Transition Management Consulting, Inc.

Put Your Best Self Forward - A Checklist for Executive Job Hunters

by Jackie Eder-Van Hook | Feb 14, 2009
You’re looking for a job, and so are a lot of other people. How are you going to distinguish yourself from the crowd? What is going to get you noticed? This article talks about how you can make the most of your opportunities to present yourself in writing.

A Checklist for Executive Job Hunters

Purpose of a Resume

The purpose of a resume is to "seduce" the reader into wanting to know more about you, that is, to get an interview. It is not about getting the job. 

Because of the high volume of applicants for each job, resumes are tools to screen people out more often than they screen people into the next stage of the interviewing process. If information on your resume doesn’t contribute to getting you an interview, then leave it off. 

Your resume tells the reader volumes about who you are and your hopes, aspirations, insecurities, and even your flaws or blind spots. Your resume will get a quick once over -- think seconds not minutes. If it is too busy, too wordy, or too minimal, the reviewer may not be inclined to read it. Time is precious. Make your points and move on. 

Resumes are tools to assess the candidate against whether the applicant might fit the organization's real or perceived culture. Cultural fit should be the biggest concerns of those doing the hiring as well as those interested in being hired. Unfortunately, one of the primary reasons for job failure is the lack of cultural fit. 

Resume Content

Write the resume for the job you want not the jobs you have held. Translate your experience for the job you want. Tailor your resume and cover letter to each job to which you are applying. Make sure your resume shows that you have the skills being sought. Don't send boilerplate resumes. 

Be strategic in your choice of words, e.g., match the language and culture of the organization. Use action words that match the position you want. Write in an outcomes-oriented style that explains what your work meant to the organization. Highlight your accomplishments not responsibilities, e.g., “Reduced publishing costs by 30% while maintaining publication's quality vs. Managed an annual budget of $3 million.” If you want an executive position, use words like "led" or "oversaw" rather than "managed" or “pursued.” 

A one to two sentence summary about the organizations you worked in can give the reader context. If you include an "Interests" section, only highlight those interests relevant to the position or reflect positively on you as a person. Genealogical research dating to the 1200s might be relevant for running a research organization, while skydiving is not. Think Screen Out! Avid runner and musician provide information about your tenacity, determination, or goal orientation without ever saying so. Absolutely avoid jargon. Avoid using uncommon acronyms or abbreviations, unless necessary.

Resume Presentation & Formatting

Resume writing should begin with the end in mind. What is the story you are telling about yourself? What impression do you want to give the reader about you? What will it look like or sound like? What will it taste like? Is it a dessert filled with lots of yummy morsels or dry facts and figures? Does it allow a favorable picture of you to show through? Think of your resume like real estate. In part, it is about location, location, location. What do you need to highlight? What is critical? What is basic, yet necessary? Consider whether your outline makes sense: Career Objective, Skill Summary, Experience, Education, Training and Development, Awards and Honors, Affiliations. A "Career Objective" section is fine for junior candidates, but isn't necessary for executives. A "Skill Summary" section, if used, should highlight what is unique about you and not a list of everything you have done. You may decide to include some version of this in your cover letter. 

Resumes generally should be no more than two or three pages long, unless asked to submit a curriculum vitae or CV. If so, follow the traditional CV format. Use attachments for any requested documents, e.g., salary history, references (with email addresses), article list. Don't include unrequested background documents. Think Screen Out! In formatting your resume and cover reader, it is useful to think about the reader. Ensure you have sufficient white space so as not to fatigue the reader. Use reader-friendly fonts and formatting, (Times Roman in 12-point font size, 1 inch margins.) Format consistently, e.g., phone numbers, dates, abbreviations, hyphens, slashes, bullets (round bullets are easier on the eyes.)

Include a personal email address. Lack of an email address may raise technical proficiency questions while using your current employer's email address may raise ethical questions. Use a conventional email address that includes your name. Do not use Place your name at the top of every page. Use page numbers, e.g., Page X of Y. Run Spell Check and Grammar and Style Check about a 100 times no a 1,000 times and then still have someone else proofread it – someone qualified and anal. Have them ask you questions about your experience and work history. Applicants who say they are detailed-oriented, but present a resume or cover letter containing spelling or grammatical errors creates a disconnect for the reader. You said you were X and you demonstrated Y. Can I trust what you say? Are you credible?

Cover Letters

First and foremost, know about the organization and the industry. Tell the reader how you fit their culture and values. From the organization's perspective, this process is about finding a new leader or filling a position, and not about you getting a new job. Write in first person, but balance I/me with we/us. Mention the name of the position to which you are applying. 

Use the cover letter to translate your experiences into how it matches the job you want in that particular organization and not a summary of what you did at the last or current job. Keep the cover letter brief (3-4 paragraphs, not longer than 1.5 pages) unless you have a very, very compelling, and relevant story. 

Find the name of the person who will be reviewing your resume. If you absolutely can't learn the person's name, address your letter Dear Search Committee. Don't address the letter Dear Sirs. Remember associations and nonprofits are highly relational cultures. Whatever you do, don't appear desperate, defensive, or whining. Don't be arrogant! Don't complain. Don't apologize. Don't lie.

Respond to the specific questions asked. If you don't respond, it may raise questions about your attention to detail, following instructions. Alternatively, temporizing or answering deftly, can demonstrate good political instincts. 


Historically, job seekers were told that whoever talks money first loses the edge in salary negotiations. Today, there are so many applicants for each position that salary is one of the ways to identify potential candidates. 

Answering the salary expectation question should be handled thoughtfully. One way to answer is to cite data from compensation surveys. According to the 2013 Compensation Study, executives of national nonprofits headquartered in San Diego with an affiliated foundation earn approximately $140,000 per year. If you earned less, leave it at that. If you earned more, you might consider adding, “However, while I was at the ZYX Association, I earned $180,000, plus $25,000 in performance bonuses.”

If the organization is paying $80,000 and you want $350,000, better to know up front so as not to waste your time or the organization’s time. If the job is paying 50% more than what you are making now, there may be a question about whether you can handle the job. The reverse, however, also may be true. If the job is paying 30-50% less than your current position, the reader may wonder if you are desperate and will leave once you are not so desperate. In both cases, organizations, typically, are not comfortable with these kinds of risks. 

If salary is not truly negotiable, do not say it is. From the beginning, be clear about what you are worth, the market rate, and what you are willing to accept. Be in integrity with yourself and others - do not tell the recruiter you are willing to accept X, and later tell the committee you require 50% more. 


While it is helpful to have a general or template resume, it is crucial for you to tailor your resume for the job to which you are applying. If you are submitting a resume electronically use a standard software program, such as Word. Better yet, send a PDF instead. This creates a static document preventing formatting errors when opened up on another computer.

Do not disclose irrelevant personal information, e.g., I am 65 years old and expect to work until I am 85 or I am 5’2” tall and 135 pounds. An applicant who makes inappropriate or unnecessary personal disclosures may exercise poor judgment in other areas or may create a perception of a future discrimination claim. Think Screen Out! Consider using the subject line in an email to pique the reader’s interest, e.g., Senior Government Affairs Director with $500,000 Book of Business is far more interesting than Government Affairs Position, although it is good to balance humility with marketing.

Conduct an Internet search on your name using several search engines and review the hits. A well-known lawyer shares his name with an unconventional judge and a criminal. Better to have thought through answers in advance. Further, make sure you are comfortable with what a prospective employer might find on social networking sites, including individuals linked to you. 

Stuck? Write the cover letter first and then rewrite or revise your resume or vice versa. Smile! Have fun presenting yourself in writing to others. If you hate the process, it will come through loud and clear. Be passionate about wanting the job; people notice. It is contagious! 

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