SMALL CHANGE: Your curriculum vitae is a list, not a pitch



an ebook


Ciarán Fenton

How small changes in your behaviour have a big impact on how you work, lead or follow

That’s the title of an ebook I wrote in early 2020, initially, as a series of 50 short blogs – index here – and as a framework for a longer book.


Section 1 YOU

Section 1.9 Your curriculum vitae is a list, not a pitch

your career equity

Your curriculum vitae (CV) is a component of your career equity.

The purpose of your curriculum vitae – which means “the course of your life” – is to demonstrate, rather than assert, your competence to its readers – prospective employers, headhunters and their key-word search databases – by setting out in a simple list what you have achieved, where and when since you left primary school.

It’s not a document to be skewed, shaped, or “versioned” for a particular role. It’s not a pitch. Your cover letter is your pitch. Your curriculum vitae supports your pitch.

“Led a team of ten people” is a sentence which demonstrates, potentially at least, your competence.

“I am dynamic, inspirational and strategic [whatever that means]” is an assertion which demonstrates your incompetence in not understanding that the reader of your CV will never believe that you are dynamic, inspirational and strategic just because you say so. They are more likely to do so if they hear it from a third party referee or, perhaps, if you wrote:

“Led a team of ten people through a difficult TUPE process”

For that reason, and in respect of the of the CVs I have written over many years for senior leaders finding new roles or launching portfolio careers, I always deleted the opening “summary” paragraph or “pen portrait” beloved by so many, especially those who say that they have not “applied for a job in years”.

I acknowledge that opinion is divided on these introductory “pen portraits”. John Purkiss and Barbara Edlmair in How to be Headhunted (How to Books, 2005) wrote “Many consultants and researchers ignore these pen portraits. Some even find them irritating…what they want from your CV is relevant factual information, not your opinion of yourself”. I’m sure you will find other headhunters who disagree.

People like pen portraits because they are terrified of underselling. Yet these unnecessary paragraphs often written by excellent leaders but without Tolstoyesque writing skills are unnecessary at best and damaging at worst.

Let your curriculum speak for itself and trust that the reader is capable of making reasonable deductions from a simple list of dates – including months with absolutely no gaps since leaving school or university – organisations, roles and a list of achievements, each on one line starting with a strong verb, for example:

  • launched
  • led
  • closed
  • integral to achieving (if part of a team)
  • developed
  • increased
  • reduced

Although you might choose to provide a one page summary CV and a long detailed curriculum vitae for headhunters, their researchers and databases who have to scan hundreds of CVs, I’m a strong believer in the the two page CV where the long list is likely to be short. Arial 11 or 12 is my preferred font.

The CV should include a summary of your education but not your interests because you can’t risk the readers’ possible negative reaction or unconscious bias towards these.

Your covering letter should:

  • Start with why you are writing
  • Then set out briefly your understanding of the need – i.e. their need, not yours
  • And only then briefly set out the key points as to why you meet that need and ensure that there is evidence for each of these points in your CV

One caveat: there is a difference in terms of content, length and summary pages as to how you might pitch for a job directly to an employer versus via a headhunter or asking a headhunter to bear you in mind for roles.

Most of my work is with senior leaders where the long list is short and so I favour two page CVs with short one page covering letters but that approach is not appropriate in all circumstances.

Finally, many a role is lost before a selection process is barely underway, sadly, because people forget that the purpose of a CV and a covering letter is to secure a meeting, not a job.

So that you can see that I practice what I preach, my CV is set out here on my website: It includes annotations in italics as to my feelings and motivations. I’m not suggesting you include these in your CV but you may find them interesting as they reveal, what I suspect what many readers wish from a CV but never get.

And that’s why there is no such thing as a “perfect CV”. It is what it is. A list which invites questions as to who who are; where are you now and why?; your purpose in life, your strategy to achieve that purpose and your plan, if you have one? It about your uniqueness. It’s about you.

Ciarán Fenton

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