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Building a Smarter CV

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It takes only a glance at the work history in a CV to identify impressive achievements, relevant experience of working overseas and of implementing computer systems, and consistent career progression. The content was there to begin with. The presentation has ensured that its impact is not lost.

It is not everyone, though, who has such an impressive career. What do you do if your pedigree is somewhat less pure?

If the content is not there, presentation can help only to a very limited extent. Rather more can be achieved by:


  • concentrating on your most marketable qualities;

  • targeting your search carefully;

  • using the telephone and letters, rather than a CV where this highlights, even if only by the omission of what people normally expect to see, your shortcomings.
An even more positive contribution, however, can be made by consciously building a better CV. You may not be able to change the past, but there is an enormous amount that you can do to influence the future. Furthermore, while some of the actions you may need to take will involve too long a timescale to help in the immediate job search, there are others which can have an impact in the relatively short term.

Right now you may well be all set up to make your next career move, but what about the one after that? Career progression is largely about looking ahead and choosing the right stepping stones. What looks like the obvious step at this point in time may not be the best one in terms of finding the most effective route to your longer term goal.

Past Present and Future

The first thing you need to do in order to build a more marketable CV is to make sure you are looking in the right direction. There is nothing to be gained by worrying either about mistakes you have made in your career to date or about things you should have done but have failed to get around to. Even professional recruiters do not expect you to be perfect. They will overlook the odd minus, so long as it is outweighed by enough pluses.

Take a piece of paper, then, and - bearing in mind the kind of job you are looking for - write down everything you could do to give yourself a better chance of getting it. You will probably find it useful to divide the paper into two columns or halves, one for the short term (things you can do within the next few months) and the other for the longer term (things which will take years rather than months and will therefore help you to get the next job but one, rather than assisting with the immediate job search).

Take professional qualifications, for example. If you have continually been putting off taking the last set of exams, a determined effort to get them out of the way could be a relatively short-term aim. For those who have never even made a start on their studies, on the other hand, the objective of becoming professionally qualified has to go into the longer term category.

A similar situation exists with languages. If you were once fluent but have become rusty through lack of practice, a quick refresher may well be sufficient. Learning from scratch, unless you can afford the time and cost of a highly concentrated language lab course, will inevitably take some time.

Many skill updates, on the other hand, fit comfortably into the short-term category. It need not take very long to become familiar with a new spreadsheet package or to get yourself up to date on any recent legislation which is particularly relevant to the area in which you operate.

If you are in work, you may be able to get your employer to send you on appropriate courses, or at least to help with the cost. If you are unemployed you may have to think twice about investing significant sums of money but there are usually ways round this, like subsidized adult education classes or home study packages. When you are out of work, learning something new has the added advantages of providing intellectual stimulation which may otherwise be lacking, of making you feel that you are achieving something and. where it involves going to classes or courses, of giving you the chance to meet some new people.

The Experience Factor

Perhaps the most important single factor, though, is your actual work experience. Think about all the years you have been at work. How much of the time were you actually doing things which added to the marketability of your CV?

Some people are lucky. They can point to a long history of new challenges. Many on the other hand will, when they sit and think about it, realize that there were periods, often long ones, when they were just doing the same thing over and over again. Think about your own last five years. Were they five years of added CV value or just one year's tasks repeated Ave times over?

Now come even closer to the present day. Consider your last 12 months of work experience. If you had written your CV once at the beginning of that period, then again at the end of it, how much more marketable would you have become? Would that second CV, in fact, have looked noticeably different at all?

If concentrating your mind on these questions has made you realize that you have been getting into a rut, now is the time to do something about it. Do not waste time crying over spilt milk; just start adding to your marketability right away. You can do this regardless of whether you are currently in work or unemployed.

Taking the Initiative

The proactive approach starts with a 'gap analysis' - a look at where you want to get to, the experience you need in order to get there, what experience you have already and, by comparing one with the other, where you fall short. If the gap is relatively small, you may be able to fill it by undertaking some short-term, project type work. Where it is larger, you may need to consider tailoring your immediate job search to finding a position which will provide a stepping stone to achieving your ultimate goal in a few years' time.

If you are in employment you can often volunteer to undertake a particular project, or join a committee or working party, which will give you the experience you seek. It may also be possible to organize a secondment for a few months, or even a year or two, either within your organization or outside it. Management consultancy firms, for example, sometimes make secondments of senior staff, or even partners, to major clients such as banks or government departments. The consultancy practice benefits from the contacts and inside knowledge gained, while the individual in question obtains valuable experience, expands their network, and earns a good few brownie points into the bargain.

Ideally, of course, there should always be a mutual benefit, a win-win situation. In practice this is not difficult to achieve. If you are expanding your capabilities by breaking new ground, you are not only likely to be providing an immediate benefit to your employers, but will also be of greater value to them in the future. The people who are at greatest risk of being made redundant when times get tough are those who have ceased to add value to themselves, the organization or its customers.

If you are out of work, you can use interim or temporary work, whether full-time or part-time, as a means of increasing your marketability. While in these situations clients inevitably want to hire people who, by dint of their existing knowledge and experience, can hit the ground running, it is rare for an assignment not to add something to your value to a future employer.

Some Further Angles

Looking into the longer term, those who really want to broaden their experience should give serious consideration to a spell in management consultancy. A major practice once ran a recruitment advertisement which said, 'If you want to pack ten years' experience into the next five, have you thought about a spell in management consultancy?'

The broadest experience is normally to be had in the generalist practices which have not yet grown so large that consultants have become pigeon holed into narrow specialist divisions. When attending interviews for consultancy jobs be sure to check not only on the range of work which you will be expected to undertake but also on the duration of assignments. If you get stuck on a single assignment for two or three years, your learning curve will start to look more like a horizontal line.

Those whose work, whether permanent or temporary, does not provide the opportunities they seek to plug the gaps they have identified in their experience should consider looking outside the field of paid jobs. Professional societies, trade associations, voluntary organizations, sports clubs and other leisure groups can all offer openings for the proactive individual to acquire new skills and experience.

Finally, while your first thought should be to plug identified gaps, do keep an eye open for any chance that arises to gain additional experience which, though not on your immediate target list, could be useful.

Take the case of Tim, who worked for a large accountancy practice. As part of his ongoing development, he was asked to help out from time to time with the firm's training program, working alongside professional tutors who were brought in from outside. The immediate benefit to Tim was an improvement in his presentation skills and in his general confidence with groups of people. However, when Tim's division lost its biggest client and he was one of a number of people made redundant, he used one of the trainers he had worked with as a network contact. The outcome exceeded his wildest expectations. The training firm asked him if he would like to consider switching careers and coming to work for them. That was four years ago. Tim is now one of their most successful tutors.

The moral of Tim's story is that it never does any harm to acquire new skills and experience - or new contacts.

New Frontiers

In the mind of many an ambitious executive, the most attractive of all new horizons may well be an international career and, to judge by the writings of some business journalists, you would think that opportunities for such careers grew on trees. In reality, unfortunately, this concept currently has about as much substance as that other great love of the business media, the paperless office.

In spite of the remorseless expansion of multinational corporations and the somewhat more hesitant progress of the EU (European Union) towards European integration, most organizations still prefer to fill senior positions with a national of the country in which the job in question is based. The reasons for this include the following.
  • Cultural differences, which make it difficult for - say - a German to be a successful manager in an Italian company, or vice versa.

  • Knowledge of local markets.

  • Fear that the appointee, or their family, will not settle. Due to factors ranging from climate and culture to children's education and spouse's career, failure rates - especially for those lacking previous overseas experience - are high.

  • Even if short-term problems do not arise, there tend to be concerns over length of tenure in the medium term, since overseas nationals are seen as being likely to want either to return home in due course, or to move on somewhere else.

  • Costs of relocation.

  • Language - to fill a managerial role, complete business fluency is required, and that is almost impossible to achieve without actually working in a country.

  • Difficulties in obtaining work permits - although EU nationals can move freely within member states, moves elsewhere present far greater difficulties. The US, for example, has very tough legislation, while it is about as easy to get into Switzerland to work as it is to discover the identity of the holder of a numbered bank account.
Being Realistic

In order to overcome such a long list of handicaps, there have to be some very positive benefits to justify employing an overseas national. The situations in which the advantages do outweigh the disadvantages fall mainly into the following categories:
  • people with rare technical skills;

  • high performing chief executives;

  • developing countries importing expertise which they cannot find at home;

  • multinational corporations making internal transfers of existing staff.
Assuming that you are neither one of the world's leading bio technologists nor a second Sir Colin Marshall, we can concentrate on the last two options.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, even into the early 1980s, plenty of opportunities existed for UK citizens, and other nationals of the more developed countries, to take a two- or three-year contract in places like Africa and the Middle East, and come back with a greatly improved bank balance. Localization, together with the prolonged worldwide recession, has largely seen an end to that. The relatively few opportunities which do exist these days are in different locations, places like South America, China and Eastern Europe which - unlike Britain's former colonies - are not English speaking. What is more, they are not paying the inflated salaries which used to be on offer in the oil-rich Gulf States.

In any case, emerging nations are interested in expatriates from developed nations only in the short to medium term, until they have their infrastructure in place and have used the expats to train up their own nationals to take over. This kind of experience will not necessarily do wonders for your future marketability back home.

Your best bet is therefore to obtain a job in the UK with a British, US or European group and then work yourself a transfer overseas. Some multinationals have a positive policy of developing teams of mixed nationalities, usually based at their worldwide, or in the case of US companies, European head-quarters. This is particularly likely to happen in marketing. International companies may have a central marketing team made up of representatives of each of the major countries in which they operate so that products and strategies take account of consumer preferences in the various local markets.

While English may well be widely spoken at the continental HQ of, say, a US corporation, your chances of getting a posting will nevertheless be significantly enhanced by some existing linguistic accomplishments. You can then use a spell in Europe to acquire true business fluency. An MBA will also help you on your way, especially if it comes from an internationally renowned business school like INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France.

Once you have had one spell in a foreign location, and have proved that you can adapt both at work and in domestic terms to a different culture, you will then find it easier to make subsequent international moves. It is breaking the ice for the first time that is the greatest problem.
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