A Better Cover Letter

I have changed my mind on how to write an effective cover letter. But only in form, not substance.

What has remained the same is that a cover letter has to address only the concerns of the employer – you have to tell them what they want to hear, not what you want to tell them. It has to be so short that it can be read in 10 seconds. And, when responding to an ad, answer any questions asked – usually about salary.

So what has changed?

In the past I have recommended a first sentence that goes like this:

I wish to apply for the controller position which I saw advertised in today’s Post.

That sentence shows that you get straight to the point, tell them for which position you are applying, where you heard about it, and when. No self-praise or resume summary which is the mistake most people make.

Then I suggested a second sentence that goes like this:

Having saved my employers an average of $1 million a year, every year, by uncovering waste and improving procurement activities, I am not only confident that I can fulfill the requirements of the job but exceed them.

In other words, this is why you should hire me. No self-praise; just facts. The message: I have done it for others and I can do it for you. You won’t be taking a risk if you hire me.

I now believe that this is a mistake. The concept is perfect, but the order is wrong. In giving the advice which, by the way, has worked for many job applicants, I committed a rookie journalistic mistake: I buried the lead. So my new first paragraph would go like this:

Having saved my employers an average of $1 million a year, every year, by uncovering waste and improving procurement activities, I am not only confident that I can fulfill the requirements of the controller position which I saw advertised in today’s Post, but exceed them.

Now you are shooting with both barrels right up front. The purpose of the cover letter is to get the recipient to look at your resume. With this cover letter, they will look at your resume.

Then, if and only if they ask, tell them what your salary requirements are. If you don’t it means one of two things: Either you are playing games (Whoever says a number first loses.) or you are sloppy (There was only one question in a one inch ad and you forgot to answer it! What’s going to happen when you have a project which requires you to answer 20 questions? If you can’t handle one, how are you going to handle 20?). That said, you can answer in one of three ways: I was last earning X, not including benefits. I am currently earning X, not including benefits. My salary requirements are X, not including benefits. (The last is if you have been unemployed for a long time, or if your are concerned that you were earning too much in your last job, and is based on your actual budget.) By adding “not including benefits” you are making it clear that you are open to negotiations.

Finally end this way:

Attached please find a copy of my resume for your review.

Thank you in advance for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

And that’s it. Five paragraphs (including “Sincerely”). Ten seconds to read. And it differentiates you from your competition.

Most job applicants use the cover letter to sing their own praises. “A consummate professional with….” “Are you looking for someone who never disappoints?” No employer cares what you think about yourself. Employers only care about what you can do for them. So by focusing on what you have actually accomplished, you differentiate yourself.

Sadly, you are also going to differentiate yourself in another way. The fact is, including recent college graduates, very few people can write a decent letter. You will show that you can write and employers will be pleasantly surprised, maybe even relieved!

So keep it short. Keep it focused on the employer’s needs. And have a resume that follows the same logic. Even if it takes two or three pages, make certain your resume answers employers’ questions before they ask them! It’s not hard to do.

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Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter and career counselor. He has helped scores (thousands if you include attendees at his presentations) of people, including veterans, not only change jobs but, on occasion, change careers. Having successfully transitioned from academia to non-profits to the recruiting industry, he has been there and done that!

Bruce is a recognized authority on job search and career issues, having been quoted in over 700 articles, appearing in some 500 publications, across the United States and in more than 30 foreign countries. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over 300,000 times and have garnered national and international media attention, including television appearances on Fox Business Network and Headline News (CNN).

In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador.

An advocate for the protection of job seekers, visit the homepage of his website, www.hsstaffing.com, to read about questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements.

The One Question to Ask Yourself if You Think You Should Change Careers

I won’t exaggerate. It does not happen every day, but at least once a week I get a phone call from someone considering changing careers. As we chat it becomes clear that their problem is not their career but rather their job.

There’s a difference. If you basically like what you do but don’t like your boss or colleagues, you want a new job. If you like what you do but want to do more, and there is no room for growth with your current employer, you want a new job. (In that case, you actually need a new job!) But if you really don’t like what you are doing, despite the fact that you like your boss and colleagues, then it may be time for a new career.

That’s a major step. You will have to learn new things, maybe even go back to school. You could require a license or certification. And, no less importantly, you may need to create an entirely new network. This is not buying a new car or changing your appearance!

When you have issues with your job, it is good to talk to friends and family. They can help. They can listen. They can advise. But when the topic is changing careers, friends and family may let their feelings get in the way. They are rightly concerned about your finances. After all, a new career means starting over and starting over usually means a much lower salary. They care about you and don’t want you to end up loosing what you have worked so hard to achieve. And they may be right!

Some people, including career counselors, will suggest that you take an aptitude test to determine what you are good at. Nonsense! It’s a waste of money. If you actually want to take a test, ask the counselor what test she recommends and then go to their website and take it yourself. You’ll save time and money and won’t feel like a total idiot since you will be wasting less time and less money if you had used her services. (Usually all that happens is that the counselor sends you a link to the test and then the company sends her the link. She then calls you and, basically, reads you the results.)

The fact is, you know what you want to do, you just don’t know it! So sit down, alone, in a comfortable chair, without any distractions, and ask yourself one simple question: When you are working, doing your job, what do you daydream about?

Once you have that answer you may know what your next career will be. To find out, most friends and most family members will be of no help. As stated above, they are going to let their personal feelings get in the way. Instead of encouraging you, which means encouraging you to take a risk, they will encourage you to play it safe. That’s when you go to a career counselor. Because a career counselor can help you answer the next question, Can you make an actual career out of what you daydream about?

Previously I have written, and said at my public presentations, that when choosing a career counselor to help you conduct an effective job search you should always ask one question: How many people have you hired and fired? If they have not hired or fired anyone, then, for them, career counseling is an academic pursuit. You don’t need theory you need experience and they can’t provide it.

The same is true when it comes to choosing a career counselor to help with a new career. The one question to ask them is: Have you ever changed careers? If not, then, again, all they can do is to tell you what they have read in books and articles. You need someone who can hone in on the real issues career changers face and then, together, decide if that is really what you want. If they have not been through it, they won’t know what to ask (unless they read the right books which, after all, you can read on your own saving yourself time and money!).

The good news about changing careers, as opposed to jobs, is that you can actually change careers while keeping your current job. You can test it out and see if you like it before taking the plunge and quitting that job about which your friends and family are so concerned. Which means they will not be negative influences since there is nothing for them to be negative about. There’s no risk – which is obviously the same situation if you want to change careers because you lost your job.

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Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter and career counselor. He has helped scores (thousands if you include attendees at his presentations) of people, including veterans, not only change jobs but, on occasion, change careers. Having successfully transitioned from academia to non-profits to the recruiting industry, he has been there and done that!

Bruce is a recognized authority on job search and career issues, having been quoted in over 700 articles, appearing in some 500 publications, across the United States and in more than 30 foreign countries. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over 300,000 times and have garnered national and international media attention, including television appearances on Fox Business Network and Headline News (CNN).

In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador.

An advocate for the protection of job seekers, visit the homepage of his website, www.hsstaffing.com, to read about questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements.

How to Learn How to Listen

I have been an executive recruiter since 2003 and formally a career counselor since 2009. During this time I have been asked hundreds of questions, some of which have almost made liars out of those teachers who had assured me that there was no such thing as a stupid question.

Today I was asked a question I have never been asked before. And it’s a good one.

While discussing interviewing, my new client explained that she has problems listening. “Shut up and pay attention” was not the answer to her problem. That she knows. The question is how to get practice so it becomes a natural process.

I have been through this myself and I told her about the one thing that has helped me to overcome difficulties listening. First, I do shut up. Second, I remind myself that day dreaming is a no-no. Third, I really think about what the person is saying. I concentrate on their every word and jot a few things down. But those are the mechanics, not the skill.

The way I learned to listen, which is another way of saying “concentrate,” was by listening to old radio show mysteries. You have to pay attention. Some are rather complicated. If you day dream for a minute, you may miss the clue and then you will not understand the ending. So Google “mystery radio shows” and find ones that interest you. A good many appear to be free. So for no money you will not only be entertained, you’ll also learn possibly the most important skill for having a successful interview.

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Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter and career counselor. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over 300,000 times and have garnered national and international media attention.  In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador. An advocate for the protection of job seekers, visit the homepage of his website, www.hsstaffing.com, to read about questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements.

How to be an Expert: The Difference Between Knowledge and Understanding or What Job Candidates Can Learn from Max Planck’s Chauffeur

Max Planck, who won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Physics, was one of the founders, if not the founder, of quantum mechanics/physics. (Just as an aside, he was involved with the plot to kill Hitler, for which his wife was assassinated.)

Apparently, in his time, it was not common practice for physicists, even prominent ones, to be photographed. As the story goes, he would travel throughout Germany speaking to lay audiences. One day his chauffeur told him that he had heard his presentation so often that he could give it himself. So, at their next stop, they changed hats, and the chauffeur entered the hall where the presentation was to be given wearing the professor’s hat and the professor was wearing the chauffeur’s cap.

The chauffeur perfectly recited the lecture. He was flawless. And then things started to fall apart. Following his remarks, people wanted to ask questions. The chauffeur knew the speech, he had the knowledge, but he lacked the understanding so he could not answer the first question.

Apparently Professor Planck was smart about hiring as well as physics! The chauffeur did not miss a beat. He looked at his questioner and responded, That question is so simple I’ll have my chauffeur answer it!

I’ve read this story a couple of times. I want to believe that it is true. Even if not it is something to keep in mind because the lesson is valid. Repeating what you have heard does not make you anything make than a recorder. To be an expert, you need understanding. So in an interview, if you can’t explain it, don’t say it!

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Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter and career counselor. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over 300,000 times and have garnered national and international media attention.  In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador. An advocate for the protection of job seekers, visit the homepage of his website, www.hsstaffing.com, to read about questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements.

Three Questions to Ask to Determine if You are a Cultural Fit for a Company

Employers, if they are smart, will spend most of a job interview asking questions to see if the candidate is a good cultural fit for them. Similarly, smart candidates will ask questions to see if they are a good cultural fit for the company. In the end, even if they meet all of the qualifications, they still may not be right for the job because the company is just night right for them.

So what should you ask?

Who succeeds here? This is the question, if you are having a telephone interview, and only have the chance to ask one question, that you should ask. What is amazing is that employers sometimes have difficulty answering. They respond to a different question: Who succeeds in the position? Then you have to repeat the actual question and clarify: Who is successful at your company?

That’s the direct question about culture. Let’s take a simple example that probably will never happen. If they say, “We micromanage everyone,” and you can’t stand being micromanaged, don’t waste any more time interviewing.

The beauty of the question is in that last phrase, “don’t waste any more time.” By asking the question you are sending the message that you don’t want to waste your time or the employer’s. Employers like that! So if the response is acceptable, you have just raise your stature in the eyes of the employer.

Do you promote from within? Well, not exactly. You should know the answer by viewing the LinkedIn profiles of their employees. So you should either ask, “I see from the LinkedIn profiles of your employees that you promote from within. How does that work? Do you have a formalized career development/advancement program?” Or, the question could be, “I was surprised when reviewing the LinkedIn profiles of your staff that none indicated that they were promoted from within. Is that accurate and, if so, why don’t you promote from within? Do you have any career development programming?”

What is your turnover rate? This tells you everything you need to know about the company. First, if they don’t know the answer, move on. Second, if they won’t tell you, move on. Third, if it is high, ask why and what they are doing about it. Fourth, if it is low ask why and see if you possess the qualities of their longest tenured employees. (This is different from “Who succeeds here?” in that a person can be very successful at a company and leave after three or four years. But if everyone leaves after three or four years, there’s a problem.)

Interested in learning more? Watch my interview on Jessica Dewell’s program:

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Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter and career counselor. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over 300,000 times and have garnered national and international media attention.  In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador. An advocate for the protection of job seekers, visit the homepage of his website, www.hsstaffing.com, to read about questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements.

You Just Got Fired. Now What? Maybe Send a Letter…

We have all heard the story: Joe, the successful founder of a multi-million dollar company is being given a community service award. He acknowledges Mary, his first boss, who is attending. He says that he owes everything to her because she did the most to advance his career. “She fired me,” he says, to the roar of laughter.

The story is true. It has happened many a time. But that is not what this post is about.

You have just been fired. You are devastated. You believe that your career is over. You are embarrassed and humiliated. How are you going to tell your family? How are you going to tell your friends? Who is going to hire you? How are you going to get another job? That is what this article is about.

First, I have had many career counseling clients tell me they were fired. I always suspected something was up by their body language. When we got to the mock interview portion of my service, and I asked the obvious question, then the truth came out. “I was let go. I don’t know why.” “I was fired. I don’t know why.”

And they told the truth. But they were wrong. When someone tells me that they don’t know why they were fired I immediately ask, “Did you get unemployment?” The answer is always, “Yes.”

As far as I am concerned, if your employer paid unemployment then you were not fired “for cause,” but simply laid off. No one, including some lawyers, have disputed this. So if you got unemployment you were not fired but simply let go. And in an interview all you have to say is the truth. “I was let go. I was not fired. I got unemployment. I honestly don’t know what happened.” And if it happened to others, so much the better. Tell the interviewer. That is almost always the case. My clients have used this approach and have had no problem getting job offers. It works because it is the truth.

But let’s say you were fired “for cause,” meaning that there was a valid reason to kick you out the door because of your behavior. Now there is “cause” and there is “cause.” If you hit someone, or stole something, that goes to character and that is a problem. You should be lucky you are just unemployed and not in jail. You may be working in your neighborhood car wash for a while and, frankly, you deserve it and it might do you some good.

That is rare. Most people do not get fired for committing a criminal act but rather for violating corporate policy related to the conduct of business. That’s usually the people with whom I meet and they all get jobs, some even with my executive recruiting clients.

First, understand that everyone has been fired or knows someone who has been fired. They made a mistake. It’s called being human. It does not need to define them as a person. They are not a criminals. Interviewers understand that. They know from personal experience or from their friends. It is not unique.

So what do you do when you have been fired?

First, do nothing. You are emotional. It’s normal. You don’t want to react emotionally. So, do nothing. Literally, breathe. Oxygen is the best cure for stress. Think about what you did. How it happened. Why it happened. What you learned from the experience. Once you have those answers, write them down. That’s your story and it is no good. It’s too long. Take a day off. Write it down again. It’s still too long. Take another day off. Write it down again. Now you can tell the entire story in a minute flat. Now you are ready to start your job search. You will not sound bitter and you will not sound like you are making excuses. You will sound honest. You will sound contrite. You will sound sincere. You will sound human. You will sound like someone who has become a better person and a better employee because they have learned from a bitter experience.

Second, start networking. Call everyone in your network. Tell them what happened. Your tone of voice is key. You can’t sound bitter or resentful. That’s why you did nothing and then you started writing. Now it’s time to talk. Some people will say, “I’m really sorry to hear this. Send me your resume. If I hear of something I’ll let you know.” Translation: Don’t call me, I’ll call you.

Others will say, “You’re an idiot. Send me your resume.” Others will say, “That was stupid. What were you thinking? Let’s get together for coffee.” Those are the people who will help you.

Third, send a letter to the person who fired you. Apologize. Explain what you did why you did. Don’t apologize if it was a matter of personal ethics. In that case, say you are sorry that things could not be amicably resolved. Take the high road. Be the bigger person. You’ll understand why in a minute.

I have had two candidates, for two different executive recruiting clients (employers), get jobs with my clients not “despite” the fact that they had been fired but “because” they had been fired, or rather, how they handled being fired.

In both cases, they looked me straight in the eyes, told me what had happened, why it happened, and, most importantly, what they learned from the experience. I doubt we discussed it for more than a minute. And I reported exactly what they had told me to my clients. They got interviews and were asked about it. They repeated what they had told me. There was no substantial difference. They kept to the facts and they did not talk a lot.

The key was that they both told me, and I told the clients, that I would be able to call their former employers, not necessarily for a reference, but more for confirmation of the stories. Not only, to the shock of both, did their former supervisors confirm their stories, but they gave a positive reference saying that they were sorry to have had to fire them.

I’ve been there. I have had to fire people. I can recite, pretty much chapter and verse, what happened with the first person I ever fired. I remember what I said. I remember what they said. Anyone who has ever fired someone will tell you the same thing. While it never gets easier, you never forget your first!

Unless the employer is sadistic, which is surprisingly rare (!), no one likes firing someone. It makes them happy when they can help the person. In a way it eases their conscience even if they know they were right in firing the person. They are happy for the opportunity to help. A letter expressing regret, as mentioned previously, helps them to transition from having to be defensive (fear of being sued, which the letter eliminates) to wanting to be free of any sense of guilt.

When you start answering ads, don’t mention being fired in any cover letter. That’s a topic for the interview, when asked. Keep it honest. Keep it simple. Keep it short. Keep your eyes focused on the person. Keep your tone of voice neutral. Focus on what you learned from the experience. If you talk too much, or if you sound defensive, you won’t get the job offer.

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Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter, career counselor and business advisor. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over 300,000 times and have garnered national and international media attention.  In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador. An advocate for the protection of job seekers, visit the homepage of his website, www.hsstaffing.com, to read about questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements.

On “women’s problems,” enemas and choosing a career counselor

I was recently reminded that this month marks the thirtieth anniversary of my having had major surgery. I spent 27 days in the hospital. It was an experience, to say the least.

A number of years ago a colleague was going to the hospital for surgery. When I asked our supervisor what she was having, he said, “women’s problems,” which abruptly ended the conversation. None of my business. None of his!

She knew that I knew she was going into the hospital so I went over and wished her well. We were rather friendly so I asked if it would be alright to visit her. She said it would be but I should call the hospital first.

A week later I phoned the hospital and got permission to visit. When I arrived she was surrounded by colleagues, friends and family…and her doctor. I immediately knew what was going on. All of her visitors were telling her she looked well. Asked how she was feeling. Reassured her. Said all the right things. Basically did everything a patient does not want done.

I walked straight to her bedside, said, “Hi” and asked the doctor if he was her doctor. He said he was. I then looked closely at her nose. Using my finger as a pointer I said, to the doctor, “You do great work. I don’t see a scar and I can’t even see any swelling. Remarkable! But, if I may offer one criticism, personally, I would have chopped a bit more off.” Without missing a beat he replied, “It’s a judgment call. It’s easier to chop more off later than to add on.” “Good point,” I responded. I then looked at my colleague and said, “See you back at work.” I gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder, shook hands with the doctor, and left. That was it.

By the time I got to work the next day the rumor mill was hard at work. Everyone knew about my “disgraceful” behavior. I just laughed it off. I could not have cared less.

A few of us were in the lobby when she returned. She ignored everyone and came straight to me. For the first time ever, she gave me a hug and a kiss. Everyone saw and everyone heard what she said: “I can’t thank you enough. How did you know what to say?”

The answer was simple: I had been a patient and knew what she wanted to hear and how she wanted to be treated.

A couple of years later a friend called me. His grandfather was going to have heart surgery. He, the grandfather, was very nervous and they, the family, were worried about his state of mind. He asked me to drop by.

I did. I walked into my friend’s apartment. He introduced me to his grandfather. I whispered in his ear. He smiled. Slapped me on the back. And I left without saying a word to my friend or anyone else.

When I got home my phone was ringing.

What did you say to my grandfather? When you left, he got up, took his meds, and went to bed. Usually we have to fight with him. What did you say?

I figured all of you were telling him that today the surgery is not a big deal and he should not worry. Well, for him it is a big deal and he has the right to worry. So I told him it was big deal and he had the right to worry.

But what exactly did you tell him?

Nothing that begins with an enema is every any fun!

People who have not had an experience that someone else is going through usually want to be nice. They think they are saying and doing the right things. But, in truth, they are not. They are usually saying and doing the exact opposite of what the person they care about wants. And, because of that, it does not work and can lead to frustration.

I have noted previously that when choosing a career counselor the first question to ask is, “Have you ever hired and fired people?” If not, then the counselor’s approach is purely academic. That’s not what a job seeker needs.

Of late, I have come to the conclusion that other questions have to be asked:

Have you ever been unemployed? For how long? How did you get your next job?

Have you ever been faced with having to sell your home?

Have you ever had to choose between paying for medication and buying food or paying the rent?

In other words, before hiring a career counselor make sure that they have personally experienced what you are experiencing. If they haven’t, you can probably find better ways to spend your money.

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Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter, career counselor and business advisor. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over 300,000 times and have garnered national and international media attention.  In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador. An advocate for the protection of job seekers, visit the homepage of his website, www.hsstaffing.com, to read about questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements.

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