Curriculum vitae and cover letters: an alternative approach

One of the most frequent requests for advice I receive is when CEOs and other leaders are job hunting, applying for roles or have been headhunted. They send me the job specification or headhunter’s mandate along with a draft CV and cover letter. I’ve received scores over the years. They usually make three common mistakes.

First, they assert, rather than demonstrate competence. Second, they forget what a CV is for and try to “gear it”. Third, they almost always undersell themselves. This last mistake is a surprise since my clients are in the main, as Sir Humphrey might say, “not entirely displeased with themselves”. This is a front, and part of the reason they are successful. And indeed why I like working with them.

But taking the third point first, I rarely experience senior leaders over selling in their CVs. That’s not to say that some don’t. It’s just that I don’t work with that type of leader. That said, it never ceases to surprise me the extent to which they will hide their light under a bushel in the first draft of their CV and how they manage to mangle a cover letter.

I use the same editing approach every time. I don’t turn on “tracking changes” because there are usually too many. Not in content but in the presentation. I might add or delete the odd word or sentence, but my purpose is to reveal, not to change. My first step is to delete the dreaded summary paragraph at the beginning of most first draft CVs. Some headhunters recommend these; some don’t.

I advise my clients that the risks of summary paragraphs outweigh, absolutely, the benefits. Unless you write like Tolstoy you won’t get it right. You will end up asserting competence – “strategic…visionary…dynamic…”. Don’t do it. Let the CV speak for itself.

Remember that the Latin words curriculum vitae mean literally “the course of my life”. So just write that, in two pages. Dates – with months, and no gaps. Organisations and job titles with a short list of achievements, one per line. Start each achievement with a verb. Led… launched…developed. That’s it.

But – and I have great sympathy with this – CEOs and other leaders feel vulnerable at these points of inflexion. Worse they are usually hard on themselves. A deadly combination when you are trying to sell yourself. And a CV is a selling document, but it is only an appendix to the cover letter. The cover letter is where the real selling or “gearing” is done.

You can’t “gear” your CV. As we say in Ireland: “It is what it is”. But you can and should gear your cover letter. But most first drafts treat the cover letter with scant respect. That’s because most successful CEOs and leaders don’t often need to sell themselves. They’re out of practice.

The cover should start with obvious: I wish to apply for X role as advertised in Y or advised by Z headhunter. Then it should reprise the top three things the role needs and how, in headline terms, you intend to meet those needs. Then, crucially, a few sentences carefully crafted to demonstrate your unique approach to the role. You are, after all, unique.

So, why not highlight your unique selling proposition in your cover letter? This won’t be about your roles. These are not unique. It will be about how you do what you do, and who you are. That’s your USP. Use it.

In doing so, you will help them choose you. Organisations always choose the least risky, not the best. People who don’t reveal themselves are a risk. Reveal yourself, in a manner which makes you the least risky, and win.

Ciaran Fenton

September 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335


For aspiring Non-Executive Directors

How to secure Non-Executive Director roles in a crowded marketplace

#SmallChange: You are a unique business; start behaving like one


I am writing a book. It’s called Small Change: how to work, lead and follow in the 21st. Century. I am blogging draft synopses of sections of the book as I write it. I would be grateful for comments, questions and feedback as I proceed.

Below is a draft of Chapter 1, Part 3. You can see an Introduction and other drafts on my blog or LinkedIn Pulse.

Chapter 1: Have you ever seen a CEO with a Human Capital Asset barcode?

Part 3: Small change: You are a unique business; start behaving like one

If you work, you sell your skills for money. In business, they call it revenue. Whether you’re an employee or self-employed, you will have overheads. The difference is profit.

You have financial assets and liabilities. And you may have shares or options with a future value. Together these constitute your financial net worth.

You have strengths, which are intangible assets and weaknesses which are intangible liabilities. The difference between these is a sort of intangible net worth. If you didn’t, no one would hire you.

You receive intangible benefits from your work. These are the feelings you need to make the effort worthwhile. This effort, including the management of relationships, are intangible costs. The difference between these is a soft surplus or a deficit.

A significant number of people I meet have a soft gap. The official happiness statistics bear this out. This book is, in part, about how to close that gap as much as possible.

Your personal history is unique. No one on the planet shares your precise history. There isn’t another you amongst the 7 billion or so people in the world. Therefore, you are 1/7 billion regarding your uniqueness. This reality gives you a unique selling point – a USP as they call it in business.

Many companies claim falsely, a USP. Few, if any, have a unique anything. Businesses are, as Professors Barwise, and Meehan pointed out in Simply Better, “simply better or not than their competition across a range of category benefits”.

The irony is that only individuals can honestly claim a USP. Usually, they don’t because it’s scary to do so. The entire canon of organisational theory is, unconsciously, designed to discourage your ownership of your unique value. Why? Because leading and managing unique individuals is perceived as impossible.

So the language and labels used in business reflect this perception: human capital assets, resources, hires, direct reports and leavers. You couldn’t find more dehumanising words if you tried.

The inconvenient truth is that you are a professional services firm, on legs. All the art and science of business can be applied to you as easily as it can to a huge corporation. The only difference is the number of zeroes in the size of your revenues and the complexity of running the business of being you.

My clients are underwhelmed, at first, when I outline this view of the world. They believe that the asymmetrical power relationship between employee or contractor and boss or client negates my proposition. They might say “I can be as unique as I like but that won’t cut any ice with my boss if he or she wants to be difficult.”

It’s a reasonable point. But I disagree with the premise that nothing can be done about the power differential and that “put up or shut up” is the only option. I believe that there is a midpoint between accepting the status quo and getting fired.

It’s about making small changes in your own behaviour first. Then stand back and witness how the organisation changes its behaviour with you.

And if many people were to change their behaviour at work, fundamentally, there might even be a revolution in how we work in the 21st. Century.

Why not? Organisations are merely coalitions, joint ventures, and contracts between unique people businesses for brief periods. What if the nature of these were to change?

Ciaran Fenton

August 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335


For CEOs /CFOs and Legal Leadership…

#LegalWithTheBusiness – A One Day 50/50 Workshop for GCs and “The Business”…

For aspiring Non-Executive Directors

The 7 Deadly Sins of Nascent NEDs – A One Day Workshop at the IOD, London