Résumé writing from a performance evaluation POV

From the Archives

Originally published September 10, 2015

I wrote a few weeks ago about my supervisor’s response to my request for a 90-day review. She granted me the review, during which we looked over my first 90 days on the new job and looked ahead to our goals for the next 90 days. A month later, company-wide performance evaluations happened. Mine was last Friday. Here’s how I leveraged both the 90-day review and my performance evaluation to update my living résumé.

The living résumé challenge

Writing is tough. Résumé writing – and its close cousin, cover letter writing – are among the toughest writing assignments most people get. Difficulties come in all shapes and sizes, from a mixed bag of wisdom about how to craft a winning résumé and cover letter to a common problem of gearing either to suit a particular audience to the more general challenge of talking about oneself. Personally, I’m among many people I know who struggle to be humble in the face of situations where great improvements occurred with little or no other support on the job. So, yeah, it can be really hard to express your value without coming across as bragging. That only makes the process more complicated for many job seekers. How do we list our accomplishments in a way that doesn’t make us sound like martyrs or Rambo, the one-man army who is the title character of the movie? Let your manager speak for you and your performance speak for itself.

Performance speaks for itself

I spent seven years in a place that evaluated me one time. There was a 90-day probation upon my hire, and no 90-day review. Years after I had been on the job, the company underwent some kind of board-imposed strategic planning process that awakened the performance evaluation beast. It was the first and last time I was evaluated at that job. The next time the topic of evaluations surfaced, I worked with Human Resources to define and refine the tool we would use across the company. I evaluated my direct reports that year. No one evaluated me. When I updated my résumé after leaving the company, I had no metrics by which to measure my achievements and no supervisor feedback to assess and guide my professional development. This was the most difficult time I had updating my résumé, and my next job eased that pain only a little.

My next job also didn’t review me after my first 90 days, so I requested a meeting with the CEO, the next level up my command chain, to discuss rigorous goals I had set, he had scoffed, and I accomplished anyway in collaboration with an outside contractor hired as a controller. It’s one thing for me to say – on my résumé, in my cover letter, during an interview – that I set these goals and achieved them. It’s another for a hiring manager to verify it with my employer. Requesting the review and documenting our discussion was the smartest thing I did there until I left two years later. It helped that I was also reviewed about a year after I started working there. Granted, the review was conducted by a supervisor who worked with me for a month prior to the evaluation; still, he and I are very much alike, and he was quick and accurate in his assessment of me. His comments helped fuel some of what I could quantify as achievements when I updated my résumé while looking for new work.

Most recently, I had to conduct a self-evaluation while my supervisor made her assessment of me. She did not read my self-evaluation before drafting my performance evaluation from her point of view. She remarked during my evaluation that not only did she not see my self-evaluation before writing her review of my work, she also did not change anything in her assessment after reading mine. We identified many of the same tasks, projects, accomplishments, and goals in our separate writings. This provided two main benefits to me: first, it let me know that my supervisor and I communicate very well together in our day-to-day activities; and second, it validated my sense of things I call on-the-job achievements. Part of that second benefit is that updating my résumé, which I now revisit every four to six months, is a cinch, and I’m not worried about bragging. My supervisor can support everything I’m writing in there, and that’s why I pay more attention to achievements than to routinized daily tasks.

Focus on achievements

Achievement is a sticky area for some job seekers. For instance, some people hired to complete routine and mundane tasks in a manner specified by some higher authority are not often inclined to do any better than the minimum required to keep their jobs. Other more ambitious candidates might take such a job to get their foot in the door and proceed to turn the place on its head, either to the delight or chagrin of the powers that be. Hence, some people are more inclined than others to seek and conquer opportunities for achievement, and some jobs are more conducive than others to providing such opportunities. Hiring managers with whom I’ve interacted in the last year are more interested in achievements than routines listed on résumés they review. Let’s look at a personal example.

I’m an accountant, and I’ve been relegated to bookkeeping positions to earn a living. Because this is a field in which achievement can be measured if an employee and supervisor are proactive about it, it has become easier for me to quantify my performance. Each job I took allowed me progressively more freedom to demonstrate my accounting skills beyond simple data entry. And each opportunity seized has been a notch on the belt that can be translated to something résumés and cover letters need to convey. My job in accounts payable, for instance, is to post the company’s bills into the accounting system, get approvals for payment, and pay and mail the bills. There’s a lot of room for error in even that simple process, so paying attention to details to ensure that none of those errors occur could make a difference in how much time is spent correcting bad work. That’s measurable, and I’ve learned to make a point of measuring it and getting my supervisors to measure it with me. What does an accounts payable achievement look like then?

In my first accounting role, I counted the number of entries I made each month for a multi-agency nonprofit and its schools. I then counted how many of those entries had to be corrected by our consulting CPA to determine my accuracy rate. I also counted the number of payables I processed for all these companies and then the number times an incorrect amount or miskeyed address or misspelled name occurred. Since I was the only person entering and paying bills, any such errors only reflected on me. This made it easier to measure my efficiency and effectiveness in that part of my job. (I also built and supervised the team around me over time, and there are other metrics for determining my effectiveness in those areas.) That’s only one, very simplified example. How can you measure achievement?

Measure your progress

Start with routinized tasks. I know, I implied earlier that those things are garbage. Hear me out. Start with routinized tasks. Think about how they were accomplished before you took your current role, how they’re accomplished now, and whether there has been improvement, degradation, or stagnation. In other words, have YOU made a process better, made it worse, or kept it the same? Next, consider things you’ve been asked to do in addition to those routine things. Special projects and tasks assigned to you, either as punishment or reward, play a role in measuring your on-the-job achievements. Finally, what are those things you’ve taken on your own? Are there other places you’ve added and demonstrated value since starting your job? Do you look for ways to be more valuable to your employer? Do you use your talents and strengths to improve the way your company does business, whatever business that happens to be? If so, document it, measure it, and share it with your supervisor in a way that lets him or her regurgitate your impact to you in writing.

I interviewed someone to assist me in my company some years ago, and she downplayed every aspect of her work history. Her résumé listed her previous job titles and responsibilities, as if from a job posting. There was little indication that she did any of the things listed as roles and responsibilities; just an implication that they were the duties associated with her job title. In fact, when I asked about one aspect of one of her jobs, she admitted that she never actually had to do that because her supervisor had difficulty delegating some tasks, including that one. I wondered why she bothered to include it on her résumé if she never actually performed it. I didn’t ask, though.

I was sure I wasn’t going to hire this young lady, though she showed promise and potential in some other work environment – any work environment than my own – where she could blossom. I was ready to end our dialogue, convinced there was nothing more to say between us when she did the unexpected. She asked me, right there while she had face-time with me, what she could do to improve her résumé, an humble example I would follow later in my career. She listened with an open mind as I told her to scrap the job description-like duties and responsibilities and to focus, instead, on what she actually did on each job. Moreover, I urged her to concentrate on what she did well, did better than had been done, and did in addition to what she was asked. She took the advice, rebranded herself with a new résumé, and landed a job in retail a short time after.

What does it all mean?

I couldn’t very well evaluate the performance of the young lady whose application I rejected. I could see that she was accomplished in her own right, even though she didn’t know how to document that at first. She needed a push to get permission to talk more about what she can do than about what anyone in her jobs were told they must do. If you’re fortunate enough to be employed right now, then document your achievements as they occur, schedule quarterly check-in sessions with your supervisor, get honest and open feedback as quickly and frequently as possible, and document the outcomes of your quarterly reviews with a confirmation in writing from your supervisor. Aim for honest feedback in your performance evaluations, and use positive reinforcement from your supervisor to fuel your résumé writing. Even if you’re not looking to change jobs, give yourself permission to revisit and revise your résumé as you set and achieve greater and higher goals for yourself and your career. Have trouble talking about yourself? Then let your manager brag about you to you and let your performance speak for itself.

Please share your thoughts and experiences in comments below. Something you share could inspire some job seeker. For now, thanks for reading.