How to write a contractor CV
Writing a CV for the contract market has a number of challenges such as knowing how to capture multiple areas of specialism in one document, the last job sitting at the top regardless of its relevance and keeping the CV to a manageable length. To navigate these challenges, there are three frameworks that can be used by Independent Professionals.
- The first of these is the traditional chronological CV which is appropriate for all Contractors and Interim Managers (both should definitely have one of these).
- The second is the Case Study Portfolio CV which works well for more experienced Contractors and Interim Managers who have more than 5 years of unbroken contract experience, who seek a reasonable proportion of their work through their own network, who only deal with Recruiters that understand the contract market, and who don’t rely too heavily on online applications that end up on the desk of a resourcing team where the process is very transactional and low quality.
- The third option is the Freelancer CV which is used by independent professionals who perform many shorter term assignments. This applies to independents such as copywriters and graphic designers where assignments are more fluid, shorter and may overlap.
Need a hand with your CV?
This guide will walk through all three of these frameworks however some of the sections appear on all three styles of CV and will be covered first. These three sections are the Profile / Summary, Key Skills and the use of Case Studies. The guide will cover the Case Study Portfolio at the end and the obvious sections such as Personal Details, Education, Certifications, Training and Technical Skills will not be covered in detail – you can see where these sections are located in the examples.
There has been some conjecture amongst Recruiters regarding the merits of a Personal Profile on a CV. This conjecture stems from the fact that many people fill their personal profiles with irrelevant and mostly clichéd information.
We see hundreds of CVs per week and I recently reviewed 5 CVs back-to-back and was interested to find that all 5 people considered themselves to be dynamic and innovative with excellent communication skills. Having spoken to all the individuals, it confused me as to why 5 people, who didn’t know each other, could include almost word for word, the exact same phrases in their CV. I would guess that they all had found these skills on job specs and felt the need to include these words on their CV. The problem with this theory is twofold: firstly, everyone does it and Hiring Managers are not stupid – they realise job seekers copy info from job specs regardless of whether they really have these skills or not; and secondly, the CV is not the vehicle for pushing behavioural competencies – that is what the interview is for!
Perhaps the confusion stems from the phrase ‘Personal Profile’ which alludes to information about one’s personality. We recommend that you have a Profile / Summary which outlines the profession in which you work, followed by 4 or 5 key strengths (things that you are particularly good at) which are aligned with the roles that you are applying for.
Note: We call it a Profile / Summary to optimise the heading for recruitment software / applicant tracking systems.
The Profile / Summary should be the first thing that a Hiring Manager reads. It is designed to give a brief description about you and highlight the key areas that your clients are looking for. After reading this section, the Recruiter / Hiring Manager should find your application relevant and feel motivated to read the rest of your CV.
The summary has three key components:
- What are you
- What is your value proposition
- What are your top four key strengths?
As mentioned, you should avoid clichéd behavioural competencies such as “working well in a team”, “working under pressure” and having “good communication skills”.
Here’s what to do! Let’s see an example:
An experienced Finance Director with extensive Board-level experience and a track record of embedding robust financial governance across organisations to protect cashflow and profitability. Key strengths include: assembling and managing finance teams of 20+ people across disparate international locations; leading major capital appraisals / commercial feasibility analysis for M&A activity, NPD initiatives and diversification strategies; embedding financial ownership across management teams to drive superior budgetary performance; and a track record of leading major cost rationalisation programmes to remove costs from a business and drive profitability.
Let’s now break this up into its component parts.
What are you?
The idea is to start with a simple description of your professional background e.g. ‘An experienced Finance Director’ or ‘An IT Infrastructure Manager’ or ‘A highly qualified Mechanical Engineer’.
Getting the reader’s attention is all about explaining that you are an appropriate candidate for their role. If they are looking for an experienced Programme Director from a telecoms background then you need to tell them that this is what you are – if you do this successfully, they will be motivated to read on.
The ‘Value Proposition’
The next part of the Summary is the value proposition. This is a little trickier to get right but think of it as your over-arching offering; the key ‘thing’ that you consistently walk into an organisation and do; or put another way, the purpose of your professional existence. It’s a sentence that encapsulates the essence of your service offering to your clients.
For example, my value proposition is enhancing my client’s ability to find a job and develop their career. Our Marketing Manager’s value proposition is developing low cost marketing strategies that deliver superior return on investment from marketing budgets. The example above uses the following: a track record of embedding robust financial governance across organisations to protect cashflow and profitability.
Defining your value proposition is critical yet one of the most challenging aspects of developing your personal brand and marketing collateral.
CV Key Strengths
The next part of the Summary is to communicate what you are particularly good at – this should be your key strengths that feed into the over-arching value proposition that we mentioned earlier.
Key strengths include: assembling and managing finance teams of 20+ people across disparate international locations; leading major capital appraisals / commercial feasibility analysis for M&A activity, NPD initiatives and diversification strategies; embedding financial ownership across management teams to drive superior budgetary performance; and leading major cost rationalisation programmes to remove costs from a business and drive profitability
Notice how the last 2 entries under key strengths are written in a features and benefits style where we describe the skill then explain how this will benefit the organisation. In other words, describe what the skill does for the business. This isn’t always necessary or appropriate but where it works, it adds significant ‘power’ to your CV.
Here are some further examples of phrases that could be used in key strengths:
- Streamlining financial processes to improve accuracy, speed and service delivery
- Re-engineering financial processes and developing financial management capability through superior system functionality
- Professionalising finance functions to facilitate the achievement of business objectives
- Analysing process flows and re-engineering financial processes to drive accuracy and efficiency
- Transforming and developing financial management capability across a business to improve accuracy, transparency and budgetary oversight
- Delivering financial system enhancements that drive efficiency, reporting capability and business decision-making capability
- Performing detailed financial and commercial analysis to facilitate rigorous cost management
- Streamlining business processes and implementing risk-based controls to ensure robust financial and operational governance
- Leading business transformation to rescue companies from significant financial distress
- Driving profit through cost rationalisation, procurement best practice and operational efficiency
Notice how these are higher level skills, or in other words, things that you are really good at. The key here is to push the skills that you think your clients will be most interested in, aligned with the challenges that companies and organisations might be facing in the current climate.
You need to position yourself as the answer to problems rather than being overly introspective. The idea is to provide a statement which is powerful yet authentic.
CV Key Skills
In internet marketing circles, optimising a website for keywords / search terms is critical and most web-based businesses focus heavily on optimising their website so that they appear higher up on the search engine rankings. To this end, there are many companies who offer Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) services, who spend their life assisting companies in making sure they have the correct keywords in their website text as well as having the right keyword density so their site is optimised for the algorithms that are beamed across the internet by the Google’s of this world.
The same can be said about CVs; at some stage in the recruitment process, someone will be doing keyword searches, looking for skills that you may have. If these skills are listed on your CV then you will appear in their searches but if they’re not then you won’t. We live in a changing world where technology drives everything; the same applies to recruitment and most processes are now automated to speed up and streamline recruiting the right people. Companies use Applicant Tracking Systems / recruitment software; recruitment agencies search for candidates on job boards as well as their own databases; and both search for candidates through a plethora of candidate databases including social media channels such as LinkedIn.
The point being, there is no escaping the non-human side of recruitment and just the same as a consumer will search for services on the internet; recruiters / companies will search for potential hires on a range of candidate databases. If your CV isn’t optimised for these searches then you are destined to fail.
Now how do we get these keywords into the CV? Should we use white text in size one font tucked away on page 4 (some people have used this technique) or should we attempt to provide something that will work for both machine and human? I’m in favour of the latter so suggest adding a section after your Professional Summary that incorporates all the key words that you think someone might be searching on.
This might look something like this:
A list of 18 would be a maximum but anything between 10 and 18 bullet points works great. The trick is to present a menu of skills that is picked up by the database searches but also provides a list of skills that hopefully matches with the skills listed on the job specification (of the role that you are applying for).
Present these skills in a logical order with the most important top left and the least important bottom right. Change them for each role you are applying for and remember that sometimes less is more i.e. a big long list can sometimes dilute the key points and make them less obvious.
What skills to push?
I would recommend functional or hard skills opposed to behavioural traits. Behavioural traits such as ‘working in a team’, ‘attention to detail’ and ‘communication skills’ should be a given rather than something special. Recruiters and employers dislike this stuff therefore rendering it more of a negative than a positive.
Talk more about the skills you would use within your job; for example, most Operations Directors would be expected to know about ‘Performance Management’ and most Marketing Managers would be expected to understand ‘Digital Marketing’ – both would be great additions to their respective Key Skills sections.
You might consider key qualifications, a key language skill or a major piece of technology that you are familiar with in addition to the functional skills mentioned earlier.
Note to IT professionals: I wouldn’t recommend populating this section with all your technology experience; by all means mention some key technologies but your ‘chapter and verse’ list can live in a separate section at the back-end of the CV entitled Technical Skills. Active or Passive?
CV Writers will always tell you to write a CV in active voice; this means using action words such as Developed, Led, Managed or Delivered. This is definitely the right way to write your Career History but not the optimum way to write the Key Skills section. Look at it this way; if I was searching for someone with managerial skills, am I more likely to search on the term managed or management? The answer is obvious and will steer you into making sure that you write the key skills section in passive voice e.g. People Management, Strategy Formulation or Product Development. This is somewhat in-depth but is an important point that will ensure you are optimising your CV for searches.
CV Case Studies (Achievements / Projects)
This section will walk you through one of the most important aspects of writing a CV – achievements! It will provide detailed and specific instructions on how to write achievements including the use of case studies that will transform your CV into a highly effective sales document.
We recommend having case studies on all three formats of CV: the Chronological CV would have three in a Career Highlights section; the Case Study Portfolio CV would have eight instead of a Career History; and the Freelance style CV would also have three in a Career Highlights section. These case studies focus around achievements, projects and your most impressive pieces of work.
Let’s focus this section on how these would look on a Chronological of Freelance CV and we’ll cover the Case Study scenario later in the guide. In both these cases you would have a section with three case studies. We call this section Career Highlights and these are what will set you apart from your competition. It is your opportunity to provide hard evidence that you are good at your job and turn your CV into a sales document rather than a list of jobs with a raft of unsubstantiated statements. A Career Highlight is something that you have been involved in (e.g. a project) where your actions created a tangible and positive outcome.
You should use specific examples and ensure that the examples that you choose, provide relevant evidence in line with the role that you are applying for. In order to construct these examples and give them enough context to stand-alone on page one; we use a formula called STAR, which is an acronym for Situation, Task, Actions and Result. Situation gives background to the example i.e. who were you working for and what situation did they find themselves in; Task describes the extent to your involvement i.e. how you were involved; Actions are the specifics to what you did; and Result is the outcome, ideally in measurable terms.
In 2001, ERAC acquired an unprofitable competitor in the South of England that required transformation. Appointed as Interim Operations Manager to re-brand the business, embed the ERAC business model and drive profitability. Performed top-to-bottom review of business; exited underperforming staff; recruited new team; trained new and existing staff; oversaw office refurbishment; introduced radical changes to commercial model (7 day p/w operation); and led business development activity. Succeeded in re-branding the business and achieving £10k per month profit within 6 months.
Note: keep the case studies to no more than 6 lines each.
Let’s break STAR down into its component parts:
Situation: This part of the case study should start with the name of the company and go on to explain what the SITUATION was. Another way of looking at it is “what was the problem and what was going wrong”. For example – ‘In 2001, ERAC acquired an unprofitable competitor in the South of England that required transformation’ or ‘XYZ Ltd had weak financial processes that were leading to significant inefficiencies within the accountancy department’.
Task: This is the simplest part of the case study and should mention your job title and how you were involved in solving the problem. All we are trying to do here is to explain in what capacity you were involved. For example – ‘Appointed as Interim Operations Manager to re-brand the business, embed the ERAC business model and drive profitability’.
Actions: Here we focus on the 5 or 6 key ACTIONS that you took to solve the problem and drive a positive outcome. It can be looked at as the sequence of events that you followed. Keep the individual points brief, write them in active voice using tight writing and separate them by semi-colons. For example: performed top-to-bottom review of business; exited underperforming staff; recruited new team; trained new and existing staff; oversaw office refurbishment; introduced radical changes to commercial model (7 day p/w operation); and led business development activity.
Note how they are separated by semi-colons rather than commas and that there is an AND before the last Action.
Result: This is the most important component to the STAR case studies; without the RESULT, the case study will just be a list of tasks rather than something that you achieved. The Result should ideally be statistical, using some kind of tangible evidence that proves that you succeeded. For example: ‘Succeeded in re-branding the business and achieving £10k per month profit within 6 months’ or ‘Succeeded in re-engineering financial processes which reduced man-hours by 15%, saving £10k per annum’. Notice how we start the Result with ‘Succeeded in…’ to separate it from the Actions – this ensures that the case study is easy to read and gives the Result more impact.
This is how you transform your CV into a business case opposed to a less effective ‘task-based’ CV.
In September 2006, XYZ Ltd was a 3 year old recruitment business with high cost base and zero profits to date. Engaged as Finance Project Manager to deliver a critical cost rationalisation programme. Performed business audit; revised company’s operating model; reviewed and re-negotiated contracts with clients; rationalised supplier base; implemented new expenses policy; and made significant changes to employee remuneration. Succeeded in reducing costs by £200k (18%) which allowed the company to achieve profit for the first time.
CV Career History
This section relates to the Chronological CV and will explain what information to always add for each position that you present on your CV and what order will work best. We describe this as ‘optimising the information architecture of your CV’ which is critical to the effectiveness of your CV. Too many CVs have a somewhat random list of duties and responsibilities which are in no particular order, which renders the CV less impactful.
The Career History is all about adequately explaining what the scope of your responsibilities were across your relevant career history. Some of these might be contract roles and some of them permanent roles from earlier in your career. As a general rule, the more recent contract roles might have less information than if you are new to contracting and relying on your permanent career to sell your talents.
I recommend focusing on the last 8 to 10 years if you are new to contracting and the last 6 years if you are more experienced in the contract market (you will have many more ‘positions’ to add) but this can vary depending on how your career has developed. Be strategic and weight the volume of information towards the positions that are most aligned to your future direction. Emphasising or de-emphasising a position can be achieved very simply by adding more information / bullet points for the roles you want to emphasise and less information / bullet points for the roles you want to de-emphasise.
The Career History must have an information architecture that delivers the right information in the right order. You could describe this as aligning the information architecture with the cognitive processes of the Recruiter / Hiring Manager as they read the CV. Random bullet points just won’t do and being too brief is also a mistake; bullet points that are two lines long are optimum and provide just enough information without being too wordy. Our general rule is that one line is skinny, 2 lines is great and 3 lines OK if you really have to.
Now back to information architecture! I recommend starting with a series of context building bullet points; context is essential when writing a CV as it helps the reader to conceptualise your role. If you start with a random duty / responsibility, it will have no context and render it ineffective, but if we have good context building information before the duties and responsibilities, it helps the reader to understand the ‘context’ in which you performed those tasks.
Here are the recommended key ‘context’ building bullet points:
- Information about the organisation that you worked for
- The purpose of your role i.e. a role summary
- If you managed a team, a description of your direct reports
When describing your client / employer, explain what industry they are in and how big they are e.g. Salesforce.com Inc. is a global software / CRM company headquartered in California. The company has revenues of $3billion and 9,800 employees.
The purpose / summary of your role should capture ‘in a nutshell’ what the scope of your role was. Aim to provide a detailed bullet point that, if no other bullet points existed, would adequately describe what your role was.
For example: Engaged as a Contractor to transform all IT infrastructure and applications for the US and EMEA across key sites in California, London, Munich, Madrid and Dubai (700 users). The key remit was to transform, design and develop business-critical IT services to support aggressive expansion plans.
If you managed a team, understanding who these people were can build context. It allows the reader to picture an organogram of your team in their minds. For example: Managed a workforce of 200 people across 3 European sites with 4 direct reports including an 2 Operations Managers, Finance Manager and Sales Manager.
Once you have written these ‘context’ building bullet points, you can then describe the specifics of your role e.g. daily, weekly, monthly duties and responsibilities and any initiatives that you implemented or projects that you delivered (more achievements).
Recent research found that over 90% of Hiring Managers / HR Professionals would expect this section to be made up of bullet points rather than paragraphs.
Note: where possible, use statistics to ‘prove’ that you did a jolly good job.
- Focus on the last 6 to 10 years
- Write in reverse chronological order
- Place the emphasis on your most relevant roles
- Use context building bullet points
- Don’t be too brief – 2 lines for each point is perfect
- Add projects or achievements and use statistics to prove success
The Case Study Portfolio CV
I have worked closely with the Contract / Interim community for many years and two challenges keep rearing their ugly head: Firstly, how does a Contractor write a CV that isn’t six pages long; and secondly, what happens if you want to apply for a role that draws upon skills gained in a contract that isn’t the most recent piece of work that you have done? Recruiters tend to focus on the last job / contract that you did (because it’s at the top), regardless of its relevance – I like to call this ‘last job syndrome’. I anticipate lots of nodding heads at this stage and you’ll be glad to know that there is a solution which allows Contractors to present their careers in a much more concise and effective way.
The premise of this methodology is to move away from the traditional chronological CV and to break your career down into individual pieces of work (rather than blocks of employment). Think more about individual projects rather than periods of working for a particular company.
You may identify 30 pieces of work that you have done throughout your career and decide that 15 of them are up to date and relevant. Once you have identified these key pieces of work, write them as short case studies (no more than 6 lines long), ideally using the STAR methodology (that we discussed earlier in the guide), and add 8-10 of them into the CV at anyone point in time. The CV then becomes a portfolio of case studies and you are able to change the order of them around depending on the roles that you are applying for (put the most relevant at the top on page one).
Of course, recruiters / hiring managers will still want to see the dates of your contracts and employment so put a career chronology section after the case studies with the date, company name and your job title. This framework will provide you with much more flexibility and allow you to tailor the CV to the roles you are applying for in a much more effective way.
This style of CV is broken up into a number of sections which are as follows:
- Profile / Summary
- Key Skills
- Current Role
- Assignment (Case Study) Portfolio
- Career Chronology
- Certifications & Qualifications
- Education (if not included in Qualifications)
- Personal Details
- Technical Appendix
We have already covered some of these sections earlier in the guide so let’s have a look at the sections that we haven’t discussed / those that are specific to the Case Study Portfolio CV.
This is critical to explain to the reader that you are a) a Contractor / Independent Professional, and b) that you are presenting your CV in a different format. This will educate the reader and help them to understand the way in which you are presenting the information to them. I would recommend using this exact wording:
January 2006 to date: Independent Contractor / Project Manager (123 Consulting Ltd)
Since 2006, have operated as an Independent Contractor (through own Ltd company vehicle), delivering assignments for high profile organisations such as Barclays, Lloyds and Tesco. Below is a list of example assignments completed over this period (which are NOT necessarily in chronological order and not all are listed).
Assignment / Project Portfolio:
For candidates with a contract focused career, this section becomes the focal point of the CV and allows you to move away from the constraints of a chronological CV. You can have as many example projects as you like but I would recommend 8 to 10 in the CV at any one point in time.
The beauty of this format is that you can put them in whatever order fits the job you are applying for, giving you much more strategic licence to present the most relevant aspects of your career and to target roles more effectively.
These examples are written as mini case studies and use a formula called STAR, which is an acronym for Situation, Task, Actions and Result. The difference between the case studies in the Case Study Portfolio CV and the Chronological CV is that the case studies have headings over them that provide the name of your client, the project type, your job title and the number of months the project lasted.
The previous section on Case Studies gives a more detailed overview on how to construct these but here are a few additional examples:
Xxx Ltd: IAM System Design: Senior Product Engineering Manager (18 months)
Xxx Ltd had a commercial hardware product which required an identity & authentication management system (IAM). Engaged as Senior Product Engineering Manager to assess customer needs and develop solution. Engaged with customers; assessed complex access management requirements; designed functional spec; managed development and test teams; and managed through the full project lifecycle. The product was deemed a huge success and was subsequently licensed to several OEMs creating a £multi-million revenue stream.
Xxx Ltd: Merchandising System Migration: Senior Project Manager (8 months)
Xxx Ltd were engaged by xxx Plc to migrate a complex Merchandising System. Selected to lead the £3.5m migration from a legacy Unix platform to a high availability IBM cluster. Overcame hostility from stakeholders; developed migration strategy / project plans; assembled project team of 20; migrated over 160 interfaces, deployed within a complex off-site datacentre; and managed vendors. Succeeded in delivering this T&M and Fixed Price contract, achieving against all milestones, ensuring contract profitability in extremely challenging circumstances.
Xxx Plc: Post Acquisition System Integration: Programme Manager (9 months)
In order to expand their stockbroking business, xxx acquired xxx. Selected as Programme Manager to integrate xxx’s IT estate into the xxx Group. Analysed both organisations existing systems and interfaces; engaged with key stakeholders; assembled multi-disciplinary team of 70 people; designed IT infrastructure in line within ITIL framework; developed programme plans; and oversaw implementation phase including data cleansing and data migration. Succeeded in delivering this £1m programme on time, to budget and to specification.
This section simply highlights the chronology of your career. Simply list the names of your clients or employers, the dates that you worked there (including months), your job title, your status (contract or permanent), and how many contract extensions you received. Keep these to one line and detail your entire career.
01/2012 to present: 123 Ltd: Project Manager (contract – 2 extensions)
07/2001 to 12/2011: ABC Ltd: Systems Engineer (contract)
05/2009 to 06/2011: XYZ Plc: Project Manager (contract – 3 extensions)
Note: the chronological CV is universally accepted; the case study style CV is great in certain situations, but it does depend on the preference of the recruiter. Banking sector clients tend to prefer the chronological CV as they need to take references and the case study style CV makes this more difficult. Having said that, the case study style CV is arguably more IR35 friendly. Having both will give you the flexibility depending on the target audience.
As previously mentioned, freelancers who deliver shorter pieces of work which may overlap would find it impossible to construct their CV in the case study or chronological format so the best option is to ‘lump together’ the freelance part of your career in one section and use the individual bullet points to communicate what type of work you do and the key assignments that you have delivered. You would still have the Professional Summary, Key Skills and Career Highlights sections and the Career History for your permanent career would remain as we recommended earlier in the guide. The freelance part of your career might look something like this:
Employer: Various Clients / Companies
Position: Freelance Career Consultant
Dates: November 2006 to January 2007
- During this period, operated as a freelancer, delivering career services to a variety of clients including xxx, xxx and xxx. These roles focused on outplacement, marketing and career coaching as well as writing articles and blogs for a number of high profile organisations.
- Personally act as Lead Consultant on a range of Marketing, Outplacement and Career Management assignments as well as writing articles for various organisations, contributing to books and film productions, and delivering seminars on behalf of CVIA and other bodies.
- Engaged by an expanding digital media and IT consultancy firm to create marketing collateral for their corporate website, CVs for use in contract tenders and LinkedIn profiles to sell the company and its senior management team. As a result, sales have increased by 15%.
- Engaged by a leading high-tech business to create an Executive Profile for their newly appointed MD which would appear on their corporate website.
- Engaged by an international consulting network to provide advice to their team on how to write effective profiles, case studies and CVs which has uplifted lead generation by 25%.
- Engaged by many corporate clients (Schools, SMEs, PLCs) including a major utilities company, to provide outplacement services. This involves assessing business needs, presenting solutions, negotiating fees, creating service delivery capability and leading contract execution.
- Appointed by a leading Service Management Consultancy to harmonise their consulting team’s CV portfolio which are used as a key tool in winning contract tenders. This has increased their bid to contract award ratio by 10% resulting in £xxxk of additional revenue.
- Engaged by the management team involved in an MBO to write a portfolio of Executive Biographies to present to VC investors. Spent 2 days on site, performing in-depth interviews prior to writing each biography using The CVIA Group’s unique marketing framework.
If you would like one of our team to critique your CV or LinkedIn profile (free of charge), please send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with some reference to having read this guide and one of our team will contact you. We also provide a range of services for Contractors / Independent Professionals at discounted Contractor Weekly rates – see here: www.cvandinterviewadvisors.co.uk/contractor-weekly