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The Most Common CV and Resume Mistakes, Part 1: It's All About Me

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By Shannon Houde

The most common mistake a job applicant can make is to think that their CV is all about them. As a sustainability career coach and former HR manager, I know this only too well. "But I can't delete that sentence!" a client will cry. "That project 10 years ago was really important!" I hear it all the time and, frankly, yawn. Because guess what? You can extract parts of your history and still be okay. In fact, you will be more relevant and marketable.

No matter what your college career advisor told you, your CV is most definitely not about you. It's a marketing tool. Therefore, it should be all about the market: appealing to the hiring manager, meeting the company's needs, using the organization's language, communicating what your audience wants to hear. A CV that goes into every tiny detail of your entire career history is absolutely not what a hiring manager wants to read. You have to do the screening work for them.

If you’re still not convinced, put yourself in their shoes: You've got 30 seconds to find out whether this person can do the job or not, what motivates them, whether they fit the company culture, and whether or not you want to work with them.

So if you want to avoid making this simple error, there is some work to do before you start writing your CV, and -- counterintuitively -- that work does start with you. Specifically, knowing yourself. The reason? By knowing yourself, you are in a better position to market and ultimately sell yourself. My bespoke framework was developed specifically for this purpose. It takes the pain out of the self-scrutiny by focussing on how you'd answer a hiring manager's four key questions before they've even asked them, and I'm going to share it with you here.

Hiring Manager Key Question 1: "Do you fit our company culture and team?" Also known as "What motivates you?"


This question is all about your values, your core beliefs, your ethics, the things that you hold true throughout your life -- not just at work. Your task is to come up with five or so nouns or short phrases that communicate your values. For example, 'respect,' 'making a difference,' 'holistic view,' 'leadership,' 'accountability' ... These are all good, strong professional values. What are yours?

Hiring Manager Key Question 2: "Do I want to work with you?" Commonly disguised as "How would someone describe you?"


This question is all about your traits and characteristics -- basically the way in which you deliver on your skills. It's your work style, your approach to your job, and it tells the hiring manager everything they need to know about whether you are someone they want to see every day, or even grab a drink with after work. Examples of traits or characteristics include adjectives like 'collaborative,' 'authentic,' 'persevering,' 'calm under pressure' and 'intrapreneurial.' Which words best describe the sort of colleague you'd be?

Hiring Manager Key Question 3: "Can you do this job?" Sometimes posed as "Walk me through your CV."


This is to figure out if you can actually do what the employer will be paying you for. It's your skills and relates specifically to the job tasks and what you'll be doing every day at the office. Think of measurable and tangible words, terms or phrases like 'develop strategy,' 'influence buy-in,' 'manage projects and teams,' 'engage stakeholders,' and 'drive bottom line.' This is a quick, easy way to communicate what you can do, but make sure you choose words that are backed up elsewhere in your CV -- don't get off track from your “story."

Hiring Manager Key Question 4: "What do you know about key CR/sustainability issues?"


This is about your knowledge, your speciality, your niche - and you need to narrow it down to between two and four. It could be sustainable supply chains, human rights, waste, water, or renewable energy ... You get the idea. This is your chance to show off your expertise, so focus! Maybe you could impress that little bit extra by linking your expertise to one of the company's sustainability KPIs. Now that's employable!

So before you dig out that old CV from your computer's hard drive and start tidying it up, spend a couple of hours reflecting on the above questions and come up with five or so words in response to each one. And remember, be clear, be concise! You've got 30 seconds, and counting.

Next month in Part 2 of this series, I'll explain how to use these insights to map your skills to the market. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter @walkoflifecoach to stay in the loop.

Image credit: the Italian Voice, via Flickr/ CC BY

Shannon Houde is founder of Walk of Life Consulting, the first international career coaching business focused solely on the environmental, sustainability and corporate responsibility fields.

3p Contributor

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