Most professionals describe their achievements in job interviews, application essays for jobs in the Senior Executive Service and fellowships and other contexts by rattling off long, disjointed lists of general achievements. The problem? Such descriptions are usually only about as interesting, impressive and memorable as a stranger’s mile-long “to-do” list.
Here is my advice for an alternative approach — which is based on my interviews with hundreds of federal managers and my experience coaching hundreds of feds: Structure your description of your achievements as success stories — that is, descriptions of how you accomplished one or more big, specific goals or solved vexing problems that are particularly relevant to the situation at hand.
Your success stories will be compelling because, unlike achievement lists, they will be conceptually united by a dramatic narrative that will stick to managers’ brains like verbal Velcro. In addition, they will capture the uniqueness of your goal-reaching and problem-solving expertise and thereby help you stand out from the list-making pack.
Each success story should concisely describe:
THE PROBLEM OR GOAL YOU ADDRESSED AND ITS IMPORTANCE TO YOUR ORGANIZATION: For example, did you address requirements to do more with less; inefficiencies or gaps in expertise that damaged your office’s reputation or productivity; the need to update procedures or equipment in order to save time or raise your organization’s profile; the need to inform stakeholders or your organization’s activities; bad survey or audit results; or criticism from Congress or the press?
Warning: Only give as much information about the problem you solved/ your target goal as necessary to provide context for your explanation of your achievement. (Your description of your success story should mainly focus on your problem-solving or goal-reaching success — not inventory your agency’s problems.)
YOUR ACTIONS: Explain what you did to address your target problem or goal and why you chose your strategy. For example, did you organize a new work group; conduct interviews; or run workshops to research options; consult with managers to get “buy in;” hire contractors to add capacity; produce new written or multi-media materials; lead an investigation; conduct outreach activities; identify case studies to support your strategy; run a pilot project or run webinars.
THE SPECIAL CHALLENGES YOU CONQUERED. Don’t pretend your job is easy. Describe the tough obstacles you deftly surmounted, such as budgetary or personnel constraints; tight, ever-changing deadlines; a change-resistant bureaucracy; a sensitive political situation; data shortages; schedule or policy changes that required accommodation; technology glitches; leadership turnover; a geographically scattered work group; the lack of consistent commitment from senior management; racial or gender glass ceilings; hostile stakeholder groups or press; or the trail-blazing nature of your work which required you to create new protocols.
Describe your challenges in objective, impersonal terms without resentment or bitterness. Emphasize what you did, not what was done to you — no matter how overly burdened you might have been. No grumbling!
YOUR RESULTS: Describe the goal you achieved/ your solution to the problem you addressed and its importance to your organization. For example, did you overhaul or consolidate offices; pass or enforce a major regulation; improve a system or process; issue new grants; raise standards; run a public awareness campaign; organize a conference; launch a new product; undertake a high-dollar procurement action; generate new partnerships between organizations; or create training or education opportunities?
The more hard evidence of your success you can provide of your success the better. If possible, cite metrics supporting your success, such as savings in costs or time; improvements in health or safety; increased productivity; improvements in survey or audit results; positive evaluations of an event; large circulation of a product you developed; improvements in recruitment; or reductions in pollution or energy consumption? Were your impacts national in scope? What anecdotal evidence can you provide of your success? If official documents cite your contributions, quote them.
POSITIVE FEEDBACK YOU GENERATED: Quote positive press and written or oral praise from managers, colleagues, associations, stakeholder groups, unions, government organizations related to the success of your project; and cite any formal recognition or promotions or awards you received because of your results.
FORMATTING TIP: When describing each success stories in writing, format your description to jump off the page by giving it an eye-catching title and by labeling its parts with the following headings: MY GOAL; MY ACTIONS; CHALLENGES I CONQUERED; MY RESULTS; and POSITIVE FEEDBACK. These headings will convince managers that you produced results and positive feedback even if they just skim your document without reading it word for word.
When describing each story verbally, weave these headings into your narrative to introduce each section of the story.