Getting the cover letter right

February 16, 2016

It often happens that a particular issue pops up several times in a short space of time. Recently I’ve been asked to help a few people with their cover letters.

Many think the cover letter is less important than getting the application form or CV right.  That’s a mistake because while there are many who take little notice of cover letters, there will certainly be those for whom it makes the difference between getting past the first stage of selection or not.

Some employers specifically ask applicants to deliver their application form or CV with a cover letter.  This is clearly an opportunity to impress over your competitors who may not have taken it as seriously.

So what can you do to make the most of the cover letter?  As always, ask yourself what the reader will be looking for.  Some people read the cover letter before looking at the rest of the application, which is what you would assume, but some read it after.  It’s safe to assume that those who read it first are expecting you to provide them with enough information to enable them to decide whether you are a credible candidate worthy of having the rest of the application materials looked at or not.

Where the cover letter is read after, you can assume that they make the decision that you are a worthy candidate from the CV or application form, and the letter is subsequently read to see how good you are at articulating your case in writing.

Either way, a good letter will help.

You therefore need to think about content and style, and you need to keep it short.  Unless otherwise stated I would not recommend more than a single side, and as usual that does not mean reducing font size and margin width.  It means 4 – 500 words as a general rule.  There are many examples online and they mostly say the same thing about format and content so I won’t dwell on it.

Think about the key competencies the employer is looking for, and mention the achievements you have that relate to those competencies.  You won’t be able to cover everything, so don’t try.  Focus on the most important two or three.

The other thing they will probably care about is your motivation, so tell them briefly why you think this role is good for your career development.

In terms of style, write in a way that is readable and flowing.  efficient lists of information may help you to get more information across but that is what your CV is for.  The letter is your chance to engage the reader, to draw them in, so it needs to be interesting to read.  Make them want to know more about you.  Don’t attempt to tell them everything you can.




Graduate Entry Schemes

January 25, 2016

I have recently been focusing my attention on graduate programmes. In particular I’ve been interested in identifying patterns that are common across schemes. In order to build my picture I conducted some fairly straightforward research amongst the UK’s largest companies, specifically the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250.

The first thing to note is that while a high proportion of the bigger companies offer graduate programmes, they are less favoured amongst the cohort of smaller companies.

Something else of note is that almost every programme states a minimum entry standard of an upper second class degree or equivalent, usually this means a GPA score of between 300 and 350.  They also typically expect a UCAS score of at least 300, sometimes more for specialist areas as opposed to general management.

The application period is usually in the autumn, and if a candidate gets through those two or three stages they will typically be invited to attend an assessment centre in the early part of the following year.  Almost all schemes appear to include an assessment centre stage.

So what’s involved here? Assessment centres will involve any combination of the following activities:

  1. Group exercises, the purpose of which is to see how an individual contributes in a team environment. They often involve role play or group discussions.
  2. Presentations, where some information, data or case study will have been provided either on the day or in advance, and the objective is to see how the candidate analyses information, synthesises ideas, and/or communicates to a group.
  3. Psychometric inventories. Companies use a variety of tests to assess personality, ability and intelligence. These tests are also sometimes administered online before the assessment day.  Occasionally, and more controversially, some tests have been developed to measure integrity and propensity to display anger.  Correctly handled, the employer will use the test results to explore relevant matters in the interview.
  4.  Work based exercises are sometimes used to see how well a candidate executes the type of task they might be required to perform in the job. They are often some type of problem solving (sometimes also done in a group setting) or as an in-tray exercise.
  5. Interviews are almost always a part of the process, sometimes linked to the other exercises, i.e. interview questions follow up on observations made during the activities. Other types of interviews are technical and competency based, and may be either be HR staff or line managers / departmental colleagues, and set up as one to one or panel.

These are the most common elements but it’s important to recognise that each company is looking for a particular combination of qualities and will possibly have specific tools to explore those factors.

This article only scratches the surface of the assessment centre.  There is much to say about each of the above elements, not to mention the various stages that take place even before the assessment centre.

If you, or someone you know is interested in learning how to make the very most of their assessment centre experience, be it for a graduate scheme or other recruitment opportunity, I am running a special workshop on the subject on February 23rd in central London.  Further details here


A new thing every year

January 18, 2016

At the risk of sounding like one of those (un)charismatic life coach guru types, this week’s piece is a call to action, ra-ra-ra, go for it, just do it, bouncy encouragement thing.

A few years ago I made a decision to take on a new challenge of some type every year.  In all honesty it wasn’t planned that way.  It was retrospective in that I did a challenge then decided that I would find another one each year.

That first challenge was a physical one.  I rode a bike up a very long and steep mountain in France.  I’ve written about this challenge and the profound impact it had on me elsewhere and since then the challenges have included learning to weld, trying (again) to learn a musical instrument and this year I have taken up ballroom dancing (second lesson this evening). Perhaps one day I will summon up the courage to try to learn a foreign language.

Why do I promote this?  There’s no intrinsic benefit in taking on something new on an annual basis, but there is a benefit in continual learning.  One of the major health concerns for us as we live longer is dementia.  The Alzheimer’s Association have identified six pillars for prevention of that particular form of dementia:

  1. Regular exercise
  2. Healthy diet
  3. Mental stimulation
  4. Quality sleep
  5. Stress management
  6. An active social life

I’m particular persuaded that new activities forcing you to use parts of the brain you don’t generally use is especially good for you.

These, unsurprisingly, match the factors I have long recommended for people looking to achieve a healthy work-life balance.  A challenge a year could take care of a number of these six factors depending on what you decide to take up as your challenge.

Beyond that, pushing yourself beyond your known limits is one of the most life affirming things you can do, as I found on my cycle challenge.

Long before many of us stop working, we stop learning.  We’re just going through the motions for much of the time.  I’m not saying we’re sleepwalking through our jobs, and clearly there are some roles that require us to constantly think and learn, but for many the parts of the brain that are associated with leaning are minimally stimulated and I’m sure that the reason dementia is becoming such a concern is because we are living longer, and therefore are living for more and more years without sufficient mental stimulation.

So here’s me, standing on a big stage at the O2 with a microphone headset bullying you into committing to learn something new in 2016.  Watch out Tony Robbins. Next years’ challenge for me is to be you.



The bell-curve shaped career ladder

January 4, 2016

We tend think of careers as a process of climbing, and at the end of it we are at our highest point on the ladder.

In fact that’s never been the case and according to HM Revenue and Customs data average wages now peak at around 40 – 45 years old. In other words salaries are now highest for the average worker at around the half way point of their career. For some, salaries decline gradually after then, while for the average they fall away significantly so that someone still in work over the age of seventy will be taking home much the same as someone in their early twenties.

Our career trajectory is not a line that goes up from bottom left to top right, but more of a bell-curve.

Career Ladder

Career ladders look more like this…


…than this

This data is based on all levels.  I couldn’t find specific information for management roles, but my guess is that the pattern is similar.

If we lose our job or decide to leave, the likelihood is that at best we will find a job at a similar salary once we reach this age group and beyond.  Mostly however, we will need to make compromises and accept a lower salary.  In other words, after our mid-forties we are climbing down the ladder.

The prospect of climbing down the ladder for over twenty-five years of working life is demoralising. So what can be done?

First, accept the situation.  This is the new reality and not everyone can keep progressing in a world where people are working for longer and company structures are getting flatter. There are simply not the positions to be promoted into, and so progress stops earlier than in the past.

Next consider these options:

1 Go self-employed. Become a consultant and sell your expertise.  The likelihood for many is that earnings will still go down but fulfilment will go up. For some, working in a lower level job is humiliating, while being one’s own boss, even if that means less money, is preferable.

2 Learn new skills in order to broaden your appeal and make you more employable.  This may help to keep the salary higher than otherwise. Besides, learning is is good for the brain.  As we age, brain-training becomes more an more important.

3 Change your values.  Instead of thinking within the framework of money and status, look for fulfilment and meaning in your work. Doing something new and different makes for a more interesting life.  Work is not just about money and status, it’s a way to stay healthy in our twilight years.  It means getting out, interacting with people and thinking. Physical, social and intellectual activities are the key to a healthy balanced life.

There it is. We work for longer than ever before and our earnings decline from about half way through, but surely that’s better than years of watching daytime tv?

Time to down tools and relax

December 21, 2015

I’m so pleased that we are entering the holiday season.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. In the case of Jack Nicholson’s character in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, it made him much worse than dull.


During my working life I’ve seen the number of hours worked by white-collar employees gradually increase.  I’m not talking about the standard working week.  I’m talking about the additional hours referred to in employment contracts as “and any other times you are required” or something similar. These are the hours that you work late into the night, or early into the next morning, whenever a deadline approaches, because the alternative would be that next time there’s redundancies are in the offing your name might be on the list.

Don’t misunderstand me.  This is a fact of modern life.  I think it’s wrong but I can’t offer an alternative for a service based economy where people are the machines and being competitive requires squeezing as much out of those machines as possible. My issue is that employers on the whole, don’t appear to recognise how this relentless life is bad for business.

Workplace stress, anxiety and depression is at unprecedented levels accounting for 10 million sick days per year, that’s 43% of all days lost for reasons of ill-health. It has taken over from back pain as the top reason for absenteeism, reflecting our transition from a physical to a mental economy.

So while employers may not be moved to address the issue (and it should be stressed that the problem is far, far greater in the public than the private sector) at least this season gives employees the opportunity to turn off the technology and leave work alone until January.  That’s right.  Just put it down.  It can wait whereas your health can’t.  You need to be attending to your well-being all the time.

I’m not so naive to imagine that bosses and clients won’t try to make contact over the holiday period, and you may not want to ignore those calls, so at least try to contain dealing with those approaches to certain ring-fenced times, and relax as much as you can the rest of the time. Put messages on your voicemail and set up an “out of office” response on your email. Otherwise, coming back in January without having felt you’ve been able to re-charge the batteries will set the new year off on a bad footing.

Of course, you may be one of those people who finds being stuck with the family more stressful than work, in which case I suggest you volunteer to go in between Christmas and New New Year for your period of relaxation, after all, as we all know, nothing happens in the office then.

Be Like a Curious Interim

December 14, 2015

One of the qualities that marks out a great interim consultant is their ability to understand the problem their new client is dealing with quickly and without fuss.

They come to the situation without the baggage of history and are therefore free from any emotion or relationship issues that might contaminate their judgement.  That’s not to say they are cold and unfeeling, just that they can be objective.


To do this they challenge the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude.  If they feel the problem has some sort of institutional component they can name it as such.

I wish it wasn’t only interims who did this.  How much more positive would it be if employers invited new starters to look objectively at their business once they are on the inside, and to ask questions about how things are done?

I’m not suggesting that the new recruit looks to criticise, nor that the business should be obliged to act on what is raised.  Neither am I saying that the new employee should come up with solutions or alternatives to whatever it is they have noticed.

I’m saying that a new pair of eyes and a free mind can ask innocent questions that encourage the business to think about what they do and why they do it that way.  If the outcome is to do no more than encourage the business to articulate out loud their reasons for certain behaviours then that is really very healthy.

As a counsellor I spend much of my time asking questions of my clients.  Not because I’m nosy, not because I know the answer and want the client to confirm it for me, and not because I believe there’s something to be fixed.  I ask questions to give my client the space to consider why they do what they do, what the underlying, unexamined narrative of that behaviour is, and how that behaviour serves them.

Companies and other employing organisations would surely benefit from a similar opportunity, but it can’t easily be done from within.  It requires a curious outsider, unaware of and therefore unaffected by the internal dynamics or history of the organisation to notice things that are odd, and to ask the innocent question “Why?”

Are you brave enough to ask permission to do this next time you start a new role?  More than that, are you brave enough, as an employer, to ask your new recruits to do it?

Beware the Linkedin Recruiter Scam

December 7, 2015

The BBC is reporting a scam targeting Linkedin users looking to make connections with recruiters.

Job seekers are especially vulnerable because they are delighted to be invited to connect with recruiters and they rarely check the credentials of the person inviting them to connect.

By joining the target’s contact list the process of building trust and gaining useful information for later exploitation begins.


There’s no evidence that this activity is particularly widespread at the moment but it’s certainly worth taking simple precautions.

  1. As the articles suggests, do a reverse image search on the photo.
  2. Also, use one of the many free plagiarism checking sites to see if the profile or other content have been lifted from elsewhere.
  3. A search for the company may also help, but be aware that some of the more sophisticated scammers will have set up convincing websites so be careful.
  4. Check if the recruiter is a member of one of the professional bodies such as the REC, ARC, APSCo or the IoR.  If they claim to be so then check with that body as well.
  5. Use your common sense.  If it smells funny it probably is.  Don’t let your desire for a job make a fool of you.  That’s exactly how these people operate.

Remember another thing as well: you don’t need to connect with recruiters on Linkedin.  If they think they can help you then they should send you an InMail message.  They often try to avoid this because they have to pay for InMail but the downside for you of accepting a contact request is that you give them access to your full profile. Better, if at all possible, to conduct your relationship with recruiters directly.

Don’t let this put you off using the Linkedin.  As I’m always saying, it’s a great tool for your networking activity. Just remember that networking with fellow professionals is not at all the same as networking with recruiters.  As with any contact request, be very careful who you allow to be in your network. This useful article looks at how scammers exploit Linkedin in other ways.

You’ve probably heard it before but it’s worth repeating:  the internet is like the wild west.  Be cautious.