Context: Do You Seek The Deeper Meaning That Might Not Be Obvious?

Leadership Lesson: Lack of context in any situation can hold us back, and everyone involved can lose out if it’s not provided—or considered.

If we’re the one taking in information without the proper context, we might miss the bigger picture. If we’re the one providing the information, not providing the proper context can cost us what we want.

The influence for this post was a career preparation event I attended a few months ago at the University of Hartford. I was part of a panel taking questions from students pertaining to hiring and what should and shouldn’t be included on a resume or in a student’s demeanor or presentation when trying to make the best impression with possible employers.

One question that came up was on the importance of extracurricular activities on a resume and in a candidate’s history. The question posed asked how important it is to demonstrate a wide variety of extracurricular activities, including social activities, clubs, and associations, on one’s resume.

One of my fellow panelists answered that it was very important, likely providing that answer for the reasons we would expect. That it demonstrates how engaged one is in his or her environment. It also demonstrates how well-rounded one is. And that being exposed to different experiences prepares someone for the diversity of experiences outside of college. I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact that extracurricular activities are important. I certainly can’t.

But then the panelist noted that if they looked at a resume, and all they saw were retail jobs, they wouldn’t be too impressed. I forget the exact wording used for what their impression would be, but the overall gist of their impression was that retail jobs wouldn’t garner as much of an experiential “wow” factor as extracurriculars.

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For my part, even though I give extracurriculars all the credit in the world, I can’t take anything away from retail jobs, or jobs in general, taking their place.

The panelist meant well. I knew they wanted to provide the crowd with the best advice. But I couldn’t help but put my hand up after the point was made and politely provide reassurance to those whose experience did include retail jobs. I wanted to disagree as politely as I could, because of how strongly I felt about the value of retail jobs—or any job for that matter.

What was missing in the panelist’s example was the context behind the words on the resume. It’s like when someone says that advice they’ve received is cliché. Usually they say that because someone else merely utters a few familiar words or phrases and leaves it at that. What’s provided is only a facade and shell. Beyond that, there’s no explanation, no examples, no background—no context.

So, in my rebuttal of the point, I didn’t take any value away from extracurricular activities but instead wanted to make sure people at least would consider and understand the importance and relevance of holding jobs while in college. That’s the context. The reader of a resume has to seek the depth behind the face value of the information, much in the same way the presenter has to both justify why what they’re presenting is important, and why its value should not be discounted or overlooked.

As an example, let’s consider how important it is to bring the context to the surface in resume review. Each side in this scenario will only get or provide so much exposure to the context, but, regardless, each side should think of and understand the importance of the details behind what’s on the paper.

Resume Review

It’s important not to make quick assumptions based on what’s listed, even if the candidate hasn’t outlined everything they’ve done. Can you find the value in what the environments of those previous employers typically provide and entail?

Consider those retail jobs. Think about that work environment and what workers are typically responsible for. Can you see the value in working with different customers throughout the day, working varying schedules, working with different people, handling registers and financials, keeping the environment organized, providing solutions for customers, training others, delivering for store and regional managers, etc.?

Do these sound like skills you could tap into and value you could extract from someone for your organization’s purposes?

Do you understand how to extract value – or at least look for it – in the unexpected or the “unsexy?”

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Resume Preparation

It’s important not to overlook how important it is to outline what you’ve learned and include that under each job listed. You have to combine the specifics of that job along with the general, transferable skills which would be valuable in any setting, especially when extrapolated to a professional setting.

Be ready to outline those skills any work environment would benefit from, such as working with customers/clients, working in teams, hitting sales numbers, streamlining and organizing processes, etc.

Do you understand how to outline and demonstrate the value of what you’ve done to date and illustrate it for those who may not know to look for it or how to look for it?

Resumes are just one brief example.

Overall, with whatever it is you see, witness, or take in, make sure to get some more context. So much of what we do is made up of seamless, quick snapshots we put together in the course of our journey and experience that we forget to look deeper for the meaning.

It’s on every one of us to make sure we don’t draw 100% of our assumptions about something or someone from a fraction shown of the entire picture. If we do, both sides miss out and forfeit value. One side needs to understand the importance of seeking the value, while the other side needs to be aware of the gravity of providing the value context.

It may not be the sexy façade at the foreground, but the context in the background is the foundation for everything that can be provided going forward.

Whichever side you’re on in the scenario, don’t be lazy in seeking or reflecting the true value of what is presented.

You have to get — and provide — the full picture.

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