Without context you cannot tell the whole story of your career, your individual roles, or any achievement. Context clues give your readers perspective to enable them to see the bigger picture. As Merriam-Webster notes, context is the “situation in which something happens” or the “interrelated conditions” in which something occurred.
Let’s take an example from a resume I reviewed this morning. The document contained this bullet (which I have fictionalized):
- Turned around the declining strategic partner business for Cisco hardware into 4X growth in 5 months.
This is okay as far as it goes. It’s certainly good to note a turnaround and 4X growth in 5 months. But what’s the rest of the story?
- What was wrong with the strategic partner business that it needed to be turned around?
- How much revenue was this business producing prior to the intervention?
- What was the specific revenue trajectory?
- What volume of revenue did this business generate for Cisco overall?
- What does 4X translate into dollar-wise?
- How much time was given to this person to turn the business around?
If the reader has to ask all these questions to make sense of the achievement then the accomplishment lacks enough context clues. This lack weakens the achievement and the resume it is presented in; more importantly it weakens the candidacy of the person it represents.
There are 5 layers of context clues needed in a resume:
Title: Resume titles come in 2 varieties – position-specific and networking.
- Position-specific titles are the exact titles of the roles you apply for; these titles insert a few key words into the resume and begin the process of aligning your resume with the target role. An example of a position-specific title might be VP of Sales or Director of IT Strategy.
- Networking titles are broader than position-specific titles; they may even cover more than one role. These titles encompass one or more career targets as their purpose is to signal to your readers that you are open to a range of positions. An example of a networking title might be Senior Operations Executive: CEO | COO or Senior Supply Chain, Sourcing & Purchasing Executive.
- The level of title context your resume will have depends on which of these types of titles you use at any given moment. If you use a position-specific title you’re focusing the resume on one role, which means that title offers less perspective into your overall career trajectory. If you use a networking title you’re opening the conversation up to include multiple roles, which means that title offers more perspective into your overall career trajectory.
Tagline: Whether you use 1 or multiple taglines, their job is to provide perspective into your overall career brand and ROI. When written well, taglines focus your readers’ attention on specific elements of your brand and/or the impacts your work has produced for your employers to date.
- Taglines can also focus needed attention on specific aspects of your brand such as your education or credentials, awards/honors, leadership style, or thought leadership.
- Ideally taglines should align with your position-specific or networking title and begin shepherding your readers to read critical details of your brand or experience.
- If you were to use the last sample title noted above, can you imagine how powerful it would be to follow it with a tagline that highlights your supply chain, sourcing, or purchasing experience? Perhaps something like Captured $45M Savings on a $3.5B Global Spend.
Summary: Ideally your resume’s career summary should provide more context clues about you and your brand – your scope of experience, your strongest skills (as they relate to the position at hand), and your career ROI. This gives you 3-4 sentences in which to encapsulate those facets of your career which best position you with the audience you are targeting with your document. Context clues in your summary can take multiple forms:
- Big picture details help your readers understand the scope and relevance of your background. These might include a brief summary of your industry or sector experience, a list of the functions you are most familiar with, or mentions of specific employers or clients for or with whom you have worked.
- Pedigree details call attention to aspects of your background that are impressive such as degrees from renowned institutions, experience with industry leaders, tenure working for well-known executives, or certifications, licenses, or training that set you apart from other candidates. Examples would include a Harvard MBA, working for a company like Google or an executive like Jack Welch, or PMP certification.
- Career ROI is all about capturing and quantifying the impact your tenure has had on your employers to date. When woven together with your strongest skills this makes a powerful Brand you™ presentation. This practice requires you to do your homework, however, in order to be able to identify and measure your ROI throughout your career.
Position Descriptions: Each position described on your resume should be introduced with a 2- to 3-line overview that provides critical context clues for each job.
- What was the scope of the role? Use P&L, direct/indirect report numbers, and other key details to draw a picture of the position for your readers.
- What was the context of your hire or promotion? What were the key challenges that you faced in the role (which you solved, of course)? Rather than focusing on listing responsibilities, tell your readers the story behind them.
- Use a context “hook”: Recruiters often quickly scan the left-hand side of a resume before they read it. You can reel them in to the body of your document by leveraging a strong “hook” at the start of your position description. For example,
“Reversed double-digit declining sales trend within 6 months, strategizing and directing a division-wide performance turnaround encompassing 400 sales reps in 6 countries. Upgraded end-to-end sales operations with $3.2B P&L accountability; named to Executive Leadership Team.”
Achievements: Likewise each achievement on your resume should include context clues that help your readers grasp the full situation. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. Here are 2:
- Before & After Details: In some cases it will be helpful to give your readers a brief picture of what was going on prior to your tenure and during it. Were sales declining? If so, say so and quantify the decline in terms of dollars and the amount of time it had been going on.
- Compare or Contrast Details: In other cases it will be more helpful to compare your quantified results with the market, other teams, or other companies. Did you boost profitability more than your company’s competitors, for example, or did you offset rising commodity prices? If so, say so and quantify the contrast by supplying the same kinds of numbers or percentages for each side of the equation.
As I hope is now evident, context clues are critical details that help communicate your brand more clearly. When layered in a resume, these clues help prove the relevance of your candidacy for the position at hand. Use artfully and strategically, context clues can win you more interviews and help position you for more job offers.