Along the curious road of a job search, job seekers inevitably encounter the challenge of describing what it is they do—what makes them successful in their work. With 15+ years in executive search (recruiting/headhunting) and more recently 5+ years intensively working as an executive and career coach—I have a perspective to offer about how effectively to share success stories. So, let’s dive in.
One of my favorite clients, let’s call her Sue, is an experienced, efficient and effective administrative assistant. She also has many years of working in law offices supporting solo practice attorneys. She can and does do it all for her bosses—allowing them to focus on what they do well while she tackles the administrivia. She is an administrative champion!
However, she wants to advance in her career and is engaged in a job search to find a more corporate-oriented position. She struggles to articulate what it is she does in her day-to-day routine, believing her work is not very complex. An adept editor for everyone else’s copy, she is pained to write her own resume and cover letters describing her work successes. If asked, Sue can tell you what she does, ticking each item off one at a time:
But, she can’t express in words how she creates magical calm out of chaos nor say what are significant accomplishments, which make her so valuable that her bosses can’t live without her.
Does this sound like someone you know? In my experience, most employees don’t easily talk about their job successes outside of a project debrief or a performance review. Many are painfully shy and happy to give credit to their ‘team’ rather than recognize the significant role they played in achieving a goal or milestone. Others are so competent, they expect to be successful and don’t pause to develop the story of how their contributions create great results. Almost all, adept at their jobs, know how to do their work well and be effective, but don’t spend time devising how to tell stories about why they are good at what they do. Fumbling for words, it’s as if they are so close to what they do, they can’t ‘unbundle’ the skills and attributes which make them valued and successful employees.
With many clients, I’ve noticed it can be hard to explain what they do because they know it too well. They are rock stars at their work; it is second nature to them. They’re unconsciously competent about their day to day activities. If you are one of those, challenged to describe your work, there is a free comprehensive resource about occupations in the US, found online. O*Net, sponsored by the US Department of Labor, is a resource on key characteristics of workers and occupations. Similarly, in Canada the National Occupation Classification 2011 (NOC) is the authoritative resource on occupational information in Canada. Another important resource for US job seekers is the Occupational Outlook Handbook which provides an overview about most occupations including a ‘job outlook’ which addresses if the demand for an occupation is perceived to be growing or shrinking.
These databases provide a great starting place for articulating what one does. There are hundreds of job/occupation profiles. O*Net summary reports feature detailed, categorized information on:
Consulting with client Sue, we investigated O*Net to reveal more about the work of administrative assistants. As we viewed the summary report, Sue immediately felt empowered. Reading the description of administrative assistant responsibilities, she began to reflect and talk about results. She was able to identify individual contributions which are a key part of her success. Recall, before she was challenged to describe what she did beyond a simple description.
O*Net helped her to ‘unbundle’ knowledge, skills and tasks so she could better identify bona fide accomplishments and describe them in her resumes and cover letters. For example, when we started working together she described one skill as ‘managing telephone calls’. In O*Net we found a more detailed description:
When writing a resume about telephone management skills, the O*Net blurb is a more complete description. The next step is to develop the phrase beyond a description and to create an accomplishment. As it happens, in Sue’s office, the managers set a goal to have a live person answer all calls (opposed to the call going to voicemail) at least 95% of the time. Their firm had phone system software which allowed this to be monitored. The administrative staff was successful in achieving the 95% answer goal. Because of this, one of the skills Sue listed on her resume was: Customer and Personal Service. An accomplishment written to support that was:
Customer and Personal Service
Based on surveys, O*Net summaries are objective and inclusive of the most common tasks and skills associated with an occupation. Your work responsibilities may not include all that is detailed in the O*Net summary report or yours may go well beyond what is listed. Some jobs are a combination of occupational reports. The summary reports helps the job seeker be more objective and to review the details within an occupation summary report from a bird’s eye view. This helps job seekers to build a specialized vocabulary to use with resumes, cover letters, accomplishment stories and in branding statements.
In an upcoming post, I’ll write more about the importance of success/accomplishment stories and how crucial they are to good interviews. For now, know that the resume shouldn’t be a recitation of your boring old position description. It should be a document highlighting the skills and accomplishments in your career.
Articulating important skills and telling a solid success or accomplishment story about your mastery of that skill is the foundation of a good interview. You establish the foundation for a good interview by carefully selecting the accomplishments you list on your resume. Like dominoes, this effort cascades and builds.
As a job seeker you too may have had difficulty describing your work or your results. As homework, I suggest you find the summary report in O*Net or the NOC which most closely matches your job title and responsibilities. Inside each report are items marked with a plus (+) sign. For each item, challenge yourself to tell a story about that item which shows you are resourceful, experienced and effective at the skills, task or knowledge base.
Choose the skills you list thoughtfully. Realize you are striving to tell a good story which will allow you to interview successfully. Use tools like O*Net and the NOC to make this process easier. Client Sue has finally written a resume that differentiates her administrative skills. Her resume is attracting interviews and it is only a matter of time before she lands in a new job. She credits O*Net which allowed her to go beyond being stuck.
Lynden Kidd is the CEO and Chief Career Strategist with Captivating Careers. A successful and sought after executive coach, trainer, author, and speaker, she is a hiring process expert. As an accomplished career consultant, Lynden has interviewed thousands of job seekers, led more than 300 career development training sessions serving 500+ job seekers resulting in employment and enhanced job performance for hundreds of professionals.