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Cover letter is usually the key element of the decision whether to grant an interview or not. It gives you a chance to underline your strengths, say a few words about your personality and provide a more individual, unique impression. Most successful candidates take advantage of this opportunity to "sell" themselves.
Learn how to do it as well and make this document work for you. If you need to outperform many competitors, and want to learn what kind of people are most successful in corporate life (or maybe: in life), I encourage you to read this article. This is a follow-up to my article about CV screening.
If your CV has survived the first screening – that means you are good enough as regards “hard” requirements like education, experience or knowledge of foreign languages. Now it’s time to assess your motivation and your personality – which remain hidden between the lines of your cover letter :).
There are three main questions I ask myself when examining your cover letter.
Here they are:
These questions are my personal know-how and they have proven to be a very efficient tool for cover letter evaluation.
I will guide you through these questions by showing you the background for each of them (i.e. context), explaining their significance (reason) and providing you with ready-to-use advice (action).
You need to be passionate about the job you are applying for. Otherwise you will not get an interview.
When the Client hires us to find a candidate for the vacant position, he agrees to pay 25% to 40% of the candidate’s annual salary - if the search is successful. That is pretty much money, but we work on a success-fee basis and get paid only if our Client decides to employ one of the recommended candidates.
What’s more – as a professional search company – we give a one-year warranty for each candidate. So if the guy quits his job during the warranty period, or gets fired for being a bad employee – we have to find a new person for free.
If you chew on that for a while, you will easily conclude why it is essential for me to select only the top-motivated and passionate candidates.
Usually people think of recruitment process as of a kind of lottery. You may imagine that you got some skills and there are some companies on the market which might need that type of skills – so it’s all about statistics and probability. The more applications you send, the more interviews you should get. This is wrong thinking.
The lottery-approach might work if you are applying for a salesperson position in a shoes-shop, but it fails on higher levels. Your skills and market statistics are just one side of the coin. The second side is your passion and motivation. Why are they important?
First of all – there are many people with similar skills. If I have a choice between two equally skilled candidates – I will take the more passionate one. It is just common sense, isn’t it? If the candidate really strives to work in a particular company – s/he will make a better impression on my Client during the interview. He or she will be better prepared for the meeting and generally less problematic.
Sometimes I made the mistake of inviting a very skilled person with a “universal” cover letter. You perfectly know what a universal cover letter is, don’t you? It is written in very round sentences, starts with “Dear Sirs” and is meant to fit any branch of business you can think of.
It’s very often a trap. For you and for me – but I’ll think of myself first :). In 30% cases the author of such letter will not appear on the arranged meeting. Sheer waste of everybody’s time – except for the candidate’s, of course. Damn!
If he does appear, the meeting might turn into a spectacle of frustration for me. Because either the candidate will know literally NOTHING about the company and the position he is applying for, or he will be representing a demand-attitude asking me “so what is the salary on this post?”. This always drives me mad. I instantly know, that the guy came to pump his ego and doesn’t really care about getting the job.
I want a skilled and motivated person. A person who knows where he or she is going. A person, whose motivation and passion are backed up by deeper insight.
Successful people are the ones, who very clearly know what they want and are ready to work hard for it. If you are able to prove it – you can tick the first question.
So, how do you prove your motivation?
That is luckily the easiest part.
And please don’t tell me that it’s all about licking their ass – 'cause I will not be able to disagree :). But seriously – this point is really crucial. If you cannot produce two convincing paragraphs using above given guidelines – then I’d suggest you should consider applying for a different job.
Question one is critical because it is the entry condition. If you don’t do it well, you won’t pass. But the remaining two questions are not of less importance.
We are looking for positively balanced people.
If I claim, that there are positively balanced people it means there should be also “positively unbalanced”, “negatively balanced” and “negatively unbalanced” individuals. This is only my own perception of human nature, but many times I found it very useful – not only when it comes to recruitment.
So what are positively balanced people like? Let’s define the two main variables: balance and positiveness.
Balance means, that you clearly know the proportions and borders between your work and rest of your life. A balanced person simply understands the basic elements of mental health. You may find him/her working like crazy from Monday to Friday, but then you can’t call them on weekend, because their mobile is simply switched off while they are having great time with families. A balanced person knows, that there is time for work, time for family & friends, time for hobby and time for rest and sleep. Balance means ability to renew your energy, recharge your batteries. Such people are disciplined, effective and have predictable results.
Lack of balance means that you cannot manage yourself. You don’t know where exactly your energy comes from. You may think it depends on weather or some other external circumstances like the number of red-bulls you have processed today. When you are intact – you work effectively, maybe even outperforming others. But when you feel low – you almost don’t work at all, just pushing tasks with minimum effort.
Unbalanced people seem to not have real hobbies or passions. They often find themselves in vacuum of free time. The weekend comes and they have no plans, no ideas, no timetable - suddenly feeling strange and lost. Unbalanced life can lead either to apathy or overworking. In first case people end up being bored with existence, in second – they get the burnout syndrome. There is also a middle way - accompanied by a six-pack and excessive internet surfing.
Now let’s move to the second variable – Positiveness.
Being positive means being open and trustworthy. This value describes an individual’s attitude towards other people. You are positive, when you believe that other people are generally good (which does not mean being naive). This belief is actually a projection of your own nature and values. Being a positive person implies emotional intelligence. When you talk to a positive person – you will always feel uplifted by a portion of empathy received from him/her. Positive people have cooperative attitude – by default they trust others and are reliable themselves. If they need help – they will not hesitate to ask for it, because it does not hurt their self-esteem. As managers, they give instructions in the form of polite request. Positive people make good long-term, fulfilling friendships.
Truly negative persons are the exact opposite. They believe that other people are generally evil and their social environment is threatening. Such people may be very closed, cautious and withdrawn – and that is acceptable. But they may also be Machiavellian manipulators achieving their goals over your dead body. Negative people may have emotional intelligence – often very well developed, but they completely lack empathy.
They prefer to rely on themselves, as they don’t believe that anyone could really care about their problems. If a negative person is your boss, most likely he will give you orders in a very serious and formal manner – any other way would surely diminish his position in your eyes.
It is not rare, that negative people get really high on the corporate ladder. They strive for power in order to control the threatening reality, and having this strong fear-anchored motivation, they often succeed. But it is usually a short-term win, because once they become captains, they sink the entire boat.
As you may probably imagine – such people do not have real friends. They only have friends, which are currently useful. Talking to them might seem entertaining, but they will do their best to make you feel jealous or at least confused.
Having read the above, the reason for searching positive and balanced people must be obvious to you by now. I’ll keep it short then:
1. Business is about team working. That is why we need positive people who can trust and rely on each other. Only then synergy can take place. Positive people usually have a surplus of good humor and energy, so even if something goes wrong they do not get angry and frustrated. They will cheer up others and remain optimistic when facing tough tasks.
2. Business is about efficient working. That is why we need balanced people who know the ways to keep their productivity levels high. Efficient thinking requires adequate rest! Balanced people know how to cultivate their energy – because they understand it comes from within. They often inspire others with their discipline and are good mentors.
Positively balanced people are the company’s greatest asset. They get the work done in time, with a smile and without much complaining. This is the type of people that keeps the business running.
Huh, so how do you prove that you are a positively balanced person? Surely you can’t do it in a straightforward way – stating that you believe in other people and you are not going to work overtime :) That won’t pass.
But here’s what you can write:
We need giving-oriented people.
People generally care only about themselves - that is nothing new. Everyone is focused on his own well-being. Each of us wants to feel happy, relaxed and satisfied. So in a way, we only think of taking from life.
But as regards your career – there are 2 basic options:
Let’s make it more tricky and say, that you are not allowed to do anything work-oriented during this 2-year period. You can’t simply go working for the competition and earn double salary. You can’t do work-related trainings. You can’t start your own business.
Hmm. So how does it feel?
Would you feel free of all the burden (finally!), or would you feel deprived of possibilities to express yourself? I am not here to judge which approach makes more sense in life-perspective. But I simply know, that we are searching for the second type of people.
I call them giving-oriented because such people do not look for job only to make a living. They need this job for their well-being! They have some skills or some qualities which are useful – and they want to share them. They feel urge to do something. They love to know that the effects of their work really matter to someone. They realize, that by putting 100% effort, they receive opportunities to develop their professional skills and their personality. Giving-oriented people are the ones, who already found what they like doing. And they are really good at doing it!
They are productive, pro-active and purpose-driven. They don’t need to be motivated from outside. They are naturally engaged in their actions. They are like bees: they produce honey, but also they pollinate the flowers and make some useful wax and even the royal jelly! They want to be useful on every occasion. They thrive. And they earn GOOD money. They never have to ask for a rise, because they are granted bonuses and awards.
Unfortunately, the remaining 99.5% of people is oriented on taking. It is sad, but it’s not hopeless.
While “giving-oriented” are real winners, takers can also be of use. I divide the “takers” into two groups: racers and potatoes. If I cannot find a giver, then I choose a racer; they are always plenty.
Racers – these are ambitious individuals with noteworthy skills (by which I understand experience, knowledge or talent). The racer’s thinking pattern is “strive to gain more”. That means: earn more cash and get as much experience as possible – because this will get you higher! If such people have some unique and valuable skills or talents, they use them only if the company pays them good money. The problem is, that after one year the “good money” is not good enough any more. So they are unhappy again. It’s a never-ending story and you probably know the plot. Racers are the perfect cannon fodder in the “work hard - play hard” game. Most of them die prematurely, but under good command and fed with proper motivation - they serve well for 20 years.
Potatoes are the worst case. These are takers, who do not have any sophisticated skills or talents and are too weak to develop them. This makes them frustrated. Or not. They are just perfectly average. They don’t earn too much - so they don’t work too much. They simply want to finish their part and go home, rest on their couch in front of plazma-on-0%-instalments. These poor beings believe, that all other successful people make careers because of “connections” or thanks to the “better start”. They think, that if they earned more, they would have better motivation to work – unaware that it works exactly the other way round! They have no true impact on life – except for filling it with mediocrity; they are continuously pushed by events and other people. Very often potatoes are individuals who have not found what they like doing (yet).
Nobody wants potatoes. Big companies hire good racers. Givers win.
Some people spend entire lives in taking-paradigm, but some grow to give – and shift themselves to much higher level of satisfaction. It is a part of self-realization, or rather a prerequisite for it. Giving orientation is correlated with overall level of personal development.
If you are a giving person, you probably do not have to search for a job. New opportunities knock at your door each morning. Ah, they still want your CV and Cover Letter?
If you are a racer – go on a three-week vacation to the countryside. In solitude, without your laptop and blackberry. Then we’ll talk. Believe me – there is life out there. And it is green and peaceful. By the way – have you ever thought of real purpose of life?
If you happen to be a potato, lost and unsure what you want to do with your career – please do not shoot your head. My purpose was not to get you depressed – I have to be radical and harsh in order to make people realize their position and push them to change. Just remember: there are no easy-fixes. New job will not solve your old problems. Moving up is a struggle, but after you get basic skills - it becomes pleasant. And the best point to start with is improving yourself. Read some good personal development stuff.
So – how do you prove your giving-orientation? I can’t tell you what to write in your cover letter because it is too individual. I am not you. You have to think for yourself. But I will give you some clues:
Do not worry if you are not at this level yet. If you truly feel that you want to be useful – you are on your track.
Now you understand. If you want to write a good cover letter you have to unbutton your shirt and show me your HEART. But before you are able to do that – you have to spend some time with yourself, look in the mirror and ask all the important questions.
- Who am I at this moment?
- Who I want to become: which skills I want to develop and why?
- Can I manage myself? Do I have enough strength, discipline, faith?
If you are having problems with answering these questions – take your time, even couple of weeks. Read some inspiring books on life planning, step out of your context for a while.
Only when you are clear about the basics - you can start thinking about the right job for you. Yes! It is the job that is right for you, not you being right for a job!
If you want to develop in a particular direction – choose a company and a position which will teach you what you need. Employee to Employer relationship should be a symbiosis. The company benefits from you, and you benefit from the company (not in money terms only!).
And one last thing. Do not compare yourself to other people! Your life is not their life. Maybe the others are smarter, richer, have connections or had a better start – so what? Are you going to let them define what you really want?
Just think of your current needs, your dreams and your skills. These three should always match.