What Does Your CV Really Say?

Mar 5, 2010 by

How even senior executive-level applicants can get it wrong…

I had a CV the other day from a former, very senior, management consultant. Clearly a high achiever in his former career and yet his CV did nothing to sell his capabilities.

CVs are subjective and there is no such thing as a ‘perfect CV’ – run a mile from anybody who wants to take your money by telling you that there is! There are, however, some definite ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’.

In the case of our consultant above, the CV was full of egocentric ‘achievements’ and yet provided zero evidence of genuine success. It was also 5 pages long.

What do I mean? Let me draw on some examples:

“I managed multiple multi-million pound projects at a variety of blue-chip companies.”
“I managed a team of 20 people.”
“I increased sales in my region every year.”

What do statements like these really tell us? Was this gentlemen any good at project management and people management? How did he increase those sales? Wouldn’t answering those questions change the impression?

Context is everything. Putting an achievement into the context of the situation it arose from will make things clearer:

“One of my biggest achievements was to deliver a £3m project for J Bloggs & Son two months ahead of schedule and £120k under budget.”

“My team consisted of 20 people of whom, with my support, 4 were promoted into more senior roles within the organisation, and 2 others were transferred to head up business units elsewhere in the wider Group. Two of the team were performance-managed out of the organisation, and 1 was turned around from low to high performance as a result of a specific improvement plan that we worked on together.”

Consider the following options for describing a sales achievement:

“I increased sales in my region by 5% between 2008 and 2009.”

“In the period from 2008 to 2009, despite the market in general showing a decline of 7%, I was able to grow sales by 5%. I was able to do this by doing X, Y and Z.”

Which statement is more powerful? Ok, you need to pop the specific how stuff into the second one, but I hope you will take my point.

Your CV is a marketing tool, designed purely to get you an interview. It has to stand out by saying only the relevant and necessary, being concise and to the point. What you say, and how you say it, will have a profound effect on how the potential employer will view you before they ever pick up the phone to invite you in.

What do you think?

If you’re open to sharing your experiences and thoughts, or want to share what you’ve learnt with other job-hunters, why not get in touch or post your thoughts in the comments box below?


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  1. Julia

    Hi, following a comment from Stewart on Linkedin I thought I’d take a look at this site. I’ve read some useful suggestions (particularly visioning success, thanks!) and comments so I thought I’d also share a suggestion….

    With each submission whether application or CV I’ve submitted, I always follow up with a request for feedback. Sometimes people take the time to respond but oft not. One piece of feedback I received last week however, was that 77 applications had been received for a position I’d applied for. I was advised that my application was the only one that had included third party statements and comments to evidence achievement or skills I possess which had made it really stand out.

    I wasn’t shortlisted for the position, however feedback was positive and helpful. The suggestion was to continue with third party comments to support applications or use in covering letter with CV. Another discussion I had recently with a previous colleague was regarding achievements for inclusion in a CV (dependent on the position being applied for and what functions the employer is looking for candidate to fulfil). My view is that although some activities may not be cleanly quantified in terms of hard numbers, they can still be included in terms of delivery or intended impact (particularly in terms of public services); i.e.

    Created a learning manifesto for Wales to influence the lifelong learning and skills for work agenda

    Would you agree?


  2. Thanks Julia,

    Really useful and practical suggestion about providing the evidence of achievement and success. Excellent suggestion, thank you.

    As to your last point… “created a learning manifesto for Wales to influence the lifelong learning and skills for work agenda”

    I presume you know what you mean by this? I don’t!
    Please take this constructively…..
    What are you trying to convey with this statement? What message, about you, do you want the potential employer to understand when they read this? I have no doubt that this could well have been a successful and influential piece of work, but how do I know from what you have written?
    Who was influenced by it? What impact did it have? Is it one page in a 1000 page document or were you responsible for a major contribution to it or indeed all of it?

    I agree that, especially in the public sector, it can be more difficult to quantify success, but nonetheless, we should still try. I would start with a brief explanation of what the ‘lifelong learning and skills for work agenda’ is
    and therefore why your contribution to it is so influential.

    There’s lots of questions in there, so I’m sorry if I haven’t answered particularly directly, but it would be an interesting exercise to keep pursuing this to see if we can end up with a phrase that sits on your CV and yells out ‘look at me, I’ve achieved this!’

    Please do come back with further thoughts!



  3. Marc

    Hi Stewart

    Just to say thanks for the quick response to my comment regarding profiles on CVs and generic comments! To be honest if I were asked to describe myself I would put myself down as someone who is very good at enabling others to bring the best out of themselves and leading teams to achieve. On the other hand I dont suffer fools gladly and its hard to put that into a profile whilst remaining positive!!

    I can remember an interview I went for a few years ago and I mentioned the “not suffering fools” bit. The interviewers told me afterwards that they thought I had everything it took to do the role but were concerned that I might ruffle some feathers along the way! So much for honesty!

    I thrive when under pressure and prefer complex challenges; surely they’re not generic comments?!?

  4. Hi Marc,
    Thanks for the comment – although you’ve touched a raw nerve in this office…

    Firstly, and least controversially, assuming you are applying for a managerial position, how likely is it that somebody would write the opposite of your claim? Would they describe themselves as, ‘not good at enabling others to bring out the best in themselves, or leading teams to achieve’?

    So, whilst what you’ve written may well be true and accurate, how does it make you stand out?

    What if you wrote, ‘A demonstrable track record of success in leading teams, as evidenced by XYZ,’ or, ‘bringing the best out of people, seeing 7 of my 13-person team being promoted over a two year period’? Would that not have much more power?

    I would be careful not to get into too long a narrative, but hopefully you get my point. You could also use other, more unusual, achievements to highlight personality traits, such as running a marathon to highlight determination, or being on a PTA or Board of Governers or charity to highlight social responsibility.

    OK, more controversial: ‘I don’t suffer fools gladly.’ What is a fool? Who is qualified to label someone a fool? Is it someone who takes longer to reach a decision than you? Are they a fool because they have given it more consideration? Is it someone who disagrees with you? Is the truth that you simply don’t brook disagreement?

    Please be very, very careful with this well-worn phrase: it may say much more about you than you think, and it can sometimes reveal that the ‘fool’ is not the person you imagined it to be.

  5. Marc

    Thank you for that feedback and I take on board what you have said. I spent 22 years in the Royal Marines and I guess some aspects are hard to conceal.

    Without wishing to hijack a CV thread; I have a willingness to help those who are willing to help themselves, I have very little time for those who just wait for everything to come to them and more so, those who think they have a divine right to expect that.

    Unfortunately I find that is becoming more of a common trait and I’ll give you the perfect example. Whilst in Asda the other day I was stood at the till waiting to pay, in front of me was a young man, a description of whom I shall leave to your imagination. As they do, the checkout girl asked the young man if he’d like any help with his packing to which he just grunted a response. The girl packed his bags for him, remained polite and courteous all the time and was rewarded with complete ignorance. Not even a thank you.

    There are too many people in life who feel life owes them something without even having contributed; that is where I’m coming from with the fool remark. Respect has, in my opinion, been severely lacking now for a number of years; perhaps I’m just an old war-horse but to me common courtesy never hurt anyone.

    As I say though Stewart thanks for the comments and feedback, all of which have been taken on.


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