Getting your story straight

Written by: Steve Guest is director of executive recruitment and assessment at Solace in Business.
Published on: 21 Jul 2022

Have you ever sat and watched a film on a streaming service and lost your wi-fi connection just as the film enters its third and final act? Frustrating, isn’t it? What happened? What was the outcome?

A similar form of frustration can arise in recruitment. I’m generalising massively, but whether we’re looking at written applications or interview performance, many of us aren’t very good at articulating that third act – telling the end of the story. No matter how good the opening pitch of a story is, it’s the ending that people will judge the story by.

We’re good at setting up the story, talking about the characters and the context, maybe even setting out the challenge being faced, but not so good at talking about the outcome and what we did personally to achieve it.

When it comes to applying for that next senior role, successfully articulating what you’ve delivered (your track record) and how you did it is key throughout a recruitment process. This applies not only at the application stage, but also during the various interview stages. We need to tell the full story.

Why does this matter?

It matters because our track record of delivery has never been more important (or valuable) to prospective employers.

What employers want to know is that the candidates they are considering for a role can offer the assurance of successful delivery and therefore understand (and have seen first hand) what success looks like. They want to know the candidates in contention offer the reassurance of a track record in getting things done. Talking a good game isn’t enough anymore.

Tangible, measurable outcomes and hard facts can make an enormous difference in a recruitment decision. Being the candidate who is best able to articulate their career successes in such a rounded and comprehensive (but not verbose) way has to be the goal.

We’re not as good as we should be at doing this – particularly talking about outcomes and successes. Maybe the majority of us are too humble, but as I always say, if there’s a time to blow one’s own trumpet, it is definitely during a recruitment process.

I strongly suspect that there’s also an element of people being too busy with the day job to stop, reflect on and think about such things. The investment of time is worth it.

A chief executive I was speaking to recently conveyed his dismay at how difficult candidates seem to find it in setting out their achievements in a written application. He likened it to telling a bedtime story to the children at night – what would happen if you set the scene, introduced the characters, articulated the plot… then turned out the light and walked out of the room?

Just like me with my flaky broadband connection, you’d have a pretty frustrated audience. What was the outcome? What happened in the end?

So I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer some hints and tips to assist in avoiding this all too common pitfall.

 

1) Think about your examples and achievements now. Don’t wait until your next application. Keep a diary or log of your career achievements that you can draw on later. What was your role, specifically? Who did it involve? What metrics can you pull together to show scope and scale – not only of the issue, but also of the outcomes secured?

 

2) Think yourself into the role before you’ve applied for it. To assist with this, speak to the recruiter managing the process as they should be able to give some pointers on the immediate and longer-term challenges and opportunities the role will face. By imagining you are in the role, you can then come up with an outline plan on how you would approach the role. This, in turn, may help shape your ‘lens’ through which you approach the application. This is important because you need to promote your ‘product’ as what the employer is looking to buy. As I’ll come onto later, ensuring you are putting the right information forward is key.

 

3) When writing an application, think about it as setting out a business case. Business cases need data and evidence, so If you can’t quantify the successes you’re drawing on, ask yourself whether you’d consider it a robust enough business case in other circumstances? Metrics to demonstrate scope and scale, not only of responsibilities but also of achievements, are key. I know that some softer, long term outcomes are difficult to quantify and in those cases, it’s important to be clear on why that is. That way, you still demonstrate an appreciation for the importance of delivery and demonstrating results.

 

4) Use the right examples to demonstrate delivery. When working out which examples to use, think about your audience. I say this because candidates can sometimes focus on their proudest achievements, but these may not necessarily be the same thing as their most sellable achievements. Ask yourself which career successes best demonstrate the largest impact. Depending on the role you’ve applied for, your audience will want to hear about the successful delivery of big projects and programmes, navigating and moving forward long-stalled initiatives that you were able to unlock and move to successful delivery, political issues that you were able to navigate and influence to a successful outcome, commercial successes, improved service delivery. The list is almost endless, but the trick is conveying what you did personally and what difference you made. Demonstrating a grasp of the numbers as part of that matters hugely.

In my role, I’m privileged to meet and interview senior local government officers all the time and I know they deliver some amazing outcomes against the odds. Executed with creativity, innovation, passion and determination, it is clear to me there is some truly inspiring activity going on out there every day.

It’s really important we celebrate and share those successes whenever we can for the betterment of the sector as a whole, but it’s also important to fully and roundly articulate those same outcomes when we apply for that next job. 

Steve Guest is director of executive recruitment and assessment at Solace in Business