How to write an executive CV

How to write an executive CV

This week (and as a favour) we’ve been helping a friend of Wordtree’s to write an executive-level CV. Our friend has a stellar background – with titles like CFO and CEO featuring prominently.

They’d already had an executive CV creation agency update their resume. But the results were standard – and written in dense, clunky, business-ese. The CV made our hugely interesting and accomplished friend sound like a generic suit.

In these days when the initial stages of talent search are so often carried out by algorithms, there’s an argument that CVs should be this formulaic – and that every CV should sound exactly like the one it’s up against. In other words, job seekers now very often have to be aware that if they don’t include some exact words, phrases and attributes, their application will be binned by a robot in the preliminary filter.

But this isn’t what happens to CVs for executive and non-executive board roles. Instead, the first filter for these documents will be an experienced, highly trusted executive talent consultant.

This person does not want to read a document that’s written in the style of an MBA essay. What they need to get to – and quickly – is:

  • Core strengths
  • Key achievements
  • Philosophy and approach (or leadership style)
  • Exactly who you are

Use the profile section at the top of your CV or resume to spell this out – clearly and compellingly.

Core strengths

What’s your secret sauce? What great combination of skills/approaches/experiences do you have that gives you the unique ability to propel a specific kind of organisation to success?

Key achievements

What results did you get? You need to be able to give the reader of your CV the confidence that you’re worth looking into further. Did you turn an organisation around? Did you stop it from going under? Have you presided over a change in culture or wide-scale transformation? This needs to be in the top chunk of your CV.

Philosophy/approach/leadership style

What makes this work so exciting and fulfilling for you? What kind of a leader are you? Hands-on and empathetic? Or slightly more removed and technical? There are many styles of successful leadership – and yours is right for a particular kind of organisation. If you spell out what fires you up and the circumstances you thrive in, you give yourself a better chance of being put forward for the kinds of roles you’ll be a great fit for.

Exactly who you are

When people write their own CVs, there’s a temptation to make it all about the business achievements. But while these are important, on their own they don’t necessarily tell you much about an applicant’s values or motivations. If you run marathons in your private life, mentor young businesses, volunteer your time, set yourself challenges… or breed prize cyclamens – then you’ll be helping yourself by factoring these activities into your CV.

This doesn’t mean that you should bang on about how many marathons you’ve run, or how many new types of plants you have named. But what you should do is show how these activities are a product of your values – because this makes them proof points about your leadership style.

For example:

Jo Bloggs is a motivating, guiding force on a number of corporate and charitable boards. She supports colleagues to hone their approach and build confidence – in the same way that she tackles training for road races across the world.

What follows should be an interesting, readable summary of recent career highlights, followed by an even shorter summary of places worked and positions held.

If you’re thinking of updating your executive CV sometime soon, here are some dos and don’ts…

Don’t try to be everything to everyone

Executives – even the very best executives – are often in the position of looking for a new role because their own is no longer tenable. Companies merge. Shareholders can get feisty. In short, circumstances change. And when they do, garden leave and brushing up a CV can follow.

If you’re in this situation, it wouldn’t be surprising if your confidence has taken a little dink. And when you’re not confident (or at least as confident as you can be), it’s easy to fall into the mentality that you just need a job, any job. And competition is fierce for these roles… so the exactly right one may not come around for ages…

However counter-intuitive it may feel, don’t try to be everything to everyone. It’s a surefire route to a) not finding the perfect match and b) not standing out enough to get brilliant companies interested in you.

So be clear. You’re a details person who gets a kick out of innovation. Or you’re a high-level strategist who surrounds themselves with the best details people in the business. You should actively try to exclude yourself from organisations who don’t need someone like you.

Don’t fill in a form, send it off to a CV churn factory and cross your fingers

CV churn factories churn. They will tell you how highly personalised everything is. They’ll tell you you’re in control. But what you get back will make you sound average. They may well knock out a better CV than you could… but if it isn’t selling you properly, it’s no good.

Instead, make sure you have friends who can help. Maybe that person is a coach or a former colleague – or an agency like Wordtree. Whoever it is needs to care about you – and know you – well enough to challenge you, pull out information from you and write a CV that’s memorable and impactful.

Don’t write an MBA essay

Language style for CVs is hotly debated. First person or third person? Business BS or plain English? We don’t think it matters particularly if you write your profile as: “I am a…” or, “Jo Bloggs is a…”

What we do think is important is to differentiate. Remember the executive search person. They are only paid when they find the best match for their clients’ organisations. If everyone’s CVs sound exactly the same, it’s difficult for them to do their job. But when yours stands out and they can think: “Oh yes, that’s the guy who set up a nationwide financial literacy scheme for young adults and who increased his company’s turnover by 30%…” this is when your CV goes to the top of the pile.

Our advice? You’re not writing an MBA essay now. Your writing a potted history of you – so do it in a way that stands out.

Don’t write huge lists of bullet points

We have seen exec CVs with lists of 20+ bullet points. A CV isn’t a management briefing or tick sheet. It’s your story. So edit it well and tell it well.

Bullet points are boring. If you’ve got four or five of them, fine. Any more, do something different.

Do be honest – but don’t dwell on negatives

It’s fabulous when your achievements are super-positive. You turned the company around. You increased turnover. You turned it into a global brand. When your story is this positive, you may not even need a CV; the headhunters may knock on your door instead.

But for most senior leaders, the story isn’t this clear-cut. Your best achievement might have been to keep the business afloat in desperately challenging circumstances. It might have been to sell it. Alternatively, you may have decided to walk away from it – or been forced out of it.

If your most recent experience hasn’t been wholly positive, there can be a temptation to gloss over it. And in CV-writing terms, this usually translates into a lot of meaningless business speak about your day-to-day duties.

The best way, we believe, is to spell it out, but keep it positive. For example:

I successfully transitioned XYZ Ltd through its recent merger with ABC Ltd. Despite challenging circumstances, I reassured existing clients and retained all existing business. XYZ-ABC Ltd is now one of the largest operators in the sector.

Could just as easily be expressed as:

I was replaced as MD of XYZ Ltd, following the merger with ABC Ltd and am currently on garden leave.

But the first version is much more useful to both the talent search executive and their client, because it tells them that even when the going got tough, you stepped up and did what was right for the company. You sound like a fighter and consummate professional, rather than a casualty.

Do market yourself

It’s not unusual for very senior decision makers to hold marketing in lower regard than, say, finance. As a result, they often don’t know how to market themselves very well.

But make no mistake, a CV is a marketing document – and the recruitment firms and their clients are a commercial audience.

This means that as well as talking about yourself in your CV, you should be considering their needs. And when you do talk about yourself, talk about yourself in the way that a marketer would:

  • Identify your unique selling points (USPs)
  • Give your audiences reasons to believe (proof points)
  • Make the document memorable and interesting

Above all, make sure your own personal brand (your philosophy, what makes you tick) is present throughout your CV.

Do ask for help

Think of writing your CV as a 360 degree appraisal. Get others to help you identify your strengths – and help you to see your achievements from different angles.

And if you’d like our help with any of this, you know where we are.