Monthly Archives: June 2012

Don't Underestimate the Importance of a Cover Letter

The cover letter is an important component of your documentation arsenal

At a recent national conference where I was speaking, someone asked me, “Do I really need a cover letter these days, even when a job ad doesn’t ask for one?” I touched upon this point in an older post, so let me elaborate some here.

Some hiring managers think that a cover letter is a waste of time because they don’t get read.  Well, they often don’t get read because most are poorly written and are created more as an afterthought instead of being developed with purpose. Done correctly, a cover letter is another document in your portfolio that attests to your professional expertise and your brand. It summarizes in a high level–with a touch of marketing panache–the accomplishments and capabilities detailed on your résumé with only minimal explicit verbatim repetition.

The best cover letters are written after the résumé has been polished much the way the preface of a book is written after the manuscript is finished. The résumé provides the raw materials for the cover letter, the purpose of which is to get the hiring manager to look at the résumé. Hiring managers that don’t read cover letters and go directly to the résumé  often miss out on a candidate who may be a notch above the competition simply by how they sell their professional brand in the cover letter. If all I do is scan résumés, then I’m just looking for another employee; I may inadvertently pass over the problem solver, the solutions provider, or the game changer my team or company needs.

The cover letter is another form of documentation in your Professional Skills, Knowledge, and Experience (PSKE™) Portfolio that attests to your professional brand. For consultants, the letter of introduction serves the same purpose as the cover letter and contains the same underlying message: I understand your business and the issues you face every day; when you need that value-add professional who has a demonstrated record of accomplishment and success, you call me.

The cover letter must do these things to get the hiring manager to look at your résumé–or perhaps get you called in for an interview based on the strength of your cover letter along as it did me three times in my career:

  1. It must speak to the hiring manager’s needs, not your own. You do that by following the rule of thumb that says your cover letter should have more instances of the words you/your/yours than of the words I/me/my/mine. Even the one-sentence underlying message in the previous paragraph speaks to the hiring manager’s needs with more instances of you/your than I/me (4:2 ratio). That’s just simple advertising copyrighting put to work in your cover letter.
  2. Quantified accomplishments pulled from your résumé communicate to the hiring manager that you do, in fact, have a proven track record (just saying so without the evidence to back it up is a far too common problem). Hiring managers understand numbers more than words. The number of arrests you made as a government agent may not mean anything to a hiring manager in the private sector, but your success rate (percentage) certainly will. Rethink numbers using the hiring manager’s criteria.
  3. You have 5 to 7 seconds to get a hiring manager’s attention with your cover letter. You don’t do that by beginning with, “Please find enclosed my resume…. “ You start it with a rhetorical question such as, “Do you think that Company ABC would want a financial risk management professional who has accomplished the following: “ and then you follow that with a bullet list of quantified accomplishments pulled from your résumé. Leading with a rhetorical question whose only rational response is “yes“ is a tactic that has you escorting the hiring manager deeper into your cover letter and the other accomplishments that support your contention that you are the perfect candidate.
  4. You can put on your assertive unabashed self-promoter hat when creating your cover letter but only if you have the quantified accomplishments to back it up. Writing something like, “When you need that proposal writer who has garnered more than $30 million in government grants and awards, you call me: John Doe“, it is perfectly legit if that claim is on your résumé. But without the evidence to support that assertion, you’re just “all hat, no cattle“ as they say here in Texas.
  5. Always take control of the follow up in your closing paragraph. Never write about “hoping to hear from you“ or “thank you for your consideration.“  Tell the hiring manager you will call in a few days to discuss further how you are that value-add professional for the position–and then follow through with the phone call.  Whether you speak to the hiring manger directly, to voice mail, or an administrative assistant matters not. Taking control of the follow up gets your name across the hiring manager’s desk again. And keeping your name out front throughout the entire hiring process–especially after interviews are finished–is a key to improving your chances of getting the job offer as I detail in Confessions of a Hiring Manager Rev. 2.0 (Second Edition).
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Do Credentials on a Résumé Help when Changing Careers?

Well, first of all, my apologies for being offline the last month plus. I just completed the Second Edition of Confessions of a Hiring Manager Rev. 2.0, and 50 Things You Can Do NOW to Help Keep Your Job. Both should be available now from Amazon.com and CreateSpace.com as well as your favorite bookstore and library. I’ve also been busy preparing presentations for the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners Annual Conference to be held at the Gaylord Resort in Orlando, Florida. I’ll be giving three presentations, participating on a panel discussion, and working in the Career Connection center answering career strategy questions and perhaps doing some individual career counseling with attendees. The ACFE annual conferences are always a great event with great people.

Now, to the question at hand.

Not all professional credentials are created equal. Credentials are vital to folks seeking to change careers or advance within their own. But the extent of their value and use varies from one industry to the next, so it is important to understand exactly how a professional designation/ credential can best serve your career aspirations.

Many professional credentials are awarded after rigorous exams and verified experience—some may require degreed standing as well. They attest to the knowledge and expertise of the credential holder.

Credentials are vital to folks seeking to change careers, but their use must support your strategy for the career change. You can’t expect a “Certified Financial Planner” designation to help if you want to get into brain surgery or electrical engineering. The proper credentials can make it easier to climb the corporate ladder with your current employer or help push open doors a little wider to those professions that may lie on the periphery of your functional expertise.

Here’s an example from my experience: I was working as a geologist/geophysicist from 1980-1986 and as part of my unofficial responsibilities, I also served as the division’s editor for technical papers. I was one of the first group of geologists to get certified on Intergraph digital workstations when I was at Phillips Petroleum. The IBM PC was just hitting the stores, and digital workstations were becoming more and more commonplace in oil company exploration and production efforts.

The week-long class paid off when I got laid off from my last oil company job. It took 9 months, but my next position was as a technical writer/editor for a company that manufactured geological mapping software for use on…..Intergraph digital workstations and other large computers. You can see the peripheral relationship between the two jobs/careers. My résumé focused more on my technical and computer skills and had less emphasis on my geology/geophysics knowledge and experience. That certification helped launch successful careers in the software development and microprocessor design fields.

Folks changing careers would do themselves best by placing their certifications ahead of the formal education section on a functional résumé. Why? If you’re changing careers, I (as the hiring manager) am more interested in the skills, knowledge, and experience that can transfer–and that includes certifications and licenses–than I am about your formal education.

Functional expertise and core competencies

And that is the key to using certifications or licenses when changing careers. Imagine that your functional expertise is a large circle, and all the ancillary skills, knowledge, and expertise (called core competencies) are smaller circles overlapping all around the edge of the larger circle (see the above figure). Some circles have a larger overlap than others, depending on the strength of the expertise in those peripheral areas. Career changes are easiest to manage when the transition is from an existing functional expertise to one of the overlapping core competencies. In time, that core competency becomes the new functional expertise.

Career changes are far more difficult when trying to move from one functional expertise to another—jumping from one large circle to another that has very little or no overlap. Usually, such career changes involve additional education (college degrees, other certifications and licenses, etc.) not to mention some experience in that field. Be mindful that many recent college graduates (RCGs) are entering the workforce already armed with bleeding-edge knowledge and the latest skills. With mid-career changers and college graduates competing for the same positions, lower compensation considerations for RCGs will in many instances drive the decision as to who gets hired.

When Credentials Attack

There is such a thing as having too many credentials. While the proper mix of professional designations and recognized credentials can enhance your career potential, too many of them signals to hiring managers that perhaps you are a “credential chaser” (seeking even more additional three-letter acronyms after your name) who prefers the image over the substance and purpose of credentials. Too much of a good thing can be detrimental to your job or career strategy, so here are some brief tips to help ensure you avoid this trap:

  • Purge all outdated, irrelevant certifications and designations from your résumé and signature block. Those non-valid certifications scream, “my skills are outdated and I only rarely update my résumé.”
  • If you have many valid and relevant professional designations, select just the ones that best support your expertise for the position(s) to which you are applying.
  • Hiring managers are most interested in only those certifications and licenses you actually possess, and not all the coursework you took along the way. In some instances, candidates use this approach to disguise the fact that they may not have the requisite educational requirements.
  • If you work in the public sector and have a long list of certifications or designations obtained through government training and testing, keep them in a separate document that can be used as part of your documentation portfolio. Place just those certifications that are relevant to the position on your résumé.

I wrote in Confessions of a Hiring Manager Rev. 2.0 (Second Edition) that the most recent recession has created another “time of parenthesis” as John Naisbitt called the 1980s in Megatrends. The education system must respond by preparing individuals to help shepherd business and technology processes in mature and emerging economies over the coming decade. Online colleges, business and trade schools, community colleges, and certifying organizations must step up to meet the demand for qualified professionals to address the challenges and opportunities the world economy will face.