5 Tips for Creating a Riveting Cover Letter

Recently, a friend looking for work wanted me to review his resume. He also asked, ” And what should I include in my cover letter?” Given I’d just finished hiring for two positions and had the luxury of reviewing a boatload of resumes and cover letters, I had a ready answer. I’ve distilled that advice here into five handy tips. I hope you will find them useful, whether in a job search or to score points if you’re looking at me as the hiring manager.

Tip #1 – Actually Write a Cover Letter

I know, seems self-evident. But you’d be surprised how many applicants do not submit a cover letter with their Curriculum Vitae. When I asked our senior talent manager why this was, he told me that it’s become the trend. I told him that’s like sending in the outline of a novel without the dialogue. He told me that it’s a “Millennial Thing.” I told him that Millennials aren’t the ones doing most of the hiring, that it’s the folks like me with twenty years of business who are, and that we like cover letters.

Over coffee, we agreed that he would strongly recommend applicants submit cover letters for jobs I needed filled. My process (and I know many others who agree) is to de-prioritize candidates who do not take the time to write a personal note about WHY he or she wants the job. Omitting a cover letter is a missed opportunity, the equivalent of saying, “Yeah, I’m not really that interested. I’ll just throw my resume at you and expect you to grok me.” Or not.

#2 – Make the Cover Letter Your Personal Story

Since I’m in marketing, I think of a cover letter as the opportunity for you to sell me on you. We’re all storytellers. How good are you? I want to hire the best.

The resume isn’t your story. It’s a litany of facts with no overt motivation. Sure, certain skills and time spent in specific roles will be table stakes for an interview. You can’t change that. But you can impress me by telling me why you’re better than the others and summarize what you’re passionate about doing. It’s your elevator pitch. Use memorable language, make me wonder or even make me laugh. Engage my interest and come across as a person worthy of an interview. The best ever resume will still not make a personal connection.

#3 – Address the Major Requirements

The best recent cover letters I’ve reviewed are those that aim right at the heart of the matter. The candidate selects the top three or four job requirements and explains how his or her experience matches each one. I’ve seen this done in a two-column table format (easy on the eyes) or in a bulleted list (takes up less space). I like this for two reasons:

  1. It short cuts my need to make these connections from the resume. You’ve just saved me time!
  2. It clearly shows that you are savvy to business, that you understand the priorities of the role and why you’re a great fit.

#4 – Show Me You’ve Done Your Research

Do you have any clue what my company does? Why what we sell matters to our customers? What is our long-term strategy? What is our messaging to the public?

It’s natural to do your research prior to an interview, but I would urge you to do a little sniffing out prior to submitting for a role. Then mention your fact finding (“It’s exciting to see how many acquisitions your company has made in the previous year…”) and let the hiring manager see your initiative right off.

#5 – Keep It Brief

I personally like to see no more that three or four paragraphs in a cover letter. Don’t tell me your entire story, don’t copy verbatim from your resume (I’ll read it next), and don’t waste my time with formalities (“I saw your posting on the Monster job board, and I wish to apply for the role, which is a perfect fit for my skills and past job experience based on the requirements for the position.”). I recommend writing out your cover letter and then cutting it in half (or by a third at least). Be pithy and direct.

BONUS TIP – Be Yourself

One of my recent hires sent me a PDF cover letter introduction that included images (see #5 above), addressed the major requirements (see #3 above), and added a little humor (see #2 above). I’m not saying do exactly this, but I will admit his creativity was clever, he played to his strengths, and caught my attention. The document immediately let me know who he was, that he was serious about the application and that he merited equally serious consideration. That’s a riveting cover letter.

I’ll Never Be a Pre-crastinator

In my world, a successful Sunday is defined not by a Broncos win but by the opportunity to read more than half of our New York Times without being interrupted. And if I read a particularly well-written Op-Ed piece in that rare window of quietude, the victory is that much sweeter.

So what a pleasure to see the article from Adam Grant, “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate,” in The Review section of this week’s Times. Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, generally writes about the psychology of business, which I find fascinating. This time, the subject was near and dear: procrastination.

I’ll concede that there might be some truth to the accusation that I am, indeed, something of a kind of procrastinator. I do tend to delay tasks until the due date raps bare knuckled on my door. But what I love about the article is how it strengthens what I have been saying all along: that delaying a task (e.g., writing a blog post) generally gives me more time to consider it. That a pause for reflection generates a higher quality result in creative endeavors that require a certain amount of mental accomplishment, like writing a paper or finishing a business project.

Now “pre-crastination,” which Grant describes as the impetus to complete a task as soon as it’s defined (his natural state), will never be my Modus Operandi. Finishing a project weeks ahead of time? Naw. But neither will you find me waiting to the very last minute.

In either of these extremes, Grant writes, the research shows that the creative impulse is lessened, either because there’s not enough time relegated to thinking about new ideas (as with pre-crastination) or not enough time remaining to avoid falling for the easy answers (the result of extreme procrastination). So it’s with great relief that I find myself habitually within the creative red zone. Not too early but not too late. Procrastination as a positive force.

I highly doubt this article will pass as justification for the unfinished basement project, but it may just buy me enough time to finish the rest of the Sunday paper.

Putting My Cats on a PIP

I woke abruptly at 5:30 AM.  My wife was shouting from the kitchen. A field mouse had become trapped in our double sink, struggling to get out like some sort of miniature mastodon in a prehistoric hot spring basin. As “master of the house” (in name only), I was expected to leave the warm comfort of the bed and usher the mouse off to its next incarnation.

two-cats

Two cats in the hand is worth one in the bush.

I wasn’t surprised. This was the second one we’d caught in as many weeks, though the other had left a endless trail of mini-poops in the basement before we’d captured him. I had no idea where this new one had been living. I am still afraid to look in the lower cabinets.

Rodent safely dispatched, I crawled crankily back into bed. There, waiting for me, was Malcolm, our 16-year-old striped tabby. He and his sister Abby – now 19 years old – were useless as mousers, one of their supposed “responsibilities.” They’d let me down yet again, and I was overwhelmed with disappointment.

Was it time to put them on a PIP?

For those who don’t know, a PIP, or Performance Improvement Plan, is a popular way to get rid of an employee when you don’t want to be sued. The supervisor documents that the employee isn’t meeting his or her job requirements, sets a very high bar, leans back and monitors the employee until enough time has passed to safely let him or her go. A PIP is a not-so-gentle hint that your time will soon be up.

PIPs are a response to poor performance, but they’re also used for personality conflicts or in a culture that prizes tough love over nurturing. To my mind, it’s a cowardly and disingenuous tactic practiced by managers too afraid to fire someone. PIPs offer false hope, and on the rare case that the plan is cancelled, the employee never stays long after the painful experience.

Of course, I knew a feline PIP was never an option.

First, they’re cats, which means I am their de facto employee, and you can’t PIP your boss. Second, mousing is a sport for the young. At their advanced ages, our cats are quite adept at survival skills that include napping in the sun, caterwauling for attention, and licking their bowls shiny clean. They are performing admirably.

And finally, as I drifted back to la la land, with Abby settled on top of me and Malcolm under the sheets purring against my chest, I fully understood why I could never axe these two. They had me right where they wanted me.

 

NOTE: I owe a debt of gratitude to Troy Williams for his influence on this post. Many years ago, he gleefully explained the true meaning of a PIP to me, painfully ripping away my innocence like it was a particularly sticky band aid. Up to that point, I had actually believed a PIP was for the good of the employee. Oh, naive Larry. I miss you so.

 

 

The Perfect Process

In my recent monthly Webcast, I was honored to have Bill Demidovich of Lean Ohio as the guest presenter. A consummate process improvement professional and polished speaker, Bill spent the hour walking through the guiding philosophy of LeanOhio and revealing the details of several excellent case studies of broken – and then fixed – state government processes.

The audience loved the examples and the exchanges between speaker and moderator (myself). The post-event “fan mail” as I call it was entirely positive and appreciative. Overall, an excellent example of content marketing: we entertained and informed the audience while simultaneously gathering and qualifying training leads for the sales team.

Although we’d walked through a dry run with Bill a few days earlier, I was surprised and inspired with a single statement in the live Webcast. In reference to the many labyrinthine government processes his team was asked to fix, he explained: “Your processes are perfectly designed for the results you get.”

I surmise that this is something we all innately understand – yet consistently deny. When our business processes fail our expectations and the expectations of our customers, we often look to a single point of breakdown: “The paperwork was late because of Barb in HR” or “No one noticed how low the inventory was.” In reality, as processes evolve and organizations grow, plenty of these missteps and unnecessary decision points actually become baked into the process. It’s the “new normal” process.

One of my favorite of Bill Demidovich’s slides (the presentation and slides are available to the public on the MoreSteam.com Web site) was the one that showed the “actual process” as a dashed line and the “idealized process” we expect as the straight solid line:

processRather scary, eh? Seem familiar?  Alas, it’s not until someone has the courage to recognize and address the “invisible” problem that you can begin to show that the process is operating exactly as it was designed (and redesigned and amended and branched and modified and whatever else). You’re very lucky if the someone who faults you is an internal stakeholder who means well, not a valuable customer.

As for marketing and sales, I recommend you:

  • Take a look at your own internal processes (e.g., how timely are qualified leads are delivered to the sales team?),
  • Use any available data to determine if it’s operating within your specifications (e.g., days to completion),
  • Keep an ear out for anything that your team may just smooth over with a despondent “that’s the way it’s always been,”
  • “Walk” the process, and map and describe it,
  • Reveal it to everyone who needs to understand it isn’t working,
  • Begin to resolve the issues you find and redesign your process.

That’s when the improvement can begin. Until then, well, congratulations. Your process is imperfectly perfect.

Put the email down and step away

Over the past 4.5 years, working as a remote employee, I’ve become involved in an intimate (and sometimes torrid) relationship with Outlook. Don’t tell my wife, please. Actually, she probably knows this already.

Outlook seduces me with her alerts and dialogues. “Check out the InBox,” she coos every five minutes. “See how important you are,” she purrs, “Let me show you how much people want you and need your expertise.” Trollop that she is, I cannot quit her.

What I really need instead is to focus on is writing and marketing strategy.  So I’ve been experimenting with turning Outlook off for the whole morning, though that’s difficult since I use my email as a de facto archive, which I am sure many of you do as well.

The result: I’ve learned that, if I can go for 20 minutes without the urge to check email, it subsides and my brain is able to reach clarity around whatever task I’ve set for myself. I know that it’s becoming vogue to take a Digital Sabbatical, but I wonder if shorter breaks, more frequently taken might result in a more consistent, enduring mental benefit. Let’s call them short-term moratoriums, or STeMs.

So – time to take a STeM. See you soon.