The Second Most Important Bullet In Your Gun

Even in this technology laden world, job search is still all about the documents.  You’ve got to have a good resume, a target list (see my earlier post), a reference list and a salary history.  All of these should be formatted similarly so that they’ll help to support your personal brand. Clearly your resume is the most important but what is the second most important document?  I contend that it is the often neglected cover letter.

To continue the gun analogy (perfect for a Friday evening) a resume is like a shotgun blast.  It covers your entire employment history and range of skills.  While you should modify it for every job you apply for, it is still intended to tell everything a recruiter needs to know.

The cover letter, on the other hand, is a rifle shot.  A well written cover letter gives you the chance to focus the energy of your resume on the specific requirements of the job you are applying for.  It is your one, and often only, chance to show the recruiter why you are the perfect candidate for this job.

Cover letters need to be concise and direct. They need to point specifically to what the company needs and how you are uniquely qualified to meet those needs.  I suggest you avoid fluff and a lot of jargon.  Don’t talk about what you are looking for – the recruiter could care less.  Talk about what you can do for the company and support those assertions with proof from your experience. (What if you don’t have that experience? That’s for a future post but one key lesson is don’t lie.  Dishonesty is not the answer.)

As to format and style there are two main considerations.  First, this is a business document and should appear as such. It should be well laid out, typed of course, with no spelling, grammar or punctuation errors and, very importantly, if you are addressing an individual you must spell their name and the name of the company correctly.  On the flip side, like your resume, your cover letter is a personal document.  It needs to reflect your style and help you to reinforce your brand.

Be original but don’t get too clever.  I once had an applicant send me their resume and cover letter folded into a paper airplane with the tag line “if you want your sales to soar, then hire me.”  I didn’t – but I did remember the resume.  I also had one resume arrive with a Staples Easy Button. The pitch was “That was easy – just hire me.”  Personally these approaches are too “cute” for me, but clearly they were memorable.  You need to find out the best way to professionally distinguish yourself from the crowd.

So the moral of the story – don’t neglect the cover letter. Always include one or you may find yourself holding a Starter’s Pistol and firing blanks.

Long Term Unemployed? Don’t Give Up!

Long term unemployment insurance is in the news.  While Congress grapples with how to fund it, real people are still out looking for jobs and wondering about how to pay their bills.

Recently I’ve met with several friends who have been unemployed for over 6 months.  They’ve faced the concerns about unemployment insurance expiring and renewing, they’ve worried about making house payments and college tuition payments, and they’ve faced the psychological pressure of “what’s wrong with me that no one will hire me?”

Nothing is wrong with them – it’s the economy.  The rule of thumb these days is that it takes an average of 1 month of job search for every $10k in annual salary.  So, if you make $50,000 you should plan on being unemployed for 5 months.  That’s just a guideline, but it’s the best guideline I have. The bad part about that is, for every $50k job seeker that finds a job in 1 month there is another that won’t find one for 10 months.  That’s why it’s called an average.  And, with the slow rebound of the labor market, the average is growing.

So, you’ve been unemployed for 6 months or more.  You’ve got a great looking resume, you’re applying to jobs online, you’ve networked with everyone you can find, you go to job clubs and you’re just plain tired of the whole process.  Now what!?!  Here are a few ideas:

1 – Don’t stop.  As frustrating as it is, you’ve got to keep at it.  You have to keep networking, keep applying, and keep telling your story.  The next job will come and if opportunity knocks while you’re sitting on the couch watching soap operas and feeling sorry for yourself, you’ll miss it.  Get off the couch and spend some time every day actively looking for a job.

2 – Broaden your search.  If you’re not already doing so, look outside of your logical career path.  Think about different careers where you have transferrable skills.  If nothing else this will expose you to new network contacts.  Look under some different rocks and you may be surprised what you’ll find.

3 – Consider internships or part-time work.  Particularly if you are an experienced professional, think about offering yourself to a small company on a pro bono or inexpensive contract basis.  You won’t earn enough to threaten your unemployment, you’ll get to stay active in your field, you’ll make some new contacts, and you’ll have a great story to tell on your next interview.

4 – Take a part-time entry level job.  Look for an entry level job in retail or food service.  Sign up with some temp agencies.  Sure, you may be working below your skill level, but you’ll be working.  In addition to getting a paycheck (however small) you’ll get your confidence back.

5 – Do some volunteer work.  Spend some time working at a local soup kitchen, or animal shelter, or thrift shop, or reading to children, or where ever your passion is.  Again, this will get you out of the house, doing positive things and you’ll meet people who might be able to help you.  If you find joy in serving others you’ll never have a better opportunity to do so, than when you’re unemployed.

The adage still holds true, you have to plan the work and then work the plan.  Keep at it, keep your attitude positive and your energy high. You will find another job.  Believe.

Becoming Scheherazade…

You remember Scheherazade, right? The legendary storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights?  Go read Wikipedia.

Anyway, if you haven’t had an interview lately, you may find that the process has changed some.  Good interviewers use Behavioral Interviewing and while no longer revolutionary, it’s still state-of-the-art.

The theory is that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance.  If you ask a candidate how they would handle a certain situation (for example – talking with an angry customer) they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear.  But, if you ask them to tell you a story about the last time they handled an angry customer, they are more likely to reveal their true stripes.

As the applicant, you need to be ready to tell the story.  Search the web for interview questions then think about them and write out your answer.  Practice them until you can tell a story. Include all the color and excitement.   Rehearse them out loud so you feel comfortable with the answer.  You may not be asked that specific question, but having a back pocket full of stories will build your self-confidence and you’ll be surprised how you can weave one story into many different questions.

Here are some of my favorite questions just to get you started and Google can find you thousands more.

  • Tell me about a time when you were a member of a team that had a difficult goal to achieve.  What was your role on the team and how did you help influence the success of the group?
  • Tell me about a time you had an employee who was not being successful.  How did you manage that process and either help the employee become successful or transition out of the organization?
  • Tell me about a time when you were in a fast-paced environment and you had multiple and possibly conflicting priorities.  How did you prioritize your work?  What techniques did you use to keep yourself organized and avoid missing deadlines?

So, be ready when a recruiter says “Tell me about a time when … “ and become Scheherazade.

On Being Overqualified …

Has anyone ever told you that you were “overqualified”?  Have you used that phrase to eliminate a job applicant?  What does overqualified really mean?

I see both sides of the “overqualified” debate.  The basic premise is that if you have a candidate with significantly more experience than is required by the position that you are recruiting for, that candidate will not be happy in the job and will leave as soon as she finds a job more closely aligned with her experience.  Then you are forced to start the recruiting process all over again.  While I understand that argument, I’m not sure it is always holds water.

But how does this apply to the job seeker?  When you are trying to find a job and you are the one that is overqualified, what do you do?

Well, you could dumb down your resume, scale back your accomplishments and leave off some of your earlier jobs to that your age and/or experience does not jump off the page.   You could understate your salary requirements in the hope of negotiating the salary up after they’ve fallen in love with you.  But those things aren’t really my style.

First you need to be honest with yourself.  Is this a job you really want?  Are you willing to take that big of step back in your career progression?  Can you afford to live on that salary?  If you can’t say yes to these questions don’t apply for the job.  You won’t feel good about it and you’ll be wasting everyone’s time.

Next, look hard at the job and the company.  I’m a big fan of being ‘open-kimono’ – what you see is what you get.  Are there advantages to this smaller job? Will you be able to work fewer hours and get your work/life balance back in balance?  Will this job be less stressful and maybe healthier?  Does this company offer better or different benefits that may offset some reduction in salary?  Are you attracted to the mission/vision of the company – would you feel good working there?

If you can answer yes to these questions, go for it with your kimono open.  Tell the hiring manager the truth – that you probably do have more experience than they are looking for – but it is a win-win situation.  They will get a worker that does not need as much training and who brings extra skills to the table.  You will get a job that answers the questions we just talked about.

If you can all look objectively at the situation and be honest with yourself, being overqualified can be a blessing.

New Year’s Resolutions …

Happy New Year!

New Year’s Day is about putting last year behind us and making plans for a new beginning.  While it may be a bit corny, New Year’s Day is about making resolutions.  If you lost your job in 2013 and you want to start a new one ASAP, here are some resolutions you might consider…

In 2014 I resolve to …

  • Make a target list of at least 25 companies that I might like to work for and update it weekly with new information I learn
  • Identify and reach out to at least 10 new contacts every week so I can tell them my story and ask if they know anyone I can network with
  • Have a human resources professional critique my resume and cover letter for content and appearance
  • Write a list of at least 10 accomplishments from my career that I can mix-and-match on my resume based on the job I am applying for
  • Identify job clubs in my neighborhood and attend at least two meetings per month
  • Ask a friend (or professional) with good typing/page-layout skills to help freshen up my resume and cover letter
  • Work as hard at finding a job as I am willing to work at my new job
  • Search the Internet for lists of interview questions, then write out my answers to those questions and practice saying those answers out loud
  • Keep myself healthy so I can interview more effectively and be a better worker once I land that job
  • Stay positive – I will find a job this year that utilizes my skills and helps me to provide for myself and my family

Clearly there is a theme here.  Finding a job is hard work – but it is work that is proven to have rewards.  The economy is improving.  January is traditionally a good hiring month.  Let’s work together and get you back to work.

Best wishes for a fantastic 2014!