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A Recruiter’s Perspective: The Right Way to Read a Résumé

3.31.2014

A quick Google search for "how to write a résumé" turns up millions of results: Templates, writing guides, tip sheets, sample résumés, even résumé consultants. But as any hiring manager will tell you, reading résumés is far less straightforward.

According to a study in 2012, most recruiters spend an average of six seconds looking at a résumé before deciding if the candidate is interview-worthy. Using eye-tracking technology, researchers found that many recruiters tend to glance at the candidate’s current position, skim previous experience, and look at the education section before jumping to a conclusion in less than 10 seconds.

But for a decision as important as filling an executive- or director-level role within a company, six seconds is not nearly enough time to make an informed decision. A résumé is not just a summary of a candidate’s previous work history: It is an opportunity to discover a person’s professional strengths, weaknesses, skills, and shortcomings.

For hiring managers and committees looking to hire an executive position, reading résumés closely is crucial preparation for interviews. Here are some suggestions to guide your resume reading process.

Approach each position differently.

A human resources executive will have a starkly different résumé than a CIO, and hiring managers should keep that in mind. Before you begin reading and comparing candidates’ résumés, you or an executive search firm should create position specifications detailing the role’s responsibilities and the ideal candidate’s skills, experience, and qualifications. The description should also include what the successful candidate should accomplish in the short and long term.

When you read candidates’ résumés, you should constantly ask yourself how they stack up against the standards laid out in the position specification. Look for candidates who emphasize both their responsibilities and their accomplishments. For example, a VP may be responsible for managing a team of 500, but their accomplishments could include reversing a trend of declining profits and accelerating revenue growth. Successful executives do not simply fulfill their responsibilities; they should be able to show how their leadership has added value to their companies.

Additionally, be sure to look for skills and experience that match up to your expectations as well as those that don’t. For example, as Alex & Red Associate Megan Dean wrote last month, military leadership experience may not have been a required qualification on your list, but a candidate’s time in the Navy could have prepared him or her for high-pressure situations and quick problem solving. Avoid eliminating candidates too quickly because they are currently working outside your company's industry.

Read between the lines.

A candidate’s work experience usually takes up the most room on their résumé, and rightly so—it contains crucial information on their professional background and leadership skills. In this section, the candidate will likely list their responsibilities for each position and describe a few outstanding achievements. But in addition to reading what the candidate has highlighted, notice what they have omitted.

Does the candidate have gaps in employment? If one position ended in 2003 and the next began in 2004, the candidate could have been unemployed for two weeks or eleven months. What about short tenures? The candidate may have held an impressive series of leadership positions at different companies, but did they stay long enough to implement any successful changes? There are good reasons to leave a position after one year or to take a two year employment hiatus, but the candidate should be able to explain their decisions during the interview.

Additionally, the length of the résumé may provide some interesting insight into the candidate’s personality and organization skills. For example, a ten-page résumé with lengthy, rambling paragraphs may indicate that the candidate is disorganized and verbose. If the candidate can’t succinctly summarize his or her experience, he or she may not have superior communication skills.  Of course, there are certain exceptions to this rule: Lengthy CVs are necessary and accepted in educational and health care fields.

Take notes.

Highlight or circle any notable accomplishments, promotion trends, and impressive project successes. Some candidates tend to pack their résumé with buzzwords like “strategic leader” or “results-driven expert.” Candidates who are truly innovative, analytical, and effective will show you instead of telling you, so let their career experience speak for itself. If a candidate emphasizes that she is “results-oriented,” don’t be afraid to ask in an interview about how they tracked, analyzed, and reported a project’s results.

You may also want to mark any spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and formatting issues. If a position requires attention to detail and superior writing skills, a sloppy résumé probably belongs to an unimpressive candidate. Consider a résumé an indication of how a candidate presents their brand.

Search for details about projects.

An executive role requires innovation and problem-solving. The best way to find out if a candidate has what it takes to be an executive leader is to examine their track record on significant, long-term assignments.

Has the candidate launched any new products or promotions? Did they lead a team in introducing a new information system? A candidate’s leadership ability in managing projects shows more about their talents than their day-to-day tasks. For each position that the candidate has held, look for specific mandates and efforts that they have directed. If they list them, remember to ask about them in the interview. If you don’t see any, they may be resistant to take charge of a team.

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