Dear Sam: I look forward to reading your résumé information in the paper each week and now find myself needing some advice. I have more than 30 years of human resources, engineering, and project management experience with a Fortune 500 company. I retired and moved on to a position with a nonprofit trade association. I was very successful, however, due to a difference of opinion with my employer, I resigned from that position. Since then, over the course of the past two years, I have been trying to get back into nonprofit trade association management without much luck. Since I'm applying for association management positions should I forget about mentioning my 30 years of HR experience? How should I frame my reason for leaving my last employer? – Tom
Dear Tom: I’m so sorry to hear of the lack of response you have seen during your search. While this economy is tough, great résumés are still getting great results, so it is great that you are open to feedback to see how your résumés might be contributing to the results you are not seeing.
There are a number of strategies you can employ as a seasoned professional to avoid unnecessarily aging your candidacy on a résumé, while minimizing potentially disqualifying factors that you may or may not have considered. One of which however, which I feel is absolutely one of the main reasons your résumés are not generating results, is that you have removed all dates of employment. Sure to tell a story far worse than reality, this is a huge ‘no-no’ in résumé writing. Instead, why not built a substantial qualifications summary and then highlight key achievements, allowing you to push most of your employment dates to page two of your résumé? Other tips that might help improve the effectiveness of your résumés include:
Present only the relevant amount of experience — When reviewing your career, remember that hiring managers are much more interested in what you have done recently, so including information from 20 or 30 years ago may do more harm than good. Be sure to focus on the last 15 or so years of your career, particularly if you are applying for a position that does not necessitate more experience. As you are seeking a senior-level role, you certainly can bring in earlier experiences, but be careful how far back you date your candidacy. Early experiences (I really start evaluating the cost benefit of including a candidate’s experience when I start exploring work in the 1980s) can be bylined. In this strategy, you could date experiences from titles you held during the past two decades, while making only a brief mention of earlier positions without dates.
Consider the combination résumé format — As you are a senior executive it is likely that the hiring manager will be looking for a seasoned candidate expected to have 20+ years of experience. But, because I don’t know when you worked where, or when you held each title (as you have omitted that key data from your résumé), you may have to use the combination résumé format. Say your earlier experience is difficult to break into pieces as you held one title for a considerable amount of time, then the combination format could help you present highlights of your career before the professional experience section would be presented. Therefore this format allows you the opportunity to focus the reader’s attention on your qualifiers (type of experience) vs. potential disqualifiers (dates of experience).
Incorporate keywords and update jargon — You will also want to make sure the jargon used within your résumé is up-to-date with today's vernacular in the nonprofit field. Antiquated or unrelated terms and even job titles can serve to immediately disqualify a candidate. Certainly if you found your HR background a major plus in your recent role, then you would not want to omit it, nor could you when presenting an accurate picture of your background. I recommend reviewing all of your experiences—HR, engineering, and project management—and ensuring you are selling the transferability of the functions you performed in terms that resonate with your new target audience.
Revitalize your résumé format — If you are using a résumé format you used in the 80s or 90s it will not only show your age but not utilize some of the key strategies of a 21st century job search. Be sure your résumé is in line with today’s formatting standards, opening with a qualifications summary not an objective statement, focusing on accomplishments not responsibilities, and utilizing an engaging style of action-oriented content. Think about it, if a résumé is unattractive it repels readership, however if you have a pleasing aesthetic it compels readership and goes a long way to extending the screening process. Your résumés certainly could use a makeover to ensure they not only read well but also attract attention.
As for your question about how to frame your reason for leaving your last employer, this of course will not come into play until your interview. At that point honesty is always the best policy, but be sure to steer away from any negativity. Instead, focus on what the experience taught you about what you want in your next nonprofit engagement and employer, and of course, how the employer in front of you fits the bill.
With a review of these tips to “modernize” your résumé, your experience will shine and potential disqualifiers related to your fears of aging your candidacy will be removed from your résumé. I wish you great success!
As I work with a lot of clients with 20-30 years of experience, my website, and ‘Dear Sam’ archive, contain a number of samples which will reinforce the strategies presented above. View samples on www.ladybug-design.com/blog