How To Write A Cover Letter

personal branding

Below is an actual cover letter I received, which beautifully highlights some of the definite don’t-dos:

Firstly, never send a cover letter with a general salutation. If you don’t know to whom you are sending the letter, don’t send it – unless there is special reason such as some large organization requests you to upload a cover letter to their online candidate database, and at that point you cannot know who will read it. If you are sending the letter to someone directly, make sure you have their name and title in the letter.

Secondly, the way the letter is written, it seems the candidate is applying for just any job. This is never a good idea. Be specific and know exactly what you are applying for.

Thirdly, never allow grammatical errors in any job-related documents, whether you are looking for a job or already have one.

Fourthly, this cover letter is very generic and states that the candidate has delivered “outstanding results.” Never use ambiguous language as it relates to your profession. Use percentages or ratios, such as,  “In the last fiscal period, I contributed to an 8% increase in net profit,” or, “By adding net-net new clients, I increased our portfolio by 65%.” Results must always be articulated in numbers.

Finally, the candidate makes an emotionally charged statement, such as, “I am ready for any interview,” which makes them sound crazy. Be careful when you are using emotional language or making broad-brush-stroke statements about your performance. You do not want to sound over the top or that your operating style is laden with false bravado.

In addition, the candidate, Alex, asks for a meeting to discuss his profile. This is very one-sided, and to be clear, no one wants to spend an hour of their time discussing your profile. The focus should be on how Alex can help the company achieve its objectives, KPIs, and results.

Now let’s see what happens when Alex Johnson takes my advice and corrects his cover letter which is displayed on the next page:

As you can see in the above example, he is now addressing the letter in a very personal manner directly to me. He is clearly stating where he knows me from and what he does. He indicates his job title, and what his area of specialization is. Then he states which brand he works for and what his result has been articulated in numbers. He then makes some very distinct statements about his profile. He closes off his letter with a clear indication of exactly what job he wants, which is a CIO position with a bank. This is a big improvement, but it could be even better.

What is missing in the above cover letter it is that it is not making a deposit; it is trying to make a withdrawal. Remember, you can’t make a withdrawal until you have made a deposit. The best candidates aim to make a contribution to others. The key question to answer is what are the deliverables your target audience needs to answer to at the end of the month, and then demonstrate how you can help them meet those deliverables.

The above example is good, but let us now look at what a great cover letter would look like.


On the next page is a first-class cover letter:

As you can see in the first paragraph, Alex now highlights why he likes the organization he is approaching. He commends them on their performance and speaks to them as an industry peer with statements such as “In 2012 “Bank X” delivered a 42% AUM growth while at the same time reducing its cost-to-income ratio from 44% to 41%. I have always been an admirer of your organization and its approach to the market and enjoyed your recent article in Gulf Business.” He is now demonstrating his industry knowledge and then goes on to clearly state his current position and where he works.

You will not believe how many times I receive communications where the candidates are not stating their current positions and where they work. Make sure all your professional communications state your name, title, and current organization, or most recent title and organization.

In this version, Alex then puts the “cherry on top” by noting his references right in the cover letter. CEOs of banks are like local celebrities. Any business professional worth his salt will know who the other bank CEOs are, and their opinions will hold a lot of weight. This is called the “VIP Cover Letter” (discussed in more detail below) as it is laden with VIPs. The world is all about brands and results. Increasing the net profit of Goldman Sachs by 15% attracts a lot more attention in the market than increasing the net profit of John Dow. Inc. by 30%. In this version, Alex is leveraging the power of brands, and dropping VIP references right in his cover letter. This is an excellent idea.

He is also using the VIP references to highlight his results. This is key. In your cover letter, you want to highlight for whom you work or have worked for, and the results you got while working there. Getting a VIP contact to highlight your results for you is like scoring a “hole-in-one.” Do this, and you will really be hitting it out of the park.

He then closes with a deposit by saying, “I would be delighted to come and talk to you about what I see as the three biggest investment opportunities of this year.” He prefaces this to say he has just come back from the biggest investment conference on the planet so that his audience can imagine that Alex is dialed-in to the latest research, connected to the biggest and most powerful CEOs, and has over a decade of experience working as a CIO with a history of delivering triple-digit results. He also quantifies the weight of his insight by referencing his interview on CNN. That is another big brand that would not host him if he was not at top of his game.

This is what a cover letter from an A-player looks like. It creates impact, highlights the candidate’s desire to make a contribution to the success of its audience, and is packed with references to world-class brands and results. Additionally, if you can get professional exposure on TV or radio, you will add credence to your profile, and an extra splash of stardom will improve your attractiveness in the market.

A cover letter like this gets results and Alex will invariably get more meeting requests with this than the other two variations. The hallmark of successful people is there desire to contribute to the success of others. So, be sure to remember the North Stars that are highlighted in my book “Get Your Dream Job”, and the two that apply here are “How can I contribute to my industry?” and “How can I make others successful?”  Follow these tips and you will have the best cover letter in the business.

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