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Page Length for an Executive Resume?

Expert advice on the page length of executive resumes. The resume rules have changed!

Executive Resumes Must Speak Volumes, by Donald Asher
(As seen in careerjournal.com)

Has it been a while since you sent out an executive resume? If so, you may be near the top of your career ladder and seeking a much higher-level position. Potential employers will be reviewing your resume at a new level as well, so dispel any notions of merely “freshening up” your old version. You need a new document that adequately conveys your experience, seniority and prestige.

If you’re bound by old resume rules–can you still hear your college career counselor telling you to keep your resume to one page, use short sentences and start each line with a bullet?–you won’t come across as executive material.

What’s the difference between a professional and an executive’s resume? For starters, executive presentations can be longer.

Alan D. Ferrell, career director at Purdue University’s Krannert Graduate School of Management, requires students to prepare one-page resumes, but counsels experienced alumni differently. For them, Mr. Ferrell recommends a well-written two- or three-page resume since they’re expected to have many achievements worth citing.

“I don’t have any problem with three pages” for executives, he says.

Your document also should sell your abilities by placing your accomplishments in a relevant context. “An executive shouldn’t get stuck on the idea that a bullet ought to be one or two lines,” says Mr. Ferrell. “You can’t depict where you’ve made a difference in a line or two.”

But few executives can justify having resumes longer than three pages. If your document is near the four-page point, “you ought to spend time paring it down to three,” says Mr. Ferrell.

One method of including important details without boring readers is to prepare an attachment or stand-alone section, such as a list of projects, publications, scientific presentations, that can be set aside and read later.

John Lucht, a New York recruiter and author of “Rites of Passage at $100,000+” (Viceroy, 1993), agrees that there are no rules govering the length of an executive’s resume.

More critical than the length of a resume is its content and persuasiveness, he says. Employers who don’t want your particular skill set will ignore your credentials regardless of the resume’s length, while those seeking someone with your abilities will appreciate a lengthy summary of your experience.

In fact, companies using search firms and spending up to six figures to recruit senior executives want more detail on candidates’ resumes than first-level managers are expected to provide.

“People who need what you’re selling at the moment you get in touch with them are interested in knowing more, not less, about you,” says Mr. Lucht.

Four Critical Executive Resume Writing Tips

The following four suggestions will help executives to organize and compose a resume that adequately portrays their experience.

1. Tell readers about your employer.

Describe your company and the challenges you were hired to address before citing your accomplishments. This sets the scene for readers and helps you avoid repetition.

“That way, the reader knows a little about the company and the business environment, and [your accomplishments] will apply to anything you say after that,” says Mr. Ferrell.

Don’t be coy about your employer or your claims will be discounted.

“Most people over-generalize,” says Mr. Lucht. “Why say, ‘Worked for a medium-sized automotive after-market company in the Midwest’ when you can get to the point and say, ‘Worked for a $40 million muffler and tailpipe manufacturer based in Akron’?”

By succinctly and clearly describing the details of your employment, you’ll come across as someone who’s up front and open. You’ll tell readers that you’re someone who’ll be a good communicator in the years ahead, says Mr. Lucht. “Someone who traffics in vague generalizations isn’t someone you want to have to dig information out of on a daily basis,” he says.

Consider this example:

Able Equity Group, Boston, Massachusetts, 1992-2000
Chief Information Officer

Able Equity Group is a NYSE-listed, diversified financial services company with 950 employees and $147 million in FY2000 revenues. The company is a factor in money management, real estate and equipment leasing. Originally brought on board to standardize information systems after a round of acquisitions left the CFO unable to…

You also may use this format:

Selected by the Chairman of Waterman Industries to turn around negative trends at National Lock, a recently acquired subsidiary. National Lock was a $17 million company with 85 employees. The company had an excellent reputation for quality, but had failed to adjust to the exit of the founder and changing market conditions. My first task….

First-level managers work in departments, so the company’s big picture isn’t as important when deciding on their candidacies. But when evaluating the performance of senior executives, prospective employers must consider the business climate impacting the company. Don’t leave your readers wondering.

2. Provide a measurable context for each accomplishment.

To be credible, each accomplishment should be a precise, verifiable, quantitative claim measured against a suitable yardstick. Claiming you have “good communication skills” without placing them in a meaningful context will earn you demerits for those same skills.

Of the two essential elements to include in every accomplishment–the actual numeric achievement and the comparison to others–it’s “only the comparison that sells,” says Mr. Lucht. “When people follow advice to not say much, they leave out the best part.”

Making claims without providing a measurable yardstick is bad advertising and may alienate employers, he says.

“The reader isn’t stupid,” says Mr. Lucht. “If you make a claim, ‘Improved sales 30%,’ that may be a magnificent or a terrible performance, depending on the industry as a whole. If you were in a market growing 150% per year, then 30% isn’t good. If your sales declined 2% last year, but sales for major competitors declined 30%, that’s a wonderful performance. Your reader [wants] a standard of comparison against which to measure these claims.”

Savvy executives choose impressive yardsticks. Typical baselines might include performance gains or losses in the past year compared against results achieved by managers with similar assignments, companies with similar products, previous incumbents, forecasts or business plan projections, or all companies in your industry. Use creativity when determining what basis to use but never omit a yardstick or misrepresent yourself, or you’ll insult readers’ intelligence or “look like an idiot,” says Mr. Lucht.

In most executive searches, final candidates are investigated thoroughly. You’ll never succeed by inflating your achievements, and misleading claims can be fatal. Make sure your achievements are factual, verifiable and descriptive enough to make your point. Here are four examples:

President, High Tech: Took sales to $7.2 million per annum from $300,000 per annum, with ROS improving to 20% pretax profit from $600,000 loss on $6.5 million sales in FY2000.

V.P. of Procurement: Designed cost savings/cost avoidance program, saving a documented $4.6 million in first year alone, as verified by internal management audit.

E.V.P. and Division Manager, Commercial Bank: Out of seven retail divisions, ranked #1 in real estate loans, #1 in consumer loans, #1 in DDA growth, #1 in fee income, #3 in expense control, #1 in customer retention.

General Manager, Food Manufacturing Plant: Achieved highest production in the history of the plant to that time–160,000 tons per annum–with consistent 13% to 20% profit contribution.

No matter how much you’re tempted, don’t take credit for being the youngest or first man, woman, African-American or person of a certain ethnic descent to achieve a goal. Employers simply want to know if you can do the job. Quite frankly, pointing out that you’ve already risen beyond others with the same background is alarming. And think twice before listing multiple awards. Top executives devise and confer awards, not receive them. Improvements in the bottom line, and perhaps being quoted by the business press, is sufficient reward for them.

3. Tell anecdotes to illustrate business conditions.

Don’t be afraid to use a personal and conversational tone in your resume. Executives don’t have to adhere to the rule of never using first-person pronouns. An occasional I, we, my or our can provide an important emphasis at certain points.

“Sometimes an anecdote works as well,” says Mr. Lucht. “It’s a little more believable if there’s more flesh on the bones. With more perspective, [your resume can] come to life.”

Telling business stories allows readers to visualize you in action. Consider a hotel president’s business story.

President, Hotel Chain: We had squeezed costs and maximized occupancy to achieve one of the highest margins in the hospitality industry (cited by The Wall Street Journal, 1/24/98). At the time, I didn’t see how we could improve our bottom line except incrementally or through favorable market trends. Then, while reviewing individual property reports, I noticed the direct correlation between customer satisfaction and profitability. We decided to tinker with customer satisfaction as a profit factor, and discovered that for every percentage point we could increase customer satisfaction chain-wide, we contributed $10.2 million to the bottom line. We achieved a 4% increase in customer satisfaction with virtually no capital investment….

Business stories may include the same bottom-line data as a bulleted accomplishment item. They also can describe other involved people, market conditions or a surprising development. Good business stories are like any other good yarn: They’re engaging and illustrative. However, don’t use them as an excuse to blather endlessly.

4. Share a strategic vision.

Senior executives should create resumes that present a business or strategic plan for their future, says Joe Meissner, president of Power Marketing, a San Francisco-based outplacement firm that counsels senior executive candidates.

“You have to extrapolate forward,” says Mr. Meissner. “Where do you see opportunity out there and does the document support it? The resume is about the future, too. Where do you see the market going, and why?”

Be sure to highlight merger and acquisition, market consolidation and other business growth challenges, says Mr. Meissner.

“A key difference in a superstar executive compared to a run-of-the-mill operating officer is they’re growing businesses through strategic mergers, acquisitions, partnerships and operating agreements,” he says. “This makes them bankable.”

Executive resumes needn’t be succinct, and can take 40 to 60 hours to develop, says Mr. Meissner. “They can be crammed with information, as long as they’re well-written and provide an impressive, detailed story about the executive.”

Take another look at your resume. Does it provide bottom-line data presented in context and in a captivating way? Does it convey your strategic vision for your industry and markets as a whole? If not, it’s time to revisit your business plan and shore up these details.

— Mr. Asher, a San Francisco-based career coach and business writer, is the author of Asher’s Bible of Executive Resumes and How to Write Them (Ten Speed Press, 1998), from which several examples in this article were adapted