The 21st Century Resume

In a world in which access to knowledge is democratized and elite universities are exposed as little more than factories for social network currency and expensive badges, how should we be reading resumes? (Assuming, that is, that we should be reading them at all.)

While it depends on what exactly you are looking for, I’d bet that most 21st century jobs value:

Capacity for learning over knowledge.

Ability to build and provide value to networks over credentials and badges.

Expanding disciplines of responsibility over contained functional expertise.

Facility navigating multiple cultures over being able to thrive within one culture (note: culture is not the same thing as nationality. Not even close.)

Sustained and deep effort that result in exceptional skill in an area of interest.

GPAs, going to a fancy school and job titles with incrementally more seniority are terrible proxies for these sorts of capabilities. Which is why I’d rather see a resume that:

Tells me the latest skill you mastered and what you’re working on.

Describes a knowledge gap you had in your latest job and how you filled it.

Identifies the networks you’re a part of or have created, and what you’ve done to strengthen them.

Helps me see that these networks bring together all sorts of different people with a shared purpose.

And highlights a few areas in your life where you’ve been putting in the hours for a decade or more, even if it has nothing to do with “your job.”

We can do so much better than a listing of schools, job titles and “accomplishments.”

And what better way to stand out from the crowd than to have a resume that actually stands out?

It’s true, most people reading it won’t like your new resume. That’s good news, because your 21st Century Resume will serve as an automatic filter to help you identify the kind of people you want to be working with in today’s fast-changing world.

Don’t ask for career advice

Most of the time, most of the people you ask for career advice don’t know you well enough to usefully tell you what to do.

Most of the time, they will instead tell you what they did at that time and in that situation.

That’s useful to know too, but they are not you. While they will likely have more experience than you, and, possibly, more wisdom, there’s a bright line between “what have you learned?” and “what should I do?”

Ask them about what they have seen and understood. Ask them to share what the view looks like from where they sit. Ask them for perspective on what it takes to do the things you want to do.

But what you should do? That’s only up to you.

Six months later

When I was in business school, private equity was all the rage. I’d never been an investment banker, and I didn’t even really understand what private equity was, but I did throw my hat into the ring for a few private equity jobs.

The notion of actually getting any of these jobs filled me with dread. I had no passion for that work, and I only managed to land interviews with lesser-known firms where the people I met seemed to truly dislike their jobs and the lives they’d signed up for for the next 5-10 years. I vividly remember the pit I’d get in my stomach waiting for these firms’ final decisions – fearing I might actually get one of the jobs I’d applied for.

When I did get a couple of those job offers, I remember discussing them with classmates who said I had no choice but to take them. Objectively I was not qualified, yet I’d managed to get my foot in the door. I should take the job to learn the ropes, as a stepping stone to the next one and the next one and… My friends essentially rolled their eyes at me for even considering turning the jobs down.

One person, not a classmate, shared a different perspective. He said, “six months from now, all of these people who are telling you what to do, all of these people whose approval feels really important right now, they’ll all be gone. Six months from now it will just be you sitting at that desk at whatever hour of the day. Not them, you. Think of how you’ll feel six months from now when you’re the one doing the job. That will tell you what you should do.”

This isn’t a post about following our passions. Even the chance to follow a true passion only comes up once in a while – most of the time we don’t know what our passions are or we don’t have the skills, the perspective or the wisdom to really make the dent we dream of making in the universe.

But we do, each and every day, and especially when we are at real junctures in our lives, have the opportunity to understand the choices we make. They are our choices, and the minute we own them is the minute we understand who it is who is walking our path.

It is only us.

Which skills are you practicing?

Maybe today, right now, you’re in a prestigious job (or one that promises to be).  It challenges you but it really isn’t your life’s work.

What do you do?  It’s especially hard to get out, because the pay is probably good, the whole undertaking is well-recognized by friends, peers, and family, and you’re continuing to grow and learn.

So you say to yourself: there’s no real risk in staying put.  I’ll be just as qualified (more qualified) to get that job I really want a few years from now as I am today.

But there is a risk, and it comes from confusing the ability to get the next job and the ability to do the next job.

To get really good at something requires very specific skills.  Selling isn’t the same thing as marketing isn’t the same thing as investing isn’t the same thing as advising isn’t the same thing as building a team isn’t the same thing as really understanding what happens when your suppliers give you crappy payment terms and you run out of cash.

So the risk is this: putting off (for years, maybe) starting to become really good at that thing you’re meant to be doing.

Sure this is fine, but what are you waiting for?

It’s not you

I busted my left knee a little more than 15 years ago in a skiing accident – torn ACL, meniscus tear, the works.  I was on ski vacation with 20 people I didn’t know, the guest of a member this big group.  The first morning, I awoke groggily at 7am to a foot of fresh snow piled on the window sills.  But most of the group slept in, and between putting on snow tires and getting ski rentals for nearly everyone, we only made it to the top of the mountain by noon.  Young, eager and frustrated, I soon pitched myself past a sign marked “cliff area.” Three turns in, I discovered a side of mountain without a lick of snow.  Crash!  It’s amazing I didn’t do more damage.

That was in 1993, and over the years I’ve quietly eliminated one high-impact sport after another in deference to my ailing knee. A year ago, my knee started acting up again, and with it went the last semi-high-impact activity – squash – that was left in my repertoire. The good news is that, thanks to a good (if gruff) orthopedic surgeon, a successful arthroscopic surgery and some rehab, I’m back on my feet, and slowly making my way back onto the squash court after a one-year hiatus.

As the excitement of getting back on the court has waned, I’m smack in the middle of ample opportunity for self-criticism – all the things my squash game once was and is no more. And this has gotten me thinking: how can I fix the things that I need to fix on the court without spending all my time thinking, “I’m terrible! This is awful! That’s an easy shot I just missed!”? How do I grow without all the self-criticism?

Which of course is connected to my professional life.

I’m a firm believer that the best jobs are ones that offer real opportunity for growth.  People often take that to mean jobs where you can take on more responsibility and get promoted, but I think that’s only half the equation.  The other half is finding an environment where people give real, constructive criticism (positive and negative) about what you can do to grow into the leader you want to be.  Work environments that encourage and nurture this kind of feedback are rare.  Rarer still is having the professional trust and personal confidence to be able to take on this kind of criticism, hear it for what it is (constructive), and integrate it in a positive way.

Which brings me back to the squash court, and all the games that I used to win that I’m currently losing.  And it’s forced me to ask: why is it easier to acknowledge a criticism on the court than it is at work?

I think the answer is that, on the squash court, (self) criticism is about what you do.  “Don’t stand too close to the ball.”  “Anticipate the next shot sooner.”  “Take your racquet back earlier.”

At work, self (or external) criticism feels like it’s about who you are.  So when someone gives you feedback on how you run meetings or speak in public or what you put in emails or the way you go about analyzing problems, you first reaction might be, “How dare he say that about me?”  

“About me,” not “about what I do.” This is where you might trip yourself up.

The trick is to remember that both situations are the same. Both are about what you do, and how doing some things differently, some other things more, and another set of things less, you can be more effective.

Separating yourself (the actor) from the things that you do (the action) might just give you the space to hear the criticism for what it is: an act of support; an offering by someone who wants you to succeed, showing you what you can do differently to be the leader you want to be.

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How do you know if a job will be “perfect”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jennifer’s comment on last Friday’s post about The Perfect Job:  “the perfect job” doesn’t exist for 90% of the population.”  According to CareerBuilder, 1 in 5 people love their jobs and about half are satisfied.  So it seems that most people aren’t miserable, but it still begs the question of how to find a job that you’ll love.

A little more than a decade ago, I was living in Spain, slogging through my third year of working 80+ hour weeks as a management consultant.  Late one night, my face bathed in the cool glow of a spreadsheet on my laptop’s screen, I noticed that I was spending much more time with my work colleagues than I did with my someday-to-be-spouse (let alone non-work friends).  Looking forward to the many decades of my career still to come, I realized that if I was going to spend so much time and energy at work, I should do everything within my power to find not just a good job but a great one.

But deciding to do this and getting it done are two very different thing.  Landing the right job takes a combination of determination (to find what you’re looking for), skill, luck and a whole lot of good timing.

But occasionally, when everything lines up, you get that chance.  And then it’s worth asking: how do you know if this job is the one?

Here’s a thought:  in each interview, ask the interviewer, when it’s time for Q&A, “Do you love working here?”  Not “like.” Not “enjoy.” Not “value.”  Ask if they love their job.

Because the question you really want to answer for yourself is: “Will I love working here?”  And no one really knows that for sure.  But if no one loves working there, what are the chances you will?  And if a place has so much mojo that most people DO love working there, don’t you think the odds are pretty high that you will too?

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What’s the right career move in the midst of an economic meltdown?

Take a chance.

Really, things are bad in the economy anyway.  It’s a hard time to get a job.  Why not take a stab at that wild idea you’re hoping to get to…someday?

Not long ago I was invited to speak to a career panel for college seniors and recent grads.  I find it tough to give out career advice – it feels like it devolves into “let me tell you what I did in my career” as if that’s a blueprint for anyone but me.

The backdrop for the panel was the blowup on Wall Street, which has only gotten worse in recent weeks (today’s 10.88% rise in the Dow notwithstanding).  I do think we’re in for a protracted period (a few years) of slow economic growth.  This means job losses, wage stagnation, the works.  So now is tricky time to be an eager recent college graduate with limited work experience who is looking for a job.  You’re likely competing with all the folks who have just been laid off (or are about to be laid off), interviewing with companies with very tight budgets who have people lining up outside their doors.

And my best guess is that this will be a record year of applicants to MBA programs, law schools and the likes.

Which is why I think now is a great time to take a risk.  Do you have an entrepreneurial idea?  Pursue it now.

For most everyone, the next couple of years are going to be tough going.  Why not take a risk and try that idea that’s been on the shelf just waiting for the right moment?  You have less to lose now than you did before, and since the foundation for “overnight success” takes years to build, you may as well start laying that foundation today.