Which category of jobseeker do you fall into?
- The historian. Shares every bullet point on her three-page, 25+ year resume, overwhelming hiring managers with details.
- The opportunist. Emphasizes so much willingness to do “anything and everything,” that there’s no figuring out the right fit for him.
- The generalist. Downplays her true skills with generic accomplishments like “building great teams” and “achieving corporate goals;” leaves no lasting impression.
- The reactionary. Needs a therapist and lets emotion about his last employer drive the conversation until the interviewer is screaming for the exit.
Many of us inadvertently fall into one (or more) of these stereotypes when asked to introduce our skills, experience and career goals. And, especially for executive jobseekers, those traps could kill your chances. Recruiters, hiring managers and networking contacts need a clear picture of your unique strengths and ideal role—and all in just a few short sentences.
Enter the professional narrative.
Your career story in two minutes or less
A professional narrative captures your career story at its most concise and memorable level. Ideally, that’s about two minutes in conversation, and less than 200 words when written. It’s a power-packed paragraph that when done right, clearly differentiates you in the job market, identifies your target role and keeps you top of mind.
The professional narrative forms the foundation of a successful executive job search. That’s because it addresses the most important questions for career transition.
- Who are you as a senior leader?
- What do you do best?
- Where do you add value to an organization?
- What is your ideal next step?
Those questions can seem straightforward. However, taking time for self-reflection, and getting outside perspectives from colleagues, career coaches or your outplacement firm, results in a stronger, more succinct story.
Avoid clichés and forgettable phrases; focus on specifics
Here’s an example of the transformation:
Original summary: “I started my career in brand management about 20 years ago in California, after getting my MBA from Stanford. I also have a B.A. in business from UCLA. I bounced around for a bit and had really good opportunities to travel and build some wonderful teams. Then about six years ago I moved back to the Midwest. I joined a startup, really scrappy organization, and this time I had far more responsibility for product development. I’m good at making things work better, putting strategies together, and leading teams. I’m ready to take my leadership to the next level—maybe a chief marketing officer role—where I can have a significant impact on the business.”
Revised professional narrative: “As an energetic, consumer-led brand marketer and general manager, I develop strategies that unlock marketplace success. Leveraging my experience in strategic and new product development, P&L ownership, and cross-functional team management, I quickly assess business conditions and apply proven best practices. I am recognized for developing insightful strategies that are rooted in deep consumer knowledge, flawlessly executed and able to garner winning results. In my next role, I will leverage my passion and skills as a senior member of a marketing team driving superior performance. I will apply my leadership at both strategic and operational levels to create new opportunities for growth.”
Where the original version lacked a hook to grab attention, the winning professional narrative shows personality from the start. It emphasizes specific accomplishments and demonstrates the candidate’s strengths, instead of centering on overused clichés, rambling career history and forgettable descriptions.
A great professional narrative also takes a forward-looking approach, rather than relying on a list of past accomplishments, titles or years of experience. It focuses on a precise next role that the audience can picture immediately, while emphasizing the impact a candidate can make for the new organization—rather than what the jobseeker expects from their next employer.
This clarity makes it easy for others to spot opportunities and facilitate networking introductions. It also uses a recruiter or hiring manager’s limited time wisely.
Professional narrative versus personal brand
Personal branding gets a lot of buzz with jobseekers, and it’s common to mistake a personal brand as “enough” to support your job search. While there’s a definite intersection between what you stand for as an individual and your career aspirations, these are two distinct elements. The main difference is that a personal brand applies in many situations and stays constant across your life; a professional narrative speaks to a clear goal (your next job) and focuses more narrowly on your work identity.
In either case, senior leaders often waste space calling out skills and experiences that are baseline expectations, rather than true personal differentiators. For example, at a C-suite or vice president level, we expect robust leadership abilities and proven team-building.
A smart professional narrative drills into other attributes that truly set a candidate apart. That specificity can seem counterintuitive, especially for executives with many skills and experiences, but the more you try to look good at everything, the less you stand out.
Enlist outside help to assess your strengths objectively
Creating the ideal career story can be challenging, especially when working alone. It’s difficult to step back and assess your own strengths objectively. Emotion can also derail your overview, especially if you’re not in transition voluntarily.
These are all good reasons to tap others in your circle, or the outplacement and career transition experts at firms like Navigate Forward. Ask these resources to help identify your top strengths. Jobseekers often overlook their best assets, simply because these traits come so easily.
Once you’ve crafted a winning professional narrative, use it often and consistently across your resume, bio and LinkedIn profile. It’s also suitable for conversational introductions, cover letters and “about” statements in emails. This repetition of key themes will reinforce your message and help fast-track your next career opportunity.
Anne Sample is the CEO of Navigate Forward, a boutique consulting firm that helps senior-level executives brand and package themselves to make meaningful transitions, both professionally and personally.