CV Surgery

A CV is an iterative document which people rarely update routinely. The time between updates and the awkwardness of self-promotion can also lead the content to be stilted and unhelpful; which is a shame. It is a personal document, explaining your unique skills and experience, and it should be fully representative of your specific value. More importantly, it should also resonate strongly with the kind of person or company that you want to hire you.

Here is a process I recommend to revitalise your CV and put your specific voice into it.

Cut up your old CV

Print it out, get some scissors and cut out each section. You should end up with a stack of compliment slip like `slices’, each of which will contain one aspect of your profile.

Get a blank sheet of A4 and cut off a third of it horizontally. Keep the remainder separately. Staple all these pieces together as a stack with this new empty ‘slip’ on the top. Carry this around with you for as long as the process takes.

Your Historical Value

For now, forget your interests, education and training, start with your oldest role (no more than 15 years ago) and on the back of each slip write three keywords or phrases that represent the value you added to that business. Examples may include “unlocked delivery” or “strategy” or “exceeded targets”. Do this for every job you’ve had and take your time, there’s no rush, and it may (probably should) take days or even weeks to get this nailed.

When you have completed this for each role, write down each word (even duplicates) on the remaining 2/3s of the A4. Keep this list safe; these are your core assets, the historical success factors which underline your contribution and potential future value to interested employers.


In my experience, most CV role descriptions are prosaic at best, meaningless at worst. This blandness can be for two reasons; the timeframe since the first version and the time between iterations, but also the sense of conformity that most of us have when we come to explain how we have contributed. There is an easy way to correct this problem and add real meaning to your previous roles. I suggest the following format for each position:

  1. Job title – Employment period
  2. Company name – Your three keywords (you can remove them later if you wish)
  3. A very brief explanation of the role/business and link to the company website
  4. Carefully crafted bullets highlighting your achievements in the role

Your CV is about you, putting your role first is important as it prioritises what the employer expected of you.

Construct each bullet point around three simple components. You can google this, but they are:

  • Challenge
  • Action
  • Result

In a CAR sentence, each item should explain, the challenge you were presented with, what you did and what the result was. As an example:

  • Successfully grew the team by 100% in two years enabling new levels of product delivery

Implication says product delivery was the challenge; you successfully grew the team and resolved the problem.

  • Implemented best practise sales operations processes, increasing bookings by over 80%

Bookings were weak, processes needed improvement, and you nailed it.

These are reasonably generic examples, but yours won’t be. If they are, then they are probably not achievements but just part of your job. Keep them focused on your value, your three keywords. Think quality, not quantity.

Theme Mining

Now you have all your roles tightly defined, and your distinctive value is bristling from each one. Take another look at the back of each slip of paper and revalidate your keywords, add new ones if you need to, but if you do, cross out others sticking to only three. Update your master list too, adding but not subtracting words.

What themes jump out at you? What are your renowned qualities? What are the attributes that have followed you from job to job? These are the things you are best at; possibly better than most.

The problems you solve

On the blank covering slip of your CV stack, draw a vertical line down the page, splitting it in half. Then draw a horizontal line across the right-hand side, also dividing it in half.

The title of this page is “What Problems Do I Solve?”

On the larger, left-hand part, write the three headings which are your three key specialisms. I’m leaving it to you to get these right. Beneath each of these, write some of the attributes you have exposed in your CAR sentences.

Examples might be:

Functional Leadership
  • Maturing existing teams
  • Scalable growth
  • Strategy development
  • Execution management

These won’t play a part in your CV per se, but they are vital in informing your professional persona.

In the top right-hand panel, take the most powerful and most frequently seen keywords from your master list. For example:

  • Strategist
  • Leader
  • Change agent

If you have any anecdotes or quotes, made by other people specifically about you, write them down here too. They are gold dust.

For the final, lower right-hand section, you will need to come on a short journey with me about the personification of your specific attributes.

Your personal, professional persona

A slight contradiction in terms in the title above, but when I call it a personal, professional persona it is because it is highly unlikely you will share this with anyone. What I want you to do is hold in your head, the key attributes you have collected, while thinking about your role models. These role models can be anything that inspires and enthuses you but should also embody the characteristics you have in your mind.

To simplify this a little with a fun example. If I were to ask you to consider a fictional character or superhero, which most represented your attributes and fuelled your imagination, which would it be? Or, as another example, which animal most represents your specific attributes.

The trick is to find a source, any source, which resonates with your personal view of yourself and one that represents your key attributes. This process may take time and research, let it.

When you finally rest upon a characterisation, it is a good idea to find materials to support it. Screensavers, wallpapers, magazine subscriptions, movies, whatever fits.

I was at an eye examination recently and noticed my optometrist was wearing a somewhat out of place Superman belt buckle. I wondered if this was his family trying to tell him how they felt, or if it was him, keeping his persona close.

When you have this characterisation, role model, superhero or spirit guide settled and have tried it on for size a few times, it is time to write the most important part of your CV.

Professional Summary

This statement is the paragraph or two at the top of the first page of your CV. This section is your only chance to hook your potential new boss or their recruiter. Most people will bin your CV as soon as they hit a dud word, phrase or concept in this paragraph.

Spend time thinking about your attributes as defined in the previous sections above, and how they relate to the role you want next. Think more about the person that will be hiring you and what they will value in the attributes you have. Think about the keywords you have gathered about yourself and make sure you weave them into this section. It is especially important to get this right for your industry when you add this to your LinkedIn profile; to ensure you turn up in the right searches.

Next, relax, strap on your persona and write this section in your voice. Write about your successes, your passions and your undeniable specialisms and how these are evident in your work history.

Again, as with the other stages, take your time. Get it this section proofread widely and use Siri or something similar to read it to you before you complete it.

And finally…

Two final sections are needed; your education, training and recreational activities.

I suggest you roll education and training up into a succinct table with three columns with each qualification listed in reverse chronological order:

School or training company Qualification or skill

Omit any undergraduate education unless that’s all you have; if so collapse it into something like 10 GCSEs, grades A&B.

I am unequivocal about adding a simple section about what you do outside of work. I ask it when interviewing, and I get asked it when interviewed. All it needs is a simple heading and one or two lines of topics.

e.g. Recreation: Cooking, running, writing, piano, movies.

These interests will probably underpin your attributes, as I hope one would expect. They also provide insight into other aspects of your character that might not come forward in your professional experience, like creativity, compassion or grit.

Hopefully, this provides a straightforward if a somewhat prescriptive approach to literally disassembling your existing CV and recreating it with ‘you-ness’. Putting both your best feet forward and doing so in a way that people will recognise and engage with is key to standing out from the crowd.

Good luck.

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