Extremely long executive CV case study

L came to us to help her with her application for an academic executive position at a top university. The length and breadth of her career spanned several decades and three main paths; all of which were integral to this post – academia, executive leadership, and a particular branch of medicine/healthcare. L was vastly experienced in all of these, and had a wealth of accomplishments in all three fields. Amongst other things she had led well-known and respected institutions, and had influenced not only education, but also healthcare policy internationally.

Unquestionably, L is a very talented and energetic innovator and an internationally recognised subject matter expert in her field. At the same time it is worth remembering that at top level the calibre of candidates is usually very high, and competition is strong. Whatever your experience and achievements therefore, you still need to sell yourself.

As a book author, editor and someone who has had many articles published L is not new to writing, and she undoubtedly does have excellent communication skills. Even so, there is a difference between business/academic writing and selling yourself on paper to prospective employers. Looking at L’s original curriculum vitae CV writing wasn’t her area of expertise. However there is nothing surprising in that whatsoever as it is a very specialist skill. Notably, even the likes of communication chiefs and marketing directors come to us for help and to gain an extra edge over their competitors. There is a difference between good (or even excellent) writing and writing that gets you noticed over and above everyone else for much sought-after, well-paid jobs. Many high flying professionals understand that they can’t be specialists at everything, and in spite of her undoubted communication skills L was lucid enough to realise this too.

In L’s case, her original CV was extremely long, over 20 pages in length. Not only was it a deterrent to read, but it was also very passive and the sheer amount of text rendered it confusing and difficult to follow. It was also very documentary and matter-of-fact in nature – not unlike an academic article in some respects. There was no real attempt to sell her skills, although some other achievements and awards did speak for themselves – some particularly impressive accomplishments just do this without any building up or embellishments. Nevertheless, the fact remained that there were numerous issues with her original CV, not least the fact that it wasn’t focused, had anomalies/ambiguities and didn’t sell her skills and achievements anywhere near as well as it could (or should) have done. Additionally, she had the added complication of the fact that her CV as it stood wasn’t suitable for this particular job application (a major issue in itself)!

I am used to complicated jobs, but even so, all of these things added up to a long, intricate and difficult job. Moreover, matters were further exacerbated when L sent in several additional documents worth of extra information and notice of a short deadline.

I am used to working to short deadlines, but given the fact that the vast majority of people underestimate the time that is needed for top quality CV writing, what I consider a short deadline is four to seven working days (I appreciate that some people think it’s possible to write a top quality CV at the drop of the hat, but that is simply nonsense – quality inevitably takes time, and it is unwise to try to brush that absolute fact under the carpet). In L’s case, she had come to us rather late in the day – just four working days before the deadline. As such, it was already very much on the tight side, but the sheer number of pages, documents and ambiguities exacerbated things considerably.

Helpfully, in L’s case her four working days were sandwiched around a weekend, and I quickly pencilled in these two extra days (and I subsequently needed them!). It was actually fortuitous that I was free on that weekend, because sometimes I am not, but whenever possible I do my best to help clients, even if it means working weekends or out of hours.

Another thing which complicated things yet further related to the job application requirements. The job specification was particular in mentioning that applicants should apply with a “CV and covering letter”.

Quite specific and straightforward then? ….Well, not quite as it happens!

I have a lot of experience helping clients into high-level academic jobs, so I have a good feel for what the employers are looking for, as well as what they frequently require, and in this instance I said to L that I thought there was a mistake in the job specification, and the person who had written it had mixed up a “cover letter” with a “personal statement.” I asked her to double-check, and I wasn’t very surprised when she came back to me shortly afterwards saying that it was indeed a mistake, and that they actually required a personal statement, and not a cover letter.

It is rare and unusual that a mistake like this appears on a job specification, but it is very significant. Personal statements are not the same as cover letters, they have different purposes, different formats and need to be written in different styles from differing angles/perspectives.

When people come to us for help generally they tend to expect that we will help them with their CV, and nothing else. However, from time to time things like this do crop up, and our experience combined with the fact that we do go out of our way to help clients can not only frequently bear fruit in terms of strengthening their application yet further, and in ways that that they did not anticipate, but also go some way towards exceeding the expectations of customers who already had very high expectations.

As far as L’s CV was concerned; as mentioned it was extremely long to begin with, and was in no way, shape or form enticing to read, or even straightforward to follow. A primary task therefore was to rationalise the long content; making it clear and far more structured and manageable. An integral part of this involved refining the curriculum vitae down to a much better size. Another important task was to optimise it for the job specification and to highlight and substantiate the right sales message. Given the state of the original CV, and the considerable content and additional documents this was no easy task, and was certainly no quick fix.

Similarly, the personal statement took time and needed a lot of thought, care and attention. Indeed, frequently people underestimate the time required to write a top quality job statement. I get the impression that many people think it is similar to just writing a covering letter, which may go some way towards explaining the mix-up mentioned above. However, there is a lot more involved, more to think about and more things to address. Generally, a covering letter is a supporting document, whereas a personal statement is a main player in the job application process -or at least it should be if you do it right! Another consideration is getting the balance right. A personal statement isn’t a substitute for a CV or a covering letter, on the contrary it is a separate entity; addressing different things, and in a different way. Amongst other things, personal statements are also a test of your communication skills. Consequently, you not only have to think about what you are saying, but how you say them.

L also ordered a LinkedIn profile. Her original was quite basic and very standard. One thing I did for this therefore was to personalise it a lot more, as well as making her come across as a lot warmer and interesting. Amongst other things, I also reworded everything so that it sold her skills, and made her stand out a lot more – but in a very understated way. A lot of people do not understand the value of selling in an understated way, and most of those who do understand it actually struggle to pull it off when they attempt to do it. However, if you can pull it off it can be a lot more effective than a typical/standard corporate sales approach.

L said;

“Fantastic, you have responded quickly, been available and accessible and have presented me in ways I would not have thought of in a very rapid deadline!”

Paul’s book


Paul’s groundbreaking curriculum vitae book, ‘The One Page CV’ published by Pearson Education.

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