Don’t fall at the first hurdle – How to make your CV stand out

By Cathy Holley

If you’re lifting your head from day to day operations to put together a CV, it is highly likely you’ve got itchy feet. Are you thinking about your future? Hold that thought! Open your laptop and start writing. Start with a pen portrait of the role you wish you had, not the one you’ve got. Be ambitious but keep it real. If you are changing companies, it’s far easier to do so in the same role.

If your current organisation, which knows you really well, does not think you are quite ready to be a COO or sit on the ExCo, it will be even harder to convince a company that doesn’t know you. Of course, there are exceptions but they are fairly rare unless you plan to move to a much smaller firm. So, your next role will probably be an evolution from your current one; revolution requires employers to take significant risks. Every scrap of experience I have from my twenty-year headhunting career tells me that’s as likely as me winning the lottery. Whichever role you’ve chosen, bear in mind hundreds of others will have the same goal. If you still think you’re on the right track, we’d better get started.

Imagine now that the headhunter has taken a briefing for precisely the role you are seeking – for the sake of argument, a CIO in a global retailer. That headhunter now has the choice of every global CIO in retail (or even different sectors) across the whole world. I don’t want to depress you, but the odds are pretty long.

For you even to be on the starting blocks, you absolutely must write a CV to differentiate you from the other candidates who will make the longlist (who you must assume are also excellent at their role). However, before you start writing your CV, having thought about your future, you need to think about your past.

What were the turning points for you in your career?

What have you really contributed?

What will each organisation remember you for?

What new experience did you gain in each role?

I hope it’s a good list; we’re nearly ready to rock and roll. Before you list the standard points all CIOs would claim, consider this; world class technology professionals can demonstrate that they have led innovation in their organisations (not just in IT) and created new revenue streams. At this level (and for the amount of money you are paid), you have only one main priority – to generate more value for the organisation. There are two ways to do this; cost reduction or adding to the top line. The latter is MUCH MORE EXCITING AND ATTRACTIVE TO EMPLOYERS than the former. It also makes for a far more interesting CV and, later on, interview. World-class business leaders are more externally (end client) than internally (your technology function) focussed. Think about how many of your limited bullets you will spend on each.

Before you start to write, how many CVs do you need? If you are considering very diverse roles, for example, CIO v partner in a consulting firm v NED, you may need multiple CVs. Each will, of course, present the facts but will have different slants and will emphasize different aspects of your career. You can’t include everything you ever did, so any CV can only ever be edited highlights. What you leave in or out will determine the whole flavour of the CV and ultimately the perception the reader will have of you. So think about what image are you trying to put across? Strategic thinking and visionary leader? Trusted lieutenant? Dependable deliverer? Decide what elements of your broad experience to highlight to position you correctly.

Start with the easy bits; clearly laid out personal and contact details. If your education is a highlight (a degree at 2:1 or above from a good university) put it here. Anything less, at the back please. Then, if you wish, a short ‘punchy’ profile. This should include no subjective schmaltz. If in doubt, remove all references to subjective views on your own interpersonal skills or abilities as this is equivalent to saying, ‘Sarah is lovely and always keeps her desk tidy.’ It doesn’t tell you much about her capabilities. A good profile contains only objective facts which clearly differentiate you from other outstanding candidates. Suggestions include:

  • International experience (list the regions)
  • M&A/due diligence and integration (with numbers please)
  • Board / Exec Committee experience
  • Outsourcing / offshoring
  • Leadership of very large teams
  • Management of very large budgets
  • Delivery of business transformation (brief description of what it delivered)
  • Very cutting-edge technologies (AI, IoT, RPA but not SAP)
  • Above all – what new revenue streams have you delivered using these new technologies?

Clearly, you will have to be brief, but this paragraph is the tantalizing opener and if it doesn’t grab the reader, they won’t read on and we are done.

At this point, if you have worked for a sensible number of well-known companies, a summary – company, date, role – up front, is a good idea. However, if you have hopped (2 years or less) from one role to another, or worked only for unknown brands – don’t emphasize it by putting in a clear list.

“As a member of the IT Leadership team, you are one of the few, leading the strategy and shaping the company”

Now the hard bit. Describe the companies you have worked for in terms of scale, market positioning and major challenges they have faced during your tenure. As a member of the IT Leadership team, you are one of the few, leading the strategy and shaping the company (not just IT); think ‘we’ not ‘they’. Then add one line on the scope and scale of your role (what problem you were brought in to solve). You might also describe your typical customer/client to demonstrate insight and position yourself as a key business leader.

And now the really hard bit. Distilling your career into no more than five (max) ‘punchy’ bullets. Too much detail and you’re ‘long-winded’, too little and it’s impossible to make an impact. Simply stating that you have aligned business and IT strategy or delivered digital programmes to enable business transformation means absolutely nothing (and has become a cliché). Would the other longlist candidates not say precisely the same? In short, define the business opportunity or problem, how you AND YOUR TEAM delivered an outstanding (innovative) solution and measured the benefit (please state in figures) and how it impacted the business or better still, your customers (the real ones – not the internal ones). Focus on how you AND YOUR TEAM generated shareholder value (created new revenue streams, not just cost reduction) and you won’t go far wrong. If you do this, it’s a genuine differentiator. Spending several bullets talking about how you fixed IT (the organisational structure, hiring the team, governance, IT business modal) will not differentiate you.

Reread your bullet points. Have you mentioned specific technologies? Stick to current and relevant technologies such as IoT, AL, ML, data analytics or blockchain. Have you used jargon which only your colleagues would understand? Take it out. Have you listed achievements that other candidates would also be able to claim since they are generic? Take them out. Above all, does every bullet pass the ‘so what’ test? Do they prove that beyond all doubt, you are outstanding or do you think anyone in your role would have done the same?

Nobody ever states on their CV that they are:

  • a poor leader who can’t be bothered to develop their team
  • uncharismatic/ frankly quite unpopular
  • deeply tactical and not very strategic
  • technology rather than business-centric
  • rubbish at delivering solutions
  • better at BAU and keeping the lights on than transformation

So, I’ll assume you would like me to consider you the opposite; no need to tell me.

Last but not least, for CVs in the Digital and Technology space, please be mindful that whilst some clients are keen to know that you are an outstanding individual not only in the office but outside too, you are still trying to present yourself as a professional leader so if you are going to include hobbies (not a requirement), please think about the image you might be projecting.

Now the acid test. Reread the document and ask yourself whether it is an honest and beautifully-written (get rid of the unwanted capital letters required only for proper nouns and get the grammar right) document which will grab the reader and immediately compel them to call you? If not, start again. A good CV is worth the investment of your time and can make the difference between getting the role of your dreams or falling at the first hurdle.

If you feel that writing a sizzling CV is not your forte, do please ask for help.

About the Author

Partner, Digital and Technology Leaders Practice
Cathy Holley co-heads Savannah’s Digital & Technology Leaders Practice with Vicky Maxwell Davies. Cathy was also co-creator of the Savannah/CIO Development CIO mentoring programme and speaks at the top industry events for organisations such as Gartner, Deloitte, Leading Edge Forum and the Digital Transformation Club.
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