How to Hone Your Professional Career Narrative (And Why It Matters)
Have you met these executive jobseekers? What do they all have in common when it comes to having or not having a professional narrative?
Most of us recognize these stereotypes. Furthermore, many of us inadvertently fall into the same traps when asked to introduce our skills, experience, and career goals.
- The Historian. Shares every bullet point on her three-page, 25+ year resume. This overwhelms you with details.
- The Opportunist. Emphasizes so much willingness to do “anything and everything.” You have no idea where he’d be the right fit.
- The Generalist. Downplays her true skills with generic accomplishments like “building great teams.” Leaves no lasting impression.
- The Reactionary. Treats you as his therapist. Allows emotion about his last employer drives the conversation until you’re screaming for the exit.
For executive jobseekers, the stakes are high. Recruiters, hiring managers, and networking contacts need a clear picture of your unique strengths and ideal role. All in just a few short sentences.
Enter the professional narrative.
Overcome Talent Scarcity by Widening the Talent Pool
A professional narrative captures your career story at its most memorable level. Ideally, that’s about two minutes in conversation, and less than 200 words when written. It’s a power-packed paragraph. When done right, clearly differentiates you in the job market. It identifies your target role and keeps you top of mind.
The professional narrative forms the foundation of a successful executive job search. It addresses the most important questions for career transition. Specifically:
- Who are you as a senior leader?
- What do you do best?
- Where do you add value to an organization?
- What is your ideal next step?
Those questions can seem straightforward. However, taking time for self-reflection, and getting outside perspectives from colleagues or your outplacement firm, results in a stronger, more succinct story.
Avoid Clichés and Forgettable Phrases
Here’s an example of the transformation:
- Original summary: “I started my career in brand management about 20 years ago in California, after getting my MBA from Stanford. I also have a B.A. in business from UCLA. I bounced around for a bit and had really good opportunities to travel and build some wonderful teams. Then about six years ago I moved back to the Midwest. I joined a startup, a really scrappy organization, and this time I had far more responsibility for product development. I’m good at making things work better, putting strategies together, and leading teams. I’m ready to take my leadership to the next level—maybe a chief marketing officer role—where I can have a significant impact on the business.”
- Revised professional narrative: “As an energetic, consumer-led brand marketer and general manager, I develop strategies that unlock marketplace success. Leveraging my experience in strategic and new product development, P&L ownership, and cross-functional team management, I quickly assess business conditions and apply proven best practices. I am recognized for developing insightful strategies that are rooted in deep consumer knowledge, flawlessly executed, and able to garner winning results. In my next role, I will leverage my passion and skills as a senior member of a marketing team driving superior performance. I will apply my leadership at both strategic and operational levels to create new opportunities for growth.”
Focus on Career Specifics
Where the original version lacked a hook to grab attention, the winning narrative shows personality from the start. It emphasizes specific accomplishments and demonstrates the candidate’s strengths instead of centering on overused clichés, rambling career history, and forgettable descriptions.
A great professional narrative also takes a forward-looking approach. It focuses on a precise next role. The audience can picture immediately while emphasizing the impact a candidate can make rather than what the job seeker expects from their next employer.
This clarity makes it easy for others to spot opportunities. It makes it easier to facilitate networking introductions. It also uses a recruiter or hiring manager’s limited time wisely.
Professional Narrative Versus Personal Brand
Personal branding gets a lot of buzz with job seekers. It’s common to mistake a personal brand as “enough” to support your job search. While there’s a definite intersection between what you stand for as an individual and your career aspirations, these are two distinct elements. A personal brand applies in many situations and stays constant across your life. A professional narrative speaks to a clear goal and focuses more on your work identity.
In either case, senior leaders often waste space calling out skills and experiences that are baseline expectations, rather than true personal differentiators. For example, at a C-suite or vice president level, we expect robust leadership abilities and proven team-building.
A smart professional narrative drills into attributes that truly set a candidate apart. This can seem counterintuitive, but you will stand out less the more you try to look good at everything.
Enlist Outside Help to Assess Your Strengths Objectively
Creating the ideal career story can be challenging. Especially when working alone. It’s challenging to step back and assess your strengths objectively. Emotion can also derail your overview. Especially if you’re not in transition voluntarily.
These are all good reasons to tap firms like Navigate Forward. Ask to help identify your top strengths. Job seekers often overlook their best assets simply because these traits come so easily.
Once you’ve crafted a winning professional narrative, use it often and consistently across your resume, bio, and LinkedIn profile. It’s also suitable for conversational introductions, cover letters, and “about” statements in emails. This repetition of key themes will reinforce your message and help fast-track your next career opportunity.