By Douglas B. Richardson, Certified Master Coach
You all know the rules: your resume should not burden the reader. It should never exceed two pages, and must be easy to scan during that first 30-second once-over by an overburdened, uncharitable screener. It should hit the high points, set the hook and leave elaboration of the fine points to your face-to-face interviews.
Conventional wisdom becomes conventional because generally it's correct. That is, most resume-writing guidelines reflect principles that work well for the majority of job seekers, and particularly for those whose resume reflects a progressively-responsible linear career path.
When to Break the Rules
Yet there are exceptional cases where these resume-writing ground rules do not apply, where the resume is called upon to do the heavy lifting of persuasion rather than the initial tap-dancing of simply piquing a potential employer's interest. For example, job seekers who are well along in their careers or who have made many employment shifts may feel constrained by that two-page limit: there is just too much information to cram in there. All the venues and all the accomplishments begin pushing the margins outward and shrinking the font size until the resume looks so dense and so cramped that Sam (or Suzy) the Screener lifts it off the pile of 100 resumes, sighs at its heft and drops it immediately into the round file.
Similarly, job seekers whose "product profile" contains a lot of diverse elements and skills may find it difficult to summarize their diverse gifts without leaving out a lot of sexy selling points. So, for multifaceted people in their 40's or 50's with a broad variety of employment experience, the best approach may be (play ominous organ chord here)…The Long Resume.
Having a lengthy resume that breaches the brevity rule is not a good idea when your resume is one of hundreds in a stack that will be scanned at hyper-speed by a jaded reader. But there are situations where it's a safe bet that your resume – regardless of its length – is going to receive a careful and courteous reading, such as:
Long Means Just Long Enough
How long is a long resume? Just long enough to get the job done. Someone once asked Abe Lincoln how long a man's legs should be. "Long enough to reach the ground," he said. That is, it's important to be mindful of the distinction between being comprehensive and being dauntingly verbose. Sixteen pages of single-spaced verbiage will exhaust any reader's patience. But for a senior executive or professional, three or even four pages may be acceptable, particularly if the formatting preserves a lot of "white" on each page and encourages easy reading and retention. There are, moreover, tricks and techniques one can use that keep your self-marketing tool from looking like an Encyclopedia Britannica entry.
Reverse Chron Forever
I remain convinced that the reverse-chronological resume format is the only acceptable way for senior, sophisticated job seekers to present their bona fides. "Reverse-chrons" answer the reader's natural questions in a natural, logical learning sequence:
Responsibilities vs. Accomplishments
Whether the resume is short or long, inept resume-writers frequently confuse responsibilities and accomplishments, mushing them together in a common stew. They are different: responsibilities describe the nature and scope of your duties, the stakes, risks and outcomes of this position. Accomplishments – always described in the past tense – are examples of what you already have done; they are your performance proofs. Interestingly, the higher one rises in an organization, the shorter the recitation of responsibilities may need to be (Job Title: President and CEO. Responsibilities: Ran the place, with accountability for everything). Yet the older and more experienced you get, the more those space-consuming accomplishments naturally mount up.
What to do? While maintaining the basic reverse-chron format, you can pull the accomplishments out and stick them someplace else. One option is to summarize your greatest hits in a section headed "Selected Career Accomplishments" near the front of the resume, directly following your "Profile" or "Career Summary." With this approach, you choose one "selected accomplishment" for each major functional strength you've listed in your product profile. Six is about the max here: that's all the categories an average reader can handle. Besides, you must leave enough space on page one to list your most recent employer, dates, title and position responsibilities (this way the reader knows you are observing the reverse-chron format rule and are not trying to wing a functional resume by him/her).
Douglas B. Richardson heads The Richardson Group, a nationally recognized leadership development and career management consulting firm in Narberth, PA. Doug earlier was an award-winning columnist for Dow Jones' National Business Employment Weekly and its online successor, CareerJournal.com, for over 20 years.