adds Clothier: “I don’t read it. Everybody comes up with positive statements, and many of these paragraphs are becoming generic.”

Cary Morrill, vice president of OakBridge Inc., has no hard-and-fast rule against an opening “Objectives” paragraph, “if it is a well-thought-out objective, and not something generic.” If possible, she says, “it should illustrate your career progression and show the scope of your positions and your accomplishments. For example, in applying to be the CFO of an early-stage company, talk about your accomplishments in terms of growth, start-up expertise, and IPOs.” In general, she adds, “it’s best to keep specific accomplishments with specific jobs deeper in the résumé, and not up front.”

Trap 5: Errors

Errors are always bad, of course. And careful proofreading is a must. But especially for a finance executive, mixing up years and getting dates wrong “makes you wonder what the closing accounts are going to look like the first time you deal with the quarterly results,” says Wilson.

To Williams, though, that’s barely worse than the impression left by “gross misspellings of words.” He keeps a “hall of shame” for such offenses. His favorite: the too-many cover letters that begin, “Dear Fiends.”

Trap 6: That Cluttered Look

“Do not make font sizes infinitesimal as a way of squeezing more information on the page,” says Hack. And don’t narrow the margins, either.

Other things give the appearance of clutter — like acronyms. Crowded together, NIRI, AICPA, and NYSSCPA can boggle the reader’s mind. Even a few acronyms can be bad, if you assume too much. “The overuse of acronyms is particularly rampant in the financial-services sector,” says Hack. “And don’t assume that everyone knows that DSO means days sales outstanding. Recognize that executives outside the finance function will be reading your résumé, including human-resources executives or people in search committees.”

And avoid flashy fonts, especially those hard-to-read, script-style ones. “Recruiters are looking through résumés quickly; don’t make them hard to read,” says Hack.

“Creativity is OK in a brochure, but not a résumé,” adds Clothier. “Let the content, not the presentation, speak.”