Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Résumés Only Tell Part Of The Story

I recently did a search for a president on a retainer. I initially submitted four carefully thought out candidates along with a long written introduction on each.  The CEO turned the search over to a subordinate who asked to see three of the candidates.  The person she eliminated was actually my favorite and the best of the four, but he had the weakest resume.  No explanation was given nor could I convince the screener to allow this person an interview. I had to call the CEO and beg him to see my candidate. You know the rest, this candidate was hired.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Richard Branson, maverick founder of Virgin Airways and other wonderful companies, posted an article on LinkedIn in which he claimed that when hiring, he focuses in on personality rather than the résumé.  I couldn't agree more.

Many really good people don't necessarily have perfect résumés, yet many of them turn out to be what I call a top 5% candidate.  The problem is that many of them have unusual backgrounds which don’t fit the cookie cutter mold.

They often come from smaller agencies and work on accounts that are considered by mainstream agencies to be unsophisticated.  It would be very easy to bypass these people, but over the years, I have made it a point to see them.

Years ago, I met a wonderful woman who worked for a New York agency that I had never heard of (in those days, I used to actually read the Redbook).  She came out of the costume jewelry business and worked on an unsophisticated, unknown fashion account.  I thought she was sensational.  

I called the head of Human Resources at one of the largest agencies and, because of my personal relationship with him, was able to get him to see her.  He saw what I saw in her and got her placed on a very large and sophisticated piece of business as an account supervisor.  The rest is history: during the past twenty years she has become one of the best advertising people in the business and is now an EVP at one of the major agencies, running a huge worldwide piece of CPG business.

People like this need an advocate with a personal rapport with either HR or a hiring manager.

In today’s marketplace, a person like this EVP would probably not succeed to the degree that she already has; her background would probably not appeal to the people screening on-line job board postings or even the résumés sent by recruiters.  In-house recruiters would be far too busy looking for specific, cookie-cutter attributes for current openings and would not see her (most job specs merely contain a check list of experience and of duties, but rarely voice the problem(s) which need to be solved).  Even some recruiters on my side of the business would reject her because of her odd-ball résumé.

And while I rarely market candidates (calling without a specific assignment), I could be an advocate for her when I had something that I thought she could do.  My relationship with an agency allowed me to get her hired.

Over the years I have placed many people like her.

People should not use check lists in order to determine if a candidate is right for a job.  Résumés only tell part of the story.  And, as they say, you cannot tell a book by its cover, or a person by their résumé. 


  1. Great post Paul. Having an unusual and varied background myself, I can truly relate. I wish taking the safe route wasn't people's initial instinct. Good hiring takes vision.

  2. Good Post, Paul. The last 3 times I was hired, I definitely did not look "perfect" on paper. Once I met with the key people, they were convincing me I was perfect for something I had not demonstrated I could do before.

    1. Philip, the advice I give all the time is to meet the most senior person you can in a company. Only that person may have the vision to either change the job to fit the candidate or see where else the candidate's talents can be used within the company.

  3. Excellent post Paul. Many of the best people I hired would not even make it past a typical internal HR scree. I hired a person once to be a new biz analyst for me. He had zero agency experience, but had been a journalist and had run a small business (a self starter). On paper, he wasn't a fit at all...but he is a superstar at Y&R and will have a long career there.

    1. Mitch, that was my point exactly. In the days not so long ago when hiring managers did their own screening, there was much better (and faster) hiring. When hiring for yourself, only you know what and who you really want. And that isn't a knock on HR, but it is simply a more efficient way to work.

  4. Paul, you did a story about this a while back...and I still agree with you...I'm in a sales position now for the past two years...my resume did not say sales, but my client and agency experience was enough to convince them that I could do the job...because I can "walk the walk" and "talk the talk" with me prospects. The analog, "fitting a square peg into a round hole" always comes to mind.

  5. Agree with you Paul. Interestingly also applies to the short-sightedness in not considering candidates with extensive global (or direct-overseas) experience. Having worked in New York, as well in London and Moscow, I can assure that this experience is quite invaluable. Not merely from the perspective of having a more enlightened perspective of the global marketplace. But also due to the fact most non-US markets have marketing communications budgets a fraction of those spent in the US. Overseas advertising, direct, digital and other professionals often have much more cunning, due to the fact that they have to extract more return from limited investment. More nimble, responsive and clever.


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