Wm. Caleb McCann
      Leader  +  Learner  +  Thinker  +  Doer
Wm. Caleb McCann
      Leader  +  Learner  +  Thinker  +  Doer
If the past is not a good measure of the present or future, then what good is a résumé?

Business decisions, and private decisions, are rife with complexity. Today's problems are not the problems of yesterday, nor will they be the problems of tomorrow. The complexities of the world are increasing exponentially with the integration of global economic, political and cultural systems. Consequently, specific skills utilized to solve a current or historical problem are not guaranteed to have application in the future. Further, the unknown problems of tomorrow require a Company to have diverse problem-solving resources that it can access efficiently and manage effectively. Historically, though, these resources may have been a team of experienced technicians waiting on the sidelines for predicted problems to arise. However, today's problems require an interactive team who, with experience, are fueled by curiosity and motivation. In the resolution of complex problems, experience in the absence of curiosity and motivation is moot.

With this perspective on managing problem-solving resources and problem-solving leadership, the format of the traditional résumé requires re-examination.

A résumé is a collection of an individual's past achievements, and, though styles may vary, each is a historical document recording an individual's talents and unique benefits. The purpose of the résumé is to provide insight on how these talents and benefits could be utilized to aid others in solving future problems.

The traditional résumé, however, is poor at distinguishing between luck and expertise. For example, the statement "increased customer portfolio by 20% in one year" is superficially impressive but if the potential employer knew this achievement equated to an industry cycle or it was after five years of overseeing an annual decease of 10%, then the reader could make a better assessment of the performance. This is particularly important because the résumé writer has little incentive to distinguish within their own performance the difference between luck and expertise (positive achievements gained through luck are reported as evidence of expertise).

Each individual achievement listed or described on a résumé is usually the product of survivorship (or selection) bias, in which individuals self select data that presents them, usually, in good light. This bias is an important issue that needs to be addressed when analyzing past performance. While this observation may not seem insightful, this facet of résumés is often overlooked. A successful past is not meaningful until the context of the achievement is known. For example, how many failures did it take to gain the achievement listed on the résumé; what was the competitive environment at the time of the achievement? Success is easy to attain if you are the only provider, or if the pool of competitors is shallow, as the offer may not necessarily be of high standard to be accepted- as witnessed by the initial success of the dot.com strategy consulting firms in the late 1990's

Notable achievements require the general skill of realizing and taking advantage of opportunity (luck), or a specific skill exploiting precise processes or technologies. However, the way most current résumés are written confuses general skills with specific skills, and subsequently misrepresenting or even obscuring the former by using the language of the latter (specific skills).

Résumés communicate what the author achieved or did (usually with great success) - not what the author did not achieve or did not do. This may be stating the obvious, but it is important to note that knowledge of a non-achievement, or non-event, may be more valuable to a potential employer than a stated achievement. In context, the decision not do something is very powerful but difficult to record and comprehend, especially in our time-starved, activity-oriented business world. The decision to execute a non-event (not do something) is abstract; we cannot comprehend what did not happen because we cannot see or measure it. We do this all the time, and derive great value from decisions to execute non-events, but since they did not happen and there are no tangible results, we immediately forget their importance. It is very easy to forget what we chose not do; likewise, it is easy to marginalize a non-vivid decision not to do something.

Would an employer recruiting a plant manager, consultant, brand manager or CEO want an individual whose observable successes and achievements were derived from either uncalculated risk-taking and luck, or astute management of their problem-solving resources? How would they tell the difference? How can the best candidate for the job be distinguished? Only by meaningful and critical discussion, covering a wide time period, that disdains buzz words and action verbs fixed to one point in time and isolated from context.

Below are three recommendations to help determine if a candidate's achievements are a product of luck or good problem-solving resource management.

Select the achievement on the résumé that is least relevant for the position to be filled.
Ask the applicant to describe the failures or unsuccessful attempts that preceded it and keep the discussion to the applicant's previous, unsuccessful attempts (failures) at the eventual achievement. Uncovering the applicant's interpretation of what did not happen to make the listed achievement successful will give insight into his/her ability to manage problem-solving resources. Applicable learning takes place when one can determine what needs to happen to create a success as well as what needs to not happen, and to be able to tell the difference. A dynamic conversation of this sort should be able to separate the ignorant lucky from the cognitive lucky.

Select the most relevant achievement on the résumé and ask the applicant to describe the reasons behind the success.
What is the level of confidence projected by the applicant with the reasons? Is there any room for ambiguity? Is there any mention of learning derived from previous unsuccessful attempts or failures? Does the applicant reference your first question?

Uncover the abstract-thinking, concrete achievers.
Allocate the resume into one of three piles. The first represents applicants who incorporated what did not happen into their thinking. The second represents applicants who integrated what did happen into their thinking. Finally, the third pile represents applicants who applied the abstract of something not happening to concrete (observable, measurable) thinking and behavior. The three piles of résumés represent the potential problem-solving resources an employer is attracting and a short list of candidates, or a reason to recruit more applicants.

Originally published January 15, 2008

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