Getting a Resume Right
Six tips from executive recruiters about how finance
executives can catch their eye, and then win them
Marie Leone and Roy Harris, CFO.com | US
October 11, 2007
One might think that asking the opinion of a
half-dozen executive recruiters on an issue might get
you a dozen answers — or more. But in their
day-in-day-out experience dealing with resumes and
deciding which executives to represent, there's
surprising unanimity. Indeed, they seem to agree that
there are six areas where job-seekers must pay special
attention when submitting a resume to recruiters and
asking for help.
Their central theme: Make sure you present a concise,
clear record of problem-solving, and the strong
character that's needed for such a critical calling.
We talked to top recruiters — either finance
specialists or those most familiar with finance at
their firms — and broke down their suggestions:
Tip 1: Keep It Short
With all the substantive suggestions that recruiters
are aching to communicate, to a man and woman they
start off with brevity. To paraphrase the old adage:
"Brevity is the soul of search." But it's a special
kind of abbreviation they seek, of course.
Most experts suggest preparing at least two versions
of your resume, but paying special attention to a
"short form" that may not see a second page, and never
sees a third. "Resumes should be two pages, period,"
says Lorraine Hack, a former CFO herself who's now a
Heidrick & Struggles partner.
"A recruiter is going to make a decision probably
within 30 seconds whether they're going to read it or
not," says Walter Williams, a partner and
finance-search specialist with Battalia Winston
International. But that brief introductory resume
should just be one of a number you prepare, holding
back longer ones for other purposes once you've got
your recruiter. "If you're really thinking about two
or three different directions in your career, you
probably want two or three different resumes. Hoping
to go from finance into operations? Prepare one for
For that more-detailed version of the resume, "I don't
have a problem with length because CFO searches
usually involve people with 30-year careers," says
I.H. "Chip" Clothier, managing partner of boutique
search firm HFC. "But you have to know when to stop."
Tip 2: Prove You're a Problem-Solver
After briefly dealing with length, recruiters turn
quickly to suggesting ways that finance executives can
highlight their ability to solve the many problems
that a CFO is heir to.
That calls for being specific about areas of
experience or expertise. "IPO experience, M&A or
international experience. I would say those things
would be highly noticeable, and you don't have to use
a lot of words to express it," says John Wilson, CEO
of J.C. Wilson Associates. "Simply put under ABC Co.,
'I helped them go public in June 2004.' That's a
simple way to telegraph something that's really
"I like to see an element of creative problem-solving
that ties back to accomplishments," says Clothier.
"For example, describe how your Sarbox compliance
program was completed for less, in terms of cost, than
at comparably-sized companies. Or note how one of your
initiatives changed upstream business processes to
deliver better data to the finance department."
One step to doing that may sound too simple: "Write a
resume that shows you understand the role of the job
you are applying for," says Cary Morrill, vice
president of OakBridge Inc. And it's here that
creativity — that characteristic that goes beyond
"guidelines" — comes into play on the resume, as well
as on the job.
Tip 3: Show Progress
Part of the challenge of being brief "is to focus on
the last three or five years, and possibly the last
10," says John Challenger, CEO of outplacement
consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "Make sure
the resume is not jammed and is well-edited, focusing
on key accomplishments that might catch the eye of the
company leader — potentially your next boss."
Adds Hack: "Some senior resume writers do things that
make them look junior, "like including a college
grade-point average," says Hack. And if you really
WANT to, don't even consider it unless you had a 4.0.
"That's achievement out of the ordinary. A 3.5 is
not." If you went to a good prep school, "I think it
is better bring that up in an interview, and leave it
off your resume."
In his frequent dealings with venture capitalist
firms, San Francisco-based John Wilson notes, they
often seek "a track record with successful companies."
So he recommends emphasizing the growing size of the
company as you change jobs, if that's possible. "In
our own research, we'll look into that pretty deeply
to figure out ourseleves whether the company was
successful in that period of time," he says.
Whether or not your successive jobs are with larger
companies, as you illustrate your pattern of progress
make sure that the company is sufficiently described.
"Put a brief description of what the company is. I
don't want to have to go to Hoovers to figure it out,"
says Williams. "Is it a subsidiary? Public or private?
And pay special attention to the title vice president
of finance, he cautions. "That's sometimes the CFO,
but not always. If you served as the CFO for a
division of the company, say so. You need to define
what the job is, and to whom you reported."
Tip 4: Embrace the Gap
Gaps in the chain of experience are huge problems for
recruiters who scan short-form resumes. They agree
that you should account for all periods. While you
want to show progress from job to job, you must
explain what you did when the normal ladder-climbing
seems interrupted. But don't be afraid to put the spin
of true personal benefit on years that, without an
explanation, might appear "lost."
"Don't hide dates," is the simple way Lorraine Hack
puts it. "Include all years when you list current and
prior jobs, as well as the year you graduated
college." Afraid it will show your age? Get over it.
"We are going to find out anyway when we check you
references," she says.
As for time away from work, "you can describe it as
time off. But to leave it out creates huge question
marks," says John Wilson. It can often be a positive —
and proof of a well-rounded candidate — to describe
non-work things that happened in your life. Explain
that you took time off to take care of a sick family
member, or even to travel. "Did you write a book? Sail
around the world? That's okay?" says Wilson.
In fact, who's to say? That sailing adventure could
win you a key job with Larry Ellison at Oracle.
And as for any strategic work outside the finance
department at a company, that can be special. "A CFO
resume should include non-financial experience,
including being a sounding board for the CEO or
getting involved in operations or sales," says
Clothier. "You have to show that you think about
strategy, and that you've made decisions that were not
just numbers oriented."
Tip 5: Pay Attention to Design
In the form of the resume itself, reverse
chronological order is a must, emphasizing those most
recent years and showing your progress. Most
recruiters love bullet points, which are crisp and
clear and allow you to avoid the "Next I Was..."
syndrome. But mainly, avoid clutter.
Recruiters are divided, however, on just where to
include credentials, although most seem to suggest
they be put at the end.
"Listing a CPA up-front may be the one exception, if
you are looking for a corporate finance job for which
having that credential is required," says Challenger.
"Don't take up space with the line, "References upon
request,'" says Hack. References eventually will be
checked, if the candidate moves through the hiring
Tip 6: Be Clear and Use Action Words
Crisp, clean, concise: Write your resume the way you
would explain and defend a business decision to other
senior managers. "An executive should be able to drive
home a point in a resume," says Hack. Do that by using
"plain English" and the active tense, insists Morrill,
who quips that an executive resume "is not a college
term paper, where you score extra for using big
words." Further, using action words creates a more
engaging resume, she says.
Direct all that clarity to helping the reader
understand how finance department efforts advanced the
company's business goals during your term there. For
instance, if you had a hand in improving costs,
include a single sentence that explains how much was
saved, over what period of time, and how the results
pushed corporate goals forward.
Note: Watch for a second installment soon of what
we're calling Tips & Traps for resume writing. It's
called Third Rails for Resume Writing.