How to Read Between the Lines
Tactics for evaluating a rÉsumÉ
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The changing nature of our economy and our work force, the increasing difficulty of finding and keeping employees with appropriate skills, and a world-class recession have all conspired to create a brutally competitive job market -- a mine field for employers and potential employees alike. The pressure to hire right the first time is greater than ever, but so is the pressure for employees to sell themselves to an employer.
At the center of the stormy process is the rÉsumÉ, a highly variable, enigmatic, and often fallacious document. Although CEOs of successful, growing companies aren't an easily fooled bunch, even the smartest can get into trouble when it comes to reading people. And nowhere are the stakes higher than in hiring for a key management position. "I don't look at the rÉsumÉ as anything more than a snapshot of what the seller wants me to know about the product," says one executive. "I think rÉsumÉs are dangerous when taken at face value."
Mastering the art of reading between the lines of a rÉsumÉ can take years of experience. To help you move more quickly along the learning curve, we picked the brains of a group of CEOs who have in the past shared with us their secrets to hiring right the first time:
Jim Koch, CEO of Boston Beer Co., a microbrewery in Boston with more than 50 employees. Koch has sometimes hired people for positions that don't necessarily jibe with their experience -- he hired an accountant who is now a successful sales representative, and a woman who began as his secretary is now vice-president of sales and a partner.
Mary Black, cofounder and vice-president of Super Wash Inc., in Morrison, Ill., which sells, builds, equips, and services car-wash stations. In its corporate headquarters the company employs 45 people, who oversee 325 stations. A former schoolteacher, Black rarely hires from the outside, preferring to train promising employees and promote from within. The company has a turnover rate close to zero.
Sidney Rubin, CEO of Mr. Bulky's Treats and Goods, in Troy, Mich., a chain of 175 candy stores that employs 70 in its headquarters and 600 in the field part-time. Rubin promotes from within as much as possible. That means giving employees of Mr. Bulky's outlets first crack at job openings in headquarters. For retail-store openings, he insists on retail experience and has an elaborate training program to minimize turnover.
Cindy Bender, CEO of Meridian Travel, a corporate travel agency based in Cleveland with more than 60 employees. When hiring travel agents, Bender makes it a point not to hire anyone with less than eight years' experience, and she prefers to cherry-pick the best agents from her competitors.
Harry Featherstone, CEO of Will-burt Co., in Orrville, Ohio, a machine-tool shop that employs more than 120 people. Featherstone, who has earned several graduate degrees and has more than 40 years of hiring experience, places a tremendous amount of importance on education, and the Will-burt employee-education program is legendary. Featherstone's primary concern is hiring managers and employees who are in step with employee-empowerment principles and can be good team players.
Howard Hansen, vice-president of human resources for Great Plains Software, in Fargo, N. Dak., a maker of accounting software for small and midsize businesses. The company has 427 full-time employees, and Hansen has interviewed more than 2,000 job applicants. "We think it's important to have multiple perspectives on a candidate, so we have three rounds of interviewing by a team of people who will work closely with the person. Then the group convenes and builds consensus, so the manager can make an informed decision."
To really challenge our panel members' abilities, we gave them a rÉsumÉ that represents a mosaic of banking, consulting, sales, and microcomputer experience -- an attractive candidate who could be useful to a company in many different ways. Still, each potential employer managed to find a few red flags to call into question the candidate's suitability to his or her company's needs.
On this and the following page, pick up some tips from this ad hoc hiring team on how to read a rÉsumÉ, and compare them with your own evaluation of the candidate.
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Financial Professional with over ten years experience in financial, credit and investment analysis, client account responsibility, and new business development in the communications and computer industries.
Financial/Credit Analysis-Enabled rapid evaluation of loan requests and company data by creating a comprehensive computer model to project multiple financial scenarios; financial and credit analysis of lending institutions, communications companies and general corporate credit; prepared cash flow analysis using various software programs on different computers to monitor loan covenants and compliance requirements.
Loan Negotiation, Structuring, and Syndication-Successful negotiation of deals with customers and senior bank management; preparation of loan packages for syndication to other lending institutions; ability to structure and understand complex financial transactions; successful negotiation on pricing to generate higher profitability for loan portfolios.
Microcomputer Expertise-Extensive training on many microcomputers and PC-based local area networks; working knowledge of numerous word processing, spreadsheet, database, communications, and network operating systems.
New Business Development-Started own consulting business which was profitable within three months; increased now loan business and exceeded annual goals; maintained and expanded existing customer base.
May 1990 to present Investment Systems Analyst-Merganser Capital Management, Cambridge, MA.
-Perform duties of portfolio accountant with complete responsibility for specific client securities portfolios; produces report package for distribution to clients.
-supports all computer hardware and software systems including a Novell network, portfolio accounting software and all traditional wordprocessing, spreadsheet and database software.
Oct. 1988 - April 1990 Senior Sales Representative-Syntrex, Boston, MA.
-Sold microcomputer-based local area networks which included both hardware and network operating software.
June 1987 - Oct. 1988 Senior Sales Representative-Businessland, Boston, MA.
-Sold over $750,000 of microcomputers in first year to small companies in Boston.
Nov. 1985 - June 1987 Communications Consultant-BT Ventures, Boston, MA
-Started own consulting company . . .
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1. What to Make of a Mixed Bag of Skills
Koch: " 'Microcomputer expertise' tells me nothing. I need to know what programs she knows."
Black: "This description of 'financial professional' doesn't tell me what she wants. It should read, 'I would like to continue being a financial professional . . .' People reach different levels of maturity at different times, and it's difficult to gauge her maturity from this."
Featherstone: "Her skill set is impressive, but where is it leading? I need a clue."
Bender: "I need to see more experience in one department."
Rubin: "Her brief jump into sales and then back out into an analytical job tells me she'd rather analyze various accounts than sell them."
2. Job-Hopping: A Plus or a Minus?
Koch: "Such short time horizons make me nervous. You'd get the person in and, poof! She'd be gone."
Black: "When I saw her professional skills, I thought, Oh, this is really nice. Then I read the work record, and it doesn't show any commitment or dedication."
Hansen: "I wonder how proficient this person got at any of these jobs. I'd be inclined to ask harder-than-average questions to find out if her emphasis was on what she was moving away from or on what she was moving toward with each move. One could interview her and find out she has an insatiable capacity for learning. That could be a real plus for a company that learns to keep opportunities in front of her to keep her satisfied and interested."
Rubin: "I've already gotten over the fact that there's tremendous job jumping in people's rÉsumÉs today. She's probably 35 years old and has reached an age at which stability is more important than improving skills on an annual basis. There are more positives that outweigh this negative."
3. Is Entrepreneurial Spirit a Problem?
Koch: "I like to see people strike out on their own. It shows they've got good self-confidence and an adventurous spirit."
Hansen: "I want to know more about her managerial side and about her skills beyond the financial ones."
Rubin: "She jumped to start her own consulting company. That's fine with me. But I want to know why she didn't stick with it."
Featherstone: "I want to know some specific deals she made and problems she solved. What were the results?"
4. Is Sales Experience Helpful?
Koch: "Selling teaches you how to get along with people and build consensus."
Hansen: "I'd want to know about customer profiles. What kind of businesses did she sell to and how high was their demand? Was it a team approach to sales? What kinds of applications did she sell?"
Rubin: "There are so many factors that can come into play. It would be very easy to increase sales of a brand-new product, but what can you do on a comparative basis, year to year?"
Black: "I want to know why she got into sales and why she got out. I would also ask her, what were some of the problems she solved for customers?"
5. How Important Is Education?
Koch: "The natural-sciences degree, coupled with her financial skills, indicates that she's a formal thinker."
Featherstone: "The fact that she's taken courses since graduating shows she has a keen sense of learning, which is great. After perusing a person's educational background, I look at how that's translated into experience and what types of choices he or she made."
Black: "It tells me how much a person is willing to invest in his or her own future. Hers is impressive and shows a healthy work ethic."
6. What Do Personal Interests Tell You?
Koch: "This is obviously a high-energy person. Five varsity letters, my God! She's probably very competitive and aggressive."
Hansen: "I suppose she has other, nonathletic interests as well, but she doesn't mention them. A wider range of interests is important."
Featherstone: "Most of these are individual sports. Does she like playing on teams or is it all just the 'I' factor?"
Black: "Her squash-captain title shows that she likes to be a leader but doesn't tell me if she's good at it. What kinds of conflict does she encounter?"
Would You Hire Her?
Hansen: "We push some of our products through the types of places to which she has sold. She might be able to go out in the field and tell us where the channel is working and where it isn't."
Koch: "I think this person would be a good assistant controller for someone who needs banking expertise to handle debt or work with a bank."
Black: "She could step in with very little training and lend us some very good ideas about what we could be doing with our software packages. That, combined with her financial skills, is very attractive."
Featherstone: "She'd probably be good in an information-systems type of job."
7. Is What You See What You Get?
Hansen: "I'd want to get a look at one of these report packages, see what she actually does, how she communicates with clients. Then I'd ask about why she made specific decisions in the package itself."
Black: "When asking her about her software experience, I'd ask how she set up a particular system. The most organized people with developed planning skills can rattle off the five steps they took to achieve their goal and why those steps were so efficient. I noticed in her banking experience she increased a loan portfolio. I would like to know what she did to achieve profitability. If a person can explain his or her plan clearly, it helps me tell if that person really did it or just assisted someone. She can obviously work with a budget and understand the importance of structure. That comes through in this rÉsumÉ."
Koch: "She may have sound financial-analysis skills, but how much daily-accounting experience does she have? If I were looking at her for a position in my company, I'd want her to beef up her accounting experience some more."
Bender: "She was promoted but then moved to another company to the same position. Why would someone leave a company right after being promoted? It doesn't look good."
The Candidate Replies
On the lack of a job objective: "If I said I wanted a job in accounting, an employer wouldn't think of taking advantage of my marketing skills. I want potential employers to see the opportunities my skills present for them. There's so much cross-training of professionals today that I didn't want to limit the possibilities prematurely."
On job-hopping: "I took another job only when it presented better opportunities to grow, learn, and make money. I'm still learning and growing at the company I work for now, so I'll keep working there and taking M.B.A. classes at night."
On why she quit her own company: "Cash flow. I would do it again with a partner."
On where she's headed: "Toward a position as an information-systems manager for a financial-services company, where I would be in charge of microcomputers, local-area networks, software applications, and custom applications."