After more than two decades in the Executive Search
business, I have learned a lot about what goes into a
successful hire. I try to impart my knowledge to both hiring
managers and candidates. Nevertheless, at many job
interviews I find myself listening to questions that make me
cringe and answers that make me want to cry.
Now it's my turn to talk.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Your Appetizing Cover Letter

Have you ever ruined your appetite for a great dinner by eating too much before the meal?

Keep this in mind when you compose a cover letter to accompany your resume.  Like a well-apportioned appetizer, the purpose of a cover letter is to stimulate interest in what comes next, not to star as the main event.  In other words, a cover letter should deliver enough information to pique the reader’s interest in your resume, and not enough to eliminate any interest in reading further.

Last week, I asked a professional currently engaged in a job search to send me a copy of his cover letter and resume.  He promptly responded, sending an acceptable resume accompanied by a rather wordy 2-page cover letter.  I immediately saw a problem.  A cover letter should always be limited to one page.  No exceptions.  In fact, anything more than four or five paragraphs will stretch the patience limit of most hiring managers, me included.

Here is a basic outline of a successful cover letter:

¾   Include all your contact information in the letterhead.

¾   Paragraph 1:  Explain why you are sending the resume.  If you are responding to an ad or specific job posting, mention it.  Otherwise, identify the type of title or position you are seeking.  If at all possible, use a “hook” such as a reference to a current employee at the company or an area of common interest between you and the letter recipient.  (“I heard you speak at the recent University of Illinois Alumni Association meeting in Chicago.”)

¾   Paragraphs 2, 3, 4:  Highlight areas of your background that might qualify you for the type of position you are seeking.  This section should be tailored to each recipient.  Areas of importance might include academic degrees, professional certifications, recent employers/titles, and a significant achievement or two.  Remember – Appetizer.  Save details and lengthy descriptions for your resume.

¾   Final Paragraph:  Thank the recipient for his/her time and consideration.
A cover letter is often your first communication with a potential employer or recruiter.  If you are eminently qualified for a position, a few choice morsels served up in a cover letter will whet the appetite of the recipient.  If you are unqualified, no amount of creative storytelling will get around that fact.  Be forthright, be factual, be brief. 

And don’t forget to check for grammar and spelling.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Re-inventing Your Sailboat

Fortunate are those professionals who select the perfect major in college, land with a series of great employers who provide generous amounts of mentoring and opportunity, and sail through their careers with the sun overhead, a case of beer (and a bottle of sunscreen) in the cooler, and the wind always at their backs.

I’m sure these people do exist.  Well, pretty sure. 

Most sailboats encounter a few rough waves, a storm or two, or the dreaded “getting-nowhere-fast” calm along the way. Similarly, most professionals encounter some obstacles, some slow motion, and some unanticipated setbacks over the course of a career.  The economic downturn of the last four years has definitely capsized the plans of many in the work force, leaving all kinds of formerly forward-directed individuals adrift in unfamiliar waters.

Over the holidays, I happened to encounter multiple individuals who had to re-invent their careers completely.  Allow me to mention a few:

A woman named Monica helped fill my prescription at the local pharmacy.  She lost her position in customer service during the recession and couldn’t find another.  While her peers happily accepted their unemployment checks and made half-hearted efforts to find new jobs, Monica took classes to become a pharmacist’s assistant.  She is happily employed now, and making more money than she did before.

I also met a woman named Ellen. Ellen re-invented herself several times.  Originally, a financial analyst on Wall Street, she started her own successful mortgage closing company.  After selling her business and moving to the Midwest for family reasons, she became the COO or a large mortgage lending company. When the housing meltdown led to her company’s demise, she went out on her own, finding a niche need in the financial services field.  She now is able to generate a nice income and maintain a great work-life balance.   

A friend named Tim had worked in the home building business for twenty-plus years.  When residential construction died, his job ended.  After a period of unemployment, recently he was able to secure a position as the Building Manager for a Senior Residence.  His position includes new responsibilities and a new skill set which has entailed some on-the-job learning. Tim has accomplished this with minimal difficulty.

In each of these cases, re-invention was brought on by necessity, not choice.  Job loss and/or economic slowdown forced the need for change and preparation for an unexpected future. Other re-inventions are chosen.  In my case I turned my back on the CPA track and set course on a wild ride as a headhunter.

Most of us have had or will have our boat rocked at some point – in both life and career. Sometimes, to survive and flourish means charting a completely new course.  Try to look at life-changing events as opportunities to set sail in a new direction.  Then start paddling, work smart, and enjoy life.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

From Revelry to Reality: Happy New Year 2013

It’s a brand new year.  The holidays are over. You have successfully depleted your savings accounts on gifts for all those you love and some you don’t particularly like. Possibly you have embarrassed yourself at a holiday office party. You have wrapped and unwrapped, had drinks and hangovers…and started saving for next year’s gifts.  And now you must turn your focus from reindeer to career.

Or you can wait until after the National Championship Game like I am.

Meanwhile, just a few New Year’s resolutions generously written by a headhunter for you.  Consider them a late Christmas gift.

1.     Take a test.  The dreary, sports-starved months of winter (for those of who live in the frozen north half of the U.S.) are a great time to evaluate your career yet again.  Have you experienced any upward mobility over the past year?  Has a position that you regarded as a brief stop become a long term residence?  How did your company fare financially in 2012? How did you fare financially in 2012? Are you happy where you are?  What would make you happier? Take time to do an honest assessment of your status and your level of contentment vs. your goals.

2.     Make a plan.  If Question 1 indicates some adjustment is needed, figure out how to go about making that change.  Note: A plan is not a fantasy. Make your plan real.  Include actual, do-able steps you can take to accomplish your plan.

3.     Compose a resume.  Even if you are as happy as a witch in a broom factory (thank you, Geico), you might become aware of a position that offers you more money, more responsibility, or more satisfaction than your current role.  After you check the battery on your smoke alarm, work on a resume. 

4.     Network, network, network – within you company, within your industry, outside your industry, among family, friends, and colleagues.  If you haven’t been an active networker up to this point, 2013 is the time. A large personal network can serve as a springboard to better opportunities within or outside of your company; and can help to soften the impact of an unforeseen layoff, demotion, or other career disaster.

5.     Learn to read…the handwriting on the wall, that is. If you sense something is just “not right” where you work; if you are routinely idle; if you are aware that new regulations will begin to negatively affect your company; if your boss seems to have taken an active dislike to you; take active steps to correct the situation or find a new situation.  Don’t wait for the writing to move from the wall to a pink slip.

6.     Bet on yourself.  Do not let lethargy or pessimism or lack of confidence keep you from pursuing a new path.

7.     Bet on the Irish next week.