You’re ready for a new challenge. You did your research, sent out applications, and eventually interviewed. When you finally heard back, you were told you were a great candidate, but your application just didn’t stand out. Why?
One likely answer is as you told your career story in your interview, you became one (or more) of the following five interview types:
1. The historian: You shared every bullet point on your resume, possibly overwhelming the interviewer with details.
2. The opportunist: You emphasized your willingness to do “anything and everything” without clearly defining why you’d be the right fit.
3. The generalist: You highlighted general accomplishments like “building great teams” and “achieving corporate goals” but downplayed more unique skills and accomplishments.
4. The reactionary: You let an emotional response to your previous employer drive the conversation, thus treating your interview less like a conversation and more like therapy.
5. The brand deal: You accentuated what you, as an individual, stand for and have stood for throughout your life, rather than more specifically calling attention to your work identify and career goals.
While these five strategies might provide hiring managers and recruiters with evidence of your competence, they’ll rarely make you stand out. So how do you break away from these strategies to stand out?
Tell a noteworthy story
First of all, you need to be able to tell a compelling narrative. A professional narrative describes the history of your career and on-the-job skills while being concise and memorable. In conversation, it ideally takes less than two minutes, and in written form is less than 200 words. This short narrative needs to be powerful, clearly differentiate you in the job market, and identify your target role. This keeps you top of mind and is the foundation for a successful job search. It addresses the most important career transition questions.
To create your professional narrative, you need to ask yourself the following questions: Who are you as a leader? What do you do best? Where do you add value to an organization? What is your ideal next step?
While these questions might seem straightforward or obvious, think them over. Take time to be self-reflective.
Focus on your specific skills and aspirations
Here’s an example of a successful narrative transformation (from the original to the revised):
Original narrative: “I started my finance career about 20 years ago in New York, after getting my bachelor’s from Wharton and becoming a CPA. I travelled around as an auditor for a while and made some really good connections and helping build some great teams. I went back to get my executive MBA from New York University. Afterward I joined a startup where I was the main finance person at the beginning. This role involved a lot of responsibility and provided a base for my next few leadership positions at larger companies, and I’ve been working my way up since as a finance team lead, finance manager, and controller. I’m really good at leading teams, financial planning and analysis, and business relations. I’m excited to take my leadership to the next level as CFO to have a greater impact on the business.”
Revised narrative: “As an energetic, motivated finance professional, I track budgets and provide analysis to highlight opportunities for improved financial margins and opportunities. Leveraging my experience in strategic product development, tax calculations, and scenario creation for sales team decision-making, I quickly assess business conditions and apply reputable best practices. I’m recognized for building on the feedback of my teams to provide insightful roadmaps and recommendations based in a deep financial analysis, executed and presented in a way to obtain desired outcomes. In my next role, I hope to continue building on my passion and skills as a senior member of the finance team to drive and inspire superior performance and thorough calculated recommendations. My leadership in accuracy, analysis, and strategy will create new opportunities for progress and evolution.”
The original version lacks a hook to grab attention. It focuses on the past, rambling through career history by specifically mentioning past accomplishments, titles, and years of experience. The descriptions are easily forgettable. In comparison, the revised narrative shows more personality from the start. By taking a forward-looking approach, it creates excitement. The focus is on a precise next role that the audience can picture immediately. While the narrative emphasizes specific accomplishments and demonstrates strengths, they’re framed as evidence of the impact a candidate can make for a new organization (rather than what they expect from their next employer).
Ideally, your story should make it obvious what you’re excited about and capable of doing for others. This will help others think of you for opportunities and for networking introductions. It’s also respectful of a recruiter’s or hiring manager’s limited time. And a clear career story makes it easy for others to know you—and know how you can help them. By making your professional narrative clear, you’ll stand out.
Ask for feedback
The telling of every career story comes with its unique challenges. You want to assess your strengths objectively, but it can be difficult to take a step back and be honest. Habit, culture, and emotion can also derail your analysis, especially if you’re not transitioning voluntarily.
To overcome these challenges, ask for feedback. Your colleagues, networking contacts, and recruiters can provide you with valuable insights, helping you polish your story and make it more succinct and stronger. Alternatively, experts at career transition firms like Navigate Forward can help you identify which traits are worth recognizing as well as which are your top strengths.
A final note
Moving forward, remember that your career story is an integral and versatile tool. Use it whenever possible. While you can certainly use it in interviews and networking functions, it’s also helpful for cover letters, resumes, emails, and elevator speeches. Your career story is additionally helpful in biographies, such as on your LinkedIn profile, website, or as a part of any professional introduction. Stay focused on your specific skills as well as aspirations in order to tell a concise and memorable story, which will help you stand out and land that next best career opportunity.
Anne DeBruin Sample, CEO and owner of Navigate Forward, is an experienced HR leader. Anne has an enviable track record of leading business-building transformation and developing top talent. Anne engages her passion in helping leaders find new destinations through transition coaching and leadership development.