Cover letters can be tricky. There’s a fine line between applicants who outrageously brag about themselves and those who appear unqualified because they don’t sell themselves well enough. Luckily, if you know what to look for, you can weed through all the job-search buzzwords and spot candidates with genuine leadership skills or leadership potential.
To find out how to spot a leader from a cover letter, we reached out to Robin Schooling, vice president of human resources at a local employer and nationally recognized HR expert.
When on the lookout for leaders and potential leaders, Schooling says she searches for “The Four I’s.”
In a candidate’s cover letter, Schooling wants to see how they influenced the business at former jobs. This shows the applicant understands the big picture and that his or her role is not limited to a specific function. They aren’t just a subject-matter expert; they care about the business and their role in a more holistic fashion. They aren’t limited to their personal achievements.
A great way to check for this is to look for hard numbers. A leader should be able to quantify results achieved: reduced turnover by 15 percent, increased sales by 10 percent, or improved efficiency by some amount.
A leader should be able to point to a big idea that they initiated and fully realized. HR professionals like Schooling love this. If someone has started an intern program, initiated a blood-drive campaign or spearheaded the addition of a new region or satellite office, this shows they are a go-getter, an important aspect of leadership. This candidate takes initiative and doesn’t need a step-by-step road map to get their job done. They are not afraid to try something new and uncharted.
Granted, Schooling says, “not everyone has the opportunity to create a brand-new program at their job, but this can also be demonstrated through community involvement and other outside organizations.”
A leader takes a problem and makes it better. Schooling says she reads cover letters looking for quantified improvements and a new way of thinking or doing something. Where this veers off into its own category, though, is the problem-solving. Rather than create an entirely new program from thin air, Schooling wants to see that a leader can take an existing entity or program, think through ways to make it better, and then implement those changes.
A great thing about this, Schooling says, is that improvements can be demonstrated on a macro or micro level. You could be looking for a CEO and find out how they optimized a whole manufacturing facility, or hiring someone into their first supervisory job who rearranged a filing system. Results of improvement are easy to show.
Here, you’re looking for evidence of their people skills, Schooling says. “You can be an influencer and an inspirational leader even if you haven’t been an official leader.” If someone did lead staff, they should say how many people they supervised and how they made the team stronger. Specifying that people on their team achieved their professional-development goals or were promoted is a great way to see this.
Even if the candidate has never supervised in an official career capacity, a leadership role on a volunteer board or something outside of work will also show this. Schooling wants to see that a candidate isn’t just looking to be an individual contributor or member of a team, but rather that they will take on additional responsibility and roles.
Above all, the “cover letter needs to focus on ability to lead others to get things done,” she says. “It should be less about what ‘I’ know and do and more about what others have done under me.”
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