The Unwritten Rules of Applying for Executive Positions

by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR

As with many things in life, a healthy balance is often the key to success. This is doubly true for knowing when to ‘toot your own horn’ and when to be modest when writing one’s resume or curriculum vitae. If you do not tell reviewers how great you are in no uncertain terms, they may select a less qualified candidate. However, if you shout too loudly and proudly, you may come across as arrogant or be perceived as untruthful. How, then, does one find the ‘sweet spot’ in the middle that presents oneself as a well-qualified candidate whom the selection committee should pursue? Here are four guidelines for senior executives, who by their very nature have a long track record of noteworthy successes, and want to present a robust, but believable, resume.

• Claim your successes, but share the credit
• Enumerate your achievements, but do not provide every detail
• Be brief by being specific
• Tell the whole story, then edit it

Forthrightness and Humility
Most of the information that institutions learn about candidates comes from the candidate. Therefore, if this information is not supplied it cannot be evaluated. Introverts or the modest among us often feel awkward bragging about the things that we have done. Nevertheless, this is an occasion when you must stand in the spotlight. First, take the time to make a list of your many career accomplishments, then labor over how to present them in an appropriate way. This will likely include indicating how others have contributed to your success. No one succeeds alone, so give credit to as many other people as possible. This, in and of itself, is a sign of good leadership.

If you led the accreditation process, you might have been the main writer, but it is unlikely that you wrote every word. Showing humility by sharing credit will likely engage the search committee to you; the opposite might repel them. Saying that you have won three major awards because you have led teams of great people communicates the right image. On the opposite end of the spectrum, experts suggest that 60 percent of resumes contain some inaccuracy or falsehood. I imagine that many of these errors are due to exaggeration rather than outright fibs. In that light, sharing credit introduces a certain amount of realism to any application.

Research indicates that women tend to be less braggadocious than men and that men tend to overstate their abilities and accomplishments. This pattern should be acknowledged by the applicant and the search committee. While this is a sensitive topic with multiple layers of nuance that make me hesitate to mention it all, I would be remiss if I did not share this research-supported observation for your consideration and reflection.

Brevity and Specificity
When listing all that one has accomplished, not every activity deserves the same amount of air-time. It is important to be specific about the kinds of accomplishments that are relevant to the job at hand. A balance might be sought by listing all your major accomplishments, but not providing a detailed explanation of each item. Noting that references could provide more detail bolsters a claim without sounding conceited. Another method of keeping the length in check could be providing thorough detail for only a few of the most important and pertinent items while indicating that there are others. A label denoting a ‘selected’ list of awards, publications, or presentations is good advice for the accomplished senior executive.

Abridged Edition
Stephen King and other successful writers of both fiction and non-fiction, (I am not suggesting here that your resume is a work of fiction), have claimed that writing is 60 percent of the total effort and editing is another 40 percent. Editing sessions provide the opportunity for fresher, more critical eyes. If your cover letter sounds too self-absorbed or if it doesn’t sound compelling enough, it will be more obvious after you have had a chance to step away from your application materials for a while. Friends, colleagues, significant others, or consultants can also be helpful sounding boards and editors. They can help you hone in on the right kind, level, and amount of information to present.

Tightwire Walking
There is a lot riding on finding the right balance on one’s resume or CV. If it is not clear and compelling, you will not make that all-important cut between the group the committee wants to pursue further and the stack of resumes in the ‘maybe’ or ‘no’ piles. A list of accomplishments presented in grandiose terms may plant seeds of doubt in the reviewers’ minds. Are you too good to be true or are you ‘full of yourself’? Earlier advice to share credit, avoid exaggeration, get a sounding board, and to edit, edit, edit, are all methods of striking the right tone and presenting the right mixture of depth and breadth on a resume.

The arts of communication and persuasion are fully present in drafting effective application materials. The expectations for senior positions often require heroic efforts from professionals who are both accomplished and confident. Applicants must tell their story in the best possible way to be viewed in the best possible light while not sounding overconfident or cocky. This challenge is best met by carefully tailoring one’s resume for the specific opportunity that one is seeking, and by spending due time getting the words and the tone correct. The words used and ideas presented speak volumes for you in your absence. It is worth the investment of time to find the ones that portray your true character.

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