The Obvious Mistake That Even the Most Talented Executives Make


With the exception of career medical practitioners with professionally mandated, novella-length curriculum vitae, most people – even highly successful executives – allow their resumes to languish, and update them far less frequently than they should. The reasons are innumerable – takes too much time, too much of a chore, no pressing need – but even if you are certain that you will never leave your company or never be in the market, it’s always important to distill, analyze, and record the accomplishments, context, and trajectory your career has taken.

Whether it’s for future (or present) Board service, volunteer leadership, speaking engagements, or a myriad of other reasons, there is almost always going to be a time that you need to present your career “narrative” in synthesized form – and better to enshrine that year by year, than to reconstruct the story a decade or more after the fact.   

As you might imagine, we get asked many questions regarding resumes, and the best advice we can give is relatively straightforward and simple.

Topical vs Chronological

In terms of overall structure, topical versus chronological, the widely accepted best format is to present your career chronologically. In most cases, people who are interested in you are interested in understanding your career progression, what you did when and how – and it is far easier to ascertain that in chronological format than to try to “trace the dots” back from topically descriptive sections.  

However, that’s not to say a topical adjunct to the resume is inappropriate. When pursuing an opportunity in the search process, we counsel people to tailor their resumes as specifically as possible to a given role. Consider the position description as an “RFP.” Another way to augment that is by having a topically-oriented addendum that enhances the chronological resume, but is not a substitute for it.

Further to that point, it can be useful to have several versions of your resume positioning yourself differently. For example, if you have been both the CFO of a medium sized company and a Treasurer of a Fortune 100 company, and you are being considered for a CFO role, have a resume that reflects or emphasizes that area of your experience. Similarly, a Board resume should be an entirely different document – nix the details on the latest SAP roll-out, and instead emphasize strategic focus, corporate governance, and oversight experience.      

In describing your current and former roles and responsibilities, don’t just compile a list of duties, or cut and paste from a job description. Use the resume as a vehicle to describe how you substantively made your company better, how you drove positive change or improvement, how you met or exceeded your goals, and – importantly – put it in context. Laszlo Bock, Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, describes this as:

‘I accomplished X, relative to Y, by doing Z.’ Most people would write a résumé like this: ‘Wrote editorials for The New York Times.’ Better would be to say: ‘Had 50 op-eds published compared to average of 6 by most op-ed [writers] as a result of providing deep insight into the following area for three years.’ 

Remember that details matter! In addition to substantive, accomplishment-driven content in the descriptions of your roles, also include details on the specific companies and organizations you have been with – how much revenue, how many employees, etc., including specific business unit or divisional metrics if appropriate. 


It’s not standard, or even necessarily recommended, to include reference information on a resume – but another associated area that is often overlooked is, as simple as it sounds, keeping current contact information for those references. Time and again, we see people scrambling to find current contact information for that former CEO who retired to Bermuda ten years ago and fell off the grid. Even for people not inclined to keep in close touch with former colleagues, make it a habit at least once a year to update contact information, so that you’re not scrambling to do so during a vital phase of a search process, when you need it most.   

Whether it’s for pursuing that senior executive role with Company X, providing background information for your Nobel Prize nominating speech, or to round out biography information on the corporate website, keeping a resume updated, relevant, and serviceable is an absolutely worthwhile investment of time each year. Make sure to do so!

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