Think Resume or You’re Not Thinking

Tom Peters

If you’re a middle manager or a staffer in accounting, purchasing or personnel and have read this column a few times, you’ve already heard that you’re a very endangered species, at least if you think like most of your counterparts.

But there is a way out. Before the inevitable next round of white-collar layoffs, visit an imaginary outplacement counselor. That is, follow the advice any outplacement counselor would give you—start working on your resume. Doing so will not only help you if the grim day does come, but, happily, substantially reduce the odds of that day coming by making you a more valued employee now.

A resume, obviously, captures work experience. But what is “work” these days? Even at manufacturing firms, 90 percent of employees perform non-manufacturing tasks—engineering, accounting, purchasing, marketing, sales, distribution, information systems, personnel. In short, they are professional service providers. (There really are no manufacturing firms today.) Put in slightly different terms, we’re almost all “consultants” in one guise or another. That’s the essential idea behind the knowledge society—the society of 3M (materials) and the Union Pacific Railroad (transportation) as well as EDS and Arthur Andersen.

But there’s a big difference between EDS’s or Arthur Andersen’s professionals and the professionals on most companies, payrolls. Andersen employees peddle their “service” for a profit As a consequence, they must be able to explain to clients what they do: “I do thus and such, for $100 an hour. This project will take 300 hours. Check my references. Have we got a deal?” As with any business proposal, it had better add up.

Now suppose you’re in purchasing or personnel or accounting on someone’s payroll. Before that next round of white-collar layoffs, ask yourself:

* What the hell is it that I do?

* What have I actually done?

* How do I know I’ve really done it?

* Who among my “customers” will confirm it?

* What’s the evidence that my skills are state of the art?

I know what you think you’ve done: You’ve been a “good purchasing staffer” in the XYZ Corp. tradition, you’ve done what you’ve been told, minded the store, helped out when needed, been generally of good cheer, and kept your boss off your case most of the time. Not good enough: for the imaginary outplacement counselor or for a real one.

On the other hand, an Arthur Andersen consultant, asked to account for her year, could probably (1) enumerate a handful of specific projects; (2) describe in detail the benefits she’d delivered to clients; and (3) offer an impressive list of “witnesses” (clients) who’d attest to it all. She could also (4) explain what she’d learned during the year and how, therefore, she’d (5) be a more valuable (“marketable”) member of the firm next year. She could, in effect, provide an updated 1992 “resume” better than her 1991 version. Could you?

Let’s get down to brass tacks. The point of these relentless white-collar layoffs of recent years is that most middle managers and professional staffers have not done much! Darn few can convincingly claim they’ve provided clear-cut value for their “clients.”

What, then, should that “ideal” resume point toward? It must clearly demonstrate that you’ve accomplished a couple of discrete events per year with significant results: e.g., created a novel costing system that helped your division come in 24 percent under budget on an important project (if you’re in accounting); developed and installed a purchasing scheme that accounts for lifetime value of goods, rather than just initial price (if you’re in purchasing). Focus on (1) content, (2) implementation, and (3) impact. The resume should read like a continuing value-added odyssey which adds up to: “The firm is better off because of the projects I performed, and I can prove it in no uncertain terms.” The projects are you, your signature your professional reason for being.

Unfortunately, few industrial enterprises acknowledge that they’re more like Arthur Andersen than General Motors, that almost all their future value will come from identifiable service projects. Well, tough. We’re talking survival here. Create those projects or else. (And, conversely, avoid activities you can’t picture adding to your “resume.” They’re neither valuable to you nor your employer.)

I could offer a million bits of “practical advice.” But they’d boil down to one thing: Think resume. “Resume development” is selfish and selfless. Selfish in that each year you are aiming (if you’re wise) to demonstrably enhance your reputation within and beyond the company. Selfless since your employer’s competitive strength is the grand total of the service projects white-collar professionals like you execute.

Almost all of us are in the services development, marketing, and delivery business these days. We had better learn to think that way. Our resumes had better read that way. We never know when we’re going to need them!

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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