Who needs experts? Anyone navigating an unfamiliar system crucial to their success.

One Government contracting shop recently declaimed the guidance provided by consultants in proposal preparation. As a consultant, I find it personally offensive, but really it’s just bad advice.

It is also not new. 

Over twenty years ago, I managed a career counseling and résumé writing firm near a major Air Force installation, a classic “terminal career point” for senior officers. My clients ranged from junior enlisted leaving to pursue education or stay with new families, to two-and-three star generals retiring after 30-year records of accomplishment that dwarf most lifetimes of success.

They had in common a fear of the unknown. Yes, even seasoned combat Vets figuratively shook in their boots at the prospect of “selling” themselves to a civilian employer. It had never been imperative to planning, leading or executing some of the toughest jobs in the world.

That is where I excelled. I have a knack for, and education in, telling a story persuasively to an audience unfamiliar with the topic. I became the go-to provider for transitioning military in the area, and eventually even the command took notice.

I was invited to teach résumé writing in the newly-minted “Transition Assistance Program” on base. The command was adamant I not advertise my services, having experienced hard-sell techniques from others in life-planning industries. I didn’t sell. I introduced myself and walked the class step-by-step from evaluating strengths and weaknesses, conducting market research, translating mil-speak into English, interviewing tips, to line-by-line examples of popular résumé and cover letter formats. This was in the early 90’s, before word-recognition software became widely-used. I taught attendees how to get past the human resources desk to a decision maker. I provided specific samples and answered questions for hours, and I never mentioned the name of my company. Just my business cards on a table at the back of the room. As I gathered my materials to leave, I was inundated with inquiries about my services. I told them to call my office. They did.

Much later I learned there was a warning given to attendees before my presentation. A disclaimer of endorsement and a caveat to listen to my advice but “write your own résumé, because no one knows you better than you.”

This would be great advice if a résumé were about you. Spoiler: it’s not.

A résumé is about what is most valuable to an employer. It is not a list of the features you possess: your education, experience and skills. It is not a legal document nor a job application. A résumé is marketing material to highlight the benefits to be realized for the cost of bringing you on the team.

If you don’t know exactly what is most compelling to your target you should not write your own résumé. Find someone with a skill set around marketing and persuasive writing. An expert in analyzing your experience and evaluating your goals. Someone who can interpret and extrapolate your story into a narrative and format that can’t be ignored.

Compare it to teaching paint by the numbers. It may produce a recognizable image, but Picasso it ain’t. After I told them everything I could, they still picked up my card, called me, and happily paid me to turn them into stellar job candidates in print.

My customer base has changed over the years. I stopped telling the stories of individuals and began telling those of organizations—non-profits, small businesses, public companies and high-technology firms—to audiences comprising donors, consumers, investors, lenders, industry partners and eventually, the Government.

The process is the same: know the story, know the audience, know the difference and know how to bridge that gap.

Today, and for the past eleven years, the stories I tell are those of contractors to the audience of the Federal Government. That is not an easy audience to define as the roles of evaluators and technical experts don’t always overlap. Sometimes you must craft a complex technical narrative to be read by a budget analyst.

Do you want to be the best in your area of professional expertise or the best in selling that expertise in a restrictive and confusing format?

The Government requires you to present your firm’s capability to provide exceptional professional services from designing and building weapons systems to running huge financial systems. On multi-billion-dollar Multiple Award Contracts, evaluators who make award decisions may or may not have expertise in the organizational requirement for your services. Most of the time, their expertise is in acquisition: procurement processes and regulations.

They do the best they can with the tools they are given. Your narrative is forced into a recognizable, uniform structure with page limits and addressable topics based on institutional doctrine. The imperative no firm receive preferential treatment is not only ingrained, it is law. This drumbeat of distrust of commercial enterprise informs decision making at every interaction with industry.

Until about six months after leaving Government service.

Over the last twenty-five years, I have cultivated many contacts among uniformed and civilian professionals who excel in their positions. They are steeped in the culture of the system and they understand the metrics for success. My reputation as a successful consultant to defense contractors is widely known, if narrowly understood, in those circles.

Yet one thing remains from those early years. Every few weeks I get a call from a retiring senior leader interested in translating their expertise into a marketable commodity to sell to contractors or to the Government they just left.

That is when they realize the value of expert advice.