Being Good Is Not Enough

You’ve decided to throw your hat in the ring for a new leadership position that’s recently opened up. You’re confident that you fit the candidate profile.

You’ve got all the right stuff. You’ve risen through the academic or administrative ranks and you’re there. You are president material. You’d make a terrific VP. You’ve paid years of dues at a small college or a mid-tier university. Or maybe as a director of a nonprofit. You’ve even managed to put all that great experience down on paper. Your CV and cover letter are ready to go.

You know that you have a shot. Your credentials are stellar. You would bring much-needed private sector or seasoned institutional street cred to the position. Any organization would be lucky to have you.

You eagerly hit ‘send’ and your materials are on the way. You wait. And wait. And wait some more, and begin to think that sending a “hope you received my application” email would be a good idea.

The problem is not you; it’s what you look like on paper. Your application is just an ordinary, bland CV and an unmemorable cover letter — probably using the same template your high school guidance counselor gave you. It inevitably ends up in the “thanks but no thanks” pile.

In my work with candidates embarking on high-level education and nonprofit searches, I am always surprised at how smart, experienced people write lousy cover letters and are content with run-of-the-mill CVs; how learned, experienced, successful professionals like you freeze at the first sign of a blinking cursor on a confoundingly blank screen, and how the prospect of putting together a top-notch professional portfolio — a dossier that will grab and hold a headhunter’s attention — hits you like kryptonite.

It’s not enough to be good. Search firms, particularly at this early stage of the process, won’t sift through mediocre materials and connect the dots. It’s not their job to put the pieces together. It’s yours.

You’ve got to tell them who you are and why hiring you fits the bill.

I know, I know. You hate the word branding. Even the word marketing makes you sneeze.

Get over it. If you don’t create your own brand — a succinct narrative about who you are and what you stand for — people will think what they want to think. And it will stick. Reputations are easier to shape than to undo. It’s in your hands to prove you’ve got the chops for the job.

I’ve worked with lots of people just like you who’ve hit a dead-end in their searches, who have spent days agonizing over their bona fides and wasting time writing a four-page single-spaced cover letter. 

What if, instead of all the angst, you were to put together a gangbuster candidate portfolio, one that blows others out of the water? What if you put all of that great experience you’ve got into the Cuisinart and came out with a compelling, memorable narrative instead? What if you cast your candidacy in an innovative way, rather than as a lackluster chronological list?

Over the course of my career in higher ed as well as in the consulting work that I do with senior professionals and their portfolios, I know how difficult this is to do on your own.

I also know what works. You must create a brand narrative that communicates the value of your candidacy in clear and compelling ways. Remember, all jobs — especially those at the top of every institution and company — represent an explicit need, a problem that requires solving.

Your portfolio must present a clear and compelling case for why you are the solution.

I know what it takes to rise to the top. The process of searching for a new leadership position takes work. Real work. But if you arm yourself with the right tools, you have the ability to do more than put yourself in the running.

You might just get the job you want.

You can read my recent piece on the changing world of executive search here.