Wednesday, July 18

From Adversity

To Advantage

Teena Cahill has an interesting take on leadership. Whereas most people think along heroic lines, conjuring up leaders like a Winston Churchill or a Franklin Roosevelt, Cahill observes that “in reality most people are never in a situation where they have to save London.” So her goal, in both her new book, “The Cahill Factor: Turning Adversity into Advantage,” and in her motivational talks is “trying to get people to see themselves as leaders in everyday life.”

When she distills the research on leadership and adds a few pinches of her own life experience, Cahill comes up with a simple definition: “Leadership has to do with creativity and flexibility across different situations.”

In this sense, her book is about leadership — mostly about how Cahill, a psychotherapist and motivational speaker, took the lead when her husband suffered a life-threatening cerebral hemorrhage, making the tough decisions that not only gave him the best shot at surviving, but also brought them back to a satisfying life together — even if it was rather different than the one they expected.

Cahill, the director of Wisdom and Beyond LLC, will be speaking on “Women Taking the Lead: The Wider the Web, the Greater the Bounce” at the inaugural event of the United Way of New Jersey Women’s Leadership Council on Wednesday, July 18, at 6 p.m. at the Nassau Club in Princeton. Her daughter, Mia Cahill, a Princeton lawyer, will introduce her. Cost: $50. For information, call Charlotte Hague at 609-637-4900.

In addition, Barbara Washington, vice president and philanthropic consultant at the Merrill Lynch Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Management, and a member of the United Way of America’s Women’s Leadership Council, will speak about why it is important for women, their careers, and their communities to volunteer on nonprofit boards. The council is comprised of women who have donated at least $1,000 a year to United Way. For information, contact Charlotte Hague at the United Way of Greater Mercer County at 609-637-4900.

“The mission of the Women’s Leadership Council,” says Carolee Kueller, vice president of resource development at the United Way of Greater Mercer County, “is to have the women address community issues while priming them for positions on nonprofit boards.” She would like to see more women on United Way boards, but believes that often women don’t understand what serving on a board means, in terms of the time commitment, decisions they will have to make, and issues they will be voting on.

From the United Way’s perspective, the goal is to get women more involved in its organization and its issues. But joining the Women’s Leadership Council also has advantages. According to Kueller, “you will grow your circle of friends, learn about philanthropy, and help your community.”

Cahill is donating proceeds of the sale of her book at the event to the Women’s Leadership Council.

The book Cahill is selling is not the one she originally set out to write. She had wanted to write a self-help book on leadership, “but it wasn’t in me,” she says. Instead she wrote a more personal book, using her experience with her husband’s life-changing illness as the center of a self-help volume for people going through all kinds of transitions.

In her journey through her husband’s illness and back into the world of the living, which she details in her book, Cahill found she used both knowledge and feelings to guide her. “There was no clear path,” she says. “I used everything I had ever taught, read, or experienced to figure out everything I was going to do now that my life had turned upside down.”

And along the way she learned a lot about what it means to be a leader in your own life:

Take control of your life by making choices. If we accept that no one else can live our lives for us, says Cahill, then we know we have to make choices about what will happen. Otherwise, we perceive ourselves as being controlled by events. Aware that we have choices, “we can make a choice to be defined not by what happens, but by our reactions to what happens,” she says.

Use your strengths. Research in positive psychology, says Cahill, tells us that the most fulfilling life is one where individuals use their strengths and follow their passions.

“Concentrate on what you do well,” she advises. When people ask her to help them improve on the tasks they have trouble with, she advises them to make a different choice — to reorganize their lives so that 75 percent of what they do is what they do well.

Cahill adds that focusing on strengths does not mean trying to achieve perfection, as the surrounding culture often presses us to do. “If I have a few functional moments in a day, I call it a great day,” she says. “We all have strengths, but nothing’s perfect; we need to look at what’s right, not what’s wrong.”

Use the mind-body connection. “Every thought or feeling has a physiological component,” Cahill says. She writes about how, for her, rediscovering tennis meant rediscovering hope, which in turn meant “a cascading of hormones that gives us energy and changes our perception of a situation.”

Take care of yourself first. Four years ago Cahill had what she calls an “anniversary response,” a feeling of upset at the anniversary of a stressful experience. She couldn’t figure it out at first — her husband was doing well and their lives were stable. Then she realized that she needed to do something to enrich her own life. “I was sad because I was missing my future that was to have been,” she says. “All caregivers go through that.”

Once Cahill had this insight, she realized she had a choice to make — and that’s when she decided to become a motivational speaker. “You can’t be there to develop other people until you develop yourself first,” she says.

“We don’t live in a culture that says a good wife or good husband takes care of themselves first,” she says. “However, as caregivers, if you don’t, I don’t see how you have anything to give to someone else. If I take care of myself, then I have the resources to take care of the people I love.” Or the people with whom she works as a psychotherapist.

Much of what Cahill has become today harks back to her childhood experiences. “I grew up in rural Ohio, across the street from a pig farm, in a wonderful community that mentored me,” she says, noting especially the strong farm women. Every Friday night the whole community would get together for square dancing.

Cahill’s father was a factory worker and her mother a secretary — by day that is. At night she transformed into a singer at bars in the community. “In my early years,” remembers Cahill, “I spent Friday nights eating shrimp cocktail and drinking Coke, watching my mother sing.”

Although as a kid Cahill always got check marks on her report card next to the words “talks too much,” her seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Lusch, saw this as a strength and enrolled Cahill in a 4H speaking contest. “I had to go,” she says, “and I won county, district, and state, and then started entering speech contests on my own.” At age 16 she was selected to compete with kids from around the country at the United Nations, and her speech in the General Assembly room won the contest. When she got back to Ohio, the band came out to play for her, to her great embarrassment and the amusement of her friends.

Her reputation reached the governor of Ohio, who came to the county fair and gave her money to go to college. She sees that as good luck for her. The governor was in the midst of a reelection campaign and was trying to gain Brownie points with the locals. “Nothing we do is pure charity,” she observes. “You will find that all we do benefits us as well as someone else, if you look hard enough.”

Cahill met her first husband, who went on to invent one of the original over-the-counter pregnancy tests, while she was at Ohio State and he was at Capital University, also in Columbus. When he headed out to the University of Utah for a doctorate in microbiology, she joined him and graduated with a degree in education.

In 1970 the couple moved to Princeton, and Cahill fell in love with the place. “I loved where I grew up,” she says, “but I also loved knowledge and being around people who were smart and interesting.” She remembers standing in front of the liquor store on Witherspoon Street during a snowstorm, turning to her husband, and saying, “You can live any place you want, but I’m moving here.”

Although Cahill eventually made it back to Princeton, she and her first husband soon moved to Florida, where they had financial backers to commercialize the pregnancy test he had invented.

Cahill, whose first marriage was foundering and was soon to end in divorce, decided she needed a graduate degree. She considered anthropology but decided that trekking off, a la Margaret Mead, made no sense for a woman with three children. That left law and psychology as possibilities. To decide between them, she went to the university’s bookstore and read books in both subject areas.

“I liked the books on psychology better,” she says, “so I enrolled in a master’s, and then a doctorate.” Her master’s degree in counseling is from Nova Southeastern and her doctorate in clinical psychology is from the Florida Institute of Technology. As soon as she finished school, Cahill took her kids and moved back to Princeton, where she met her current husband, who was a pilot for American Airlines until he became disabled.

Cahill is already at work on her next book, which will be a series of stories about people using their creativity and flexibility for successful experiences — “to try to get people to see themselves as leaders in their own lives.” — Michele Alperin

Monday, July 23

Steer Clear of Common Small Business Traps

The road to business success is often exciting and exhilarating, but it can also be filled with pitfalls and hidden dangers. Business consultant Liz Illgen’s job is to guide business owners through the danger zones and see them safely back on the right path.

Illgen, owner of Practical Management Solutions of Hamilton, will speak on “The Seven Common Mistake Business Owners Make and How to Correct Them” to the Professional Women of New Jersey on Monday, July 23, at 8:45 a.m. at the Americana Diner in East Windsor. Cost: Free, but participants pay for their own breakfasts. For information contact Josie Pizzolato, 609-799-2922.

Illgen says she has learned about many of those common mistakes the hard way: she has made them herself. Her goal is to use her experience to make life a little easier for other business owners.

Illgen received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire and an MBA with an emphasis in international business and law from Rutgers University. She began her career selling personal computers “when they first came on the market,” and quickly learned that, while she was good at sales, it wasn’t something she enjoyed.

“Sales is about people skills, and I love working with people,” she says, but her true interests lay more in management and teaching others. Her career brought her from her home state of Wisconsin to New Jersey, and eventually to AT&T. She took early retirement from that corporation a few years ago.

“Like many people from the corporate world, I wanted to do something totally different,” she says. She opened a gift shop in West Windsor and found that the skills that she had used in the corporate world did not necessarily translate to the world of the retail. But the experience was far from a complete loss. “I learned a great deal about how not to start and run a business,” she says.

After a few years in the gift shop business, it was time for another career change. She decided to use her experience to help other business owners “do it right,” and opened Practical Management Solutions in early 2006. She is a member of the Institute for Independent Business, a not-for-profit research, training and accreditation organization.

What are the common mistakes of business owners?

Not enough funding. The most common mistake for new business owners is underestimating the amount of money it will take to start the business.

“You have to have enough money to get off the ground without going broke and without cutting too many corners,” says Illgen. This is especially true for anyone starting a business out of their home, she adds. People starting a home business often minimize their need for start-up capital. Because they are not renting office space, they often feel they can get by without necessary equipment or office basics.

Illgen cautions against relying on a spouse’s income. “This is your business,” she says. “Not a hobby. You must think of it as a business and act like a business.”

The money has to come from somewhere, and it is best to acknowledge that up front. “If you are going to use your savings, that is fine to start out, but if you want to grow, eventually you are going to need to establish credit,” she says. If a business owner establishes credit and develops a relationship with a bank before he or she needs to borrow money, there is less likely to be a need to use personal assets as collateral when it’s time to borrow money to grow the business.

Not enough planning. The second common mistake, says Illgen, is to fail to create a long-term vision for the business.

“Most business owners start with a great idea and they are really enthusiastic about it, but they don’t take the long-term view,” she says. For many business owners, she adds, “planning seems to be a dirty word. They find it daunting.”

Planning is essential, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. “It can mean something as small as one sheet of paper,” Illgen says. As long as the business owner looks at “the what, when, where and why” of the business, develops the direction in which he or she wants to grow, and estimates the money he or she will need to get there, the beginnings of a plan are there.

Planning also means looking at negative possibilities, says Illgen. Often a new business owner believes she is going to immediately have a certain amount of sales. “But what if it doesn’t happen right away? You have to have Plan B,” she says. “You don’t want to run out of money just as the business is ready to take off.” Good planning will get a business through the tough times.

Not enough marketing. Planning and budgeting to market a business is necessary if you want the business to succeed. “If you don’t properly advertise, your business will be dead in the water,” she says. Many novice business owners “rely on previous relationships or their interpersonal skills” to market their business, but that is only one part of a marketing plan.

“You have to decide on your brand and your message and the best way to let people know that you are out there,” she says. That plan can include advertising, direct marketing, cold calling, and networking. But they all take time and money, and the business owner must budget for both.

Not enough help. Illgen calls it the “me, myself and I mentality.” It is the idea many business owners have that they can — and should — handle every detail and perform every task in the business. Often, it comes from a fear of spending money.

At the lowest level, it is the new business owner who says, “I can print my own business cards for $10. Why should I spend $50 to have someone else do it?” They forget, she says, the cost of their time. What’s worse, they ignore the cost of representing themselves with something that doesn’t look professional.

“They get trapped in thinking they are the best person to do everything,” she says. They want to be the advertising specialist, the bookkeeper, the sales manager, and the manufacturer. “Speaking from experience,” she exclaims, “they are dead wrong!”

A shaky legal framework. Two common legal problems business owners have is not properly registering their businesses and forgetting to pay taxes. Many owners don’t understand payroll taxes and workers compensation and don’t pay them, says Illgen. Back taxes and potential fines can quickly make it difficult for a business to ever climb out of the hole.

Not properly registering a business name, or choosing an inappropriate business structure, are two other common and costly legal mistakes. “Many people will spend a lot of money developing a logo and printing materials before they check that no other company is using the name they have chosen,” says Illgen. Simply registering a business with the county can save a lot of time and money.

Many people believe that they need to incorporate to protect their personal assets, says Illgen. However, becoming an S corporation is costly. “There are charges to the state that must be paid, whether or not the business makes money,” she points out, and the required tax filings are complex. Most small businesses are better off forming as an LLC, a less expensive alternative. “But that’s where we get back to planning,” she says. “If your vision is that in five years you will have 200 employees, you might be better off as an S Corporation.”

Working too hard. Business owners love what they do. They are working for themselves, and they are often trying to do it all and have it all. They have to learn to take time away from the business to relax and spend time with their family.

“It is easy to lose your enthusiasm not just for your business, but for life,” says Illgen. “You have to be careful to have balance. A business takes a lot of time, but owners must learn to delegate or they will burn out.”

Compromising values. “We hear all the time that the customer is always right. But sometimes the customer is wrong,” say Illgen. “In the back of your mind, you are always thinking ‘I need the money,’ and you bend over backward for the customer, but if you feel lousy about what you are doing, it isn’t right for you or your business.”

A business owner needs to walk away if the client wants to do something unethical. “Sometimes you just have to fire the client.”

Yes, every business owner will make mistakes — it’s as certain as death and taxes. But the good news, says Illgen, is that mistakes don’t have to be fatal to the business. With help and planning, most businesses will recover.

— Karen Hodges Miller

Tuesday, July 24

Marketing Madness? Summer Networking:

When Ruth Gatling walks into a roomful of people, she heads straight for the ones she doesn’t know. She’ll walk right up and say, “Hi. I don’t know you. What do you do?” Or she might scan the room and spot someone she knows talking with a stranger, then make her move for a proper introduction. “I make an effort to meet people I don’t know,” she says. “Everybody goes to networking events for the same reason — to get business.”

Gatling is an old hand at networking events by now, three years after she started her business, West Windsor-based Phoenix Initiatives, (www.advantageva.net) a provider of remote back office services to companies and individual professionals. Her key piece of advice on networking is simple: keep at it.

“People don’t think of you if you’re not out there,” she says. “It’s not a one-time deal. You have to keep meeting people so they can become comfortable with you, so they know you’re not here one day and gone the next. Being out there is incredibly important.”

An expected crowd of 300 will do just that at Mid-Summer Marketing Madness Networking and Business Showcase, sponsored by the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, July 24, from 5 to 8 p.m. on Palmer Square Green in Princeton. This free outdoor event for chamber members, business people, and the public — co-sponsored by U.S. 1 Newspaper — will include demonstrations and samples from Palmer Square businesses. Rain date: Thursday, July 26. Call 609-924-1776 or visit www.princetonchamber.org.

A Princeton native, Gatling earned a BFA in theater at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she lived for 13 years. She has worked in a “scene shop,” making scenery for Broadway shows, and has spent seven years in Guatemala, where she managed a hotel, edited a magazine, taught exercise classes, and owned a gourmet food shop.

In 2001 Gatling moved back to Princeton and managed the office at a local synagogue. When her kids became ill and she became unemployed, Gatling started her own home-based business while working part-time at a frame shop. But she decided she that didn’t want just her own little business. She wanted a company and began the process by subcontracting to a cadre of experts. She began networking.

“When you’re building a business, it’s really important to get out there so people start knowing who you are and gaining some credibility,” she says. “I went to every chamber event I could manage and became involved with New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners (NJAWBO) from the very beginning and joined Business Network International (BNI) in 2005.”

She scheduled at least four networking functions a month. It was simply a matter of checking event calendars of area organizations, putting it on her calendar, and “just going.” If somebody told her to check out a group, she did.

“I’d go wherever there would be business people who I could shake hands with, and talk to, and learn something from,” she says. Half of Gatling’s business was acquired by networking and half by word-of-mouth. The point is not only to attract the business of fellow chamber or organization members, she points out, it’s to attract the business of their clients.

The same faces often show up at an organization’s event, but Gatling says that’s a good thing. After all, how would anyone get to know each other if they only met once? How would they know if they’re going to have a good business connection if they don’t take the time to get to know each other?

While Gatling is a dedicated networker, she is not a natural networker. She is, in fact, shy. She had to force herself to ignore her innate shyness and attend events. Unless you’re an outgoing person networking is not easy to do, she admits. “And anybody who tells you otherwise is lying,” she says.

“There’s no way you can go out, if you have a new business or are new in the kind of business you’re promoting, and step into a group of people, most of whom you don’t know, and be comfortable with it,” she says. “But it’s something you can become skillful at. You learn how to present your business. You learn how to stand up and do an elevator speech in front of a bunch of people and not feel like you’re going to throw up. You learn how to go up to people you have no idea who they are or what they do and shake hands. You learn to remember who they are and carry on a professional conversation. It’s a process.”

Sure it’s difficult, she says, but if you want to build your business, it’s essential. “It’s not a matter of ‘want to.’ It’s like exercising. If you want to be in good shape and be healthy, you exercise. Do you want to? Sometimes no. Who cares? It really has nothing to do with what you want. It’s part of my marketing plan, so I have to do it.

“Up until now it’s been me and my presence and my ability to go out and say, ‘My company does this and we can do it for you and make your life so much easier and make you money.’ I don’t think there is anything so successful for building a small business as networking. It’s the least expensive, biggest bang for your buck.”

Here’s how to take networking to the next level:

Set a realistic goal. Meet five new people. Have in-depth conversations with three. Learn what they do, and figure out how to help them. Who do you know that might be beneficial to them?

Follow up. E-mail or call people you meet to get together to talk more about what they do. If you have thought of a person, product, or service that could help them out, drop them a line to let them know. If you happen upon an article you think would interest them, send it along.

Make a plan. Before attending a networking event, try to find out who will be present. If it’s a big event, there may well be a floor plan indicating what exhibitors will be present. When the event is sponsored by an organization, it’s a good bet that its officers and board members will be on hand. Research these companies and people. Decide which participants you most want to meet, and then learn something about them to use in ice-breaker conversations.

Get involved. Showing up is good. Speaking with people is great. But you will really stand out when you volunteer to help. Serve on a committee and you will begin to know people on a more intimate level — and your name will soon be easily recognizable.

Create a 50-second-or-less elevator speech. Gatling does it in 10 seconds: “My company helps businesses become more profitable by streamlining their back office processes.” That’s it. Notice that all of the focus is away from her and toward the listener. It’s all about what she can do for the people she meets.

Crafting a succinct elevator speech takes some work. Delivering it takes some practice. The more networking events you attend, the better it will become.

Get to know people on a personal level. Think of where your last piece of business came from. Think of how your neighbor got his new job. Think of how your brother-in-law chose the company that renovated his house. Chances are that in every case there was a personal connection. No matter what the transaction, it tends to travel through a friend.

Not everyone you meet at a networking event will become a friend, but if you hit it off with someone you meet, consider going out afterwards for coffee. Maybe it will be the start of a genuine friendship.

Have the patience to see it through. Nothing happens overnight. If you get business from your very first networking event, consider yourself very lucky. It generally takes time to build up the relationships that lead to business. Keep at it. It is hard to find an activity that boosts business more than networking. — Mary Jasch

Smart Businesses Flourish in Summer

‘Summertime and the living is easy,” wrote Ira Gershwin, in 1943. But that was another century. In today’s world, there is no summer slowdown. If you aren’t doing business in the summer, you won’t be in business, say several area businesspeople.

In today’s global market there is no such thing as a summer slowdown, says Katherine Kish, president of Market Entry, a Cranbury-based strategic marketing firm. If you are doing business overseas, “when it’s our summer, it’s their winter,” she says. Different cultures have different traditional holidays and slow times that you must be aware of. If you’re doing business in Europe and Asia, your business might slow during the summer months, but it doesn’t stop.

“There was a time when a business could shutter its doors from mid-June until after Labor Day, but not anymore,” Kish says. “In today’s world of Palm Pilots and cell phones, people want to stay connected, even when they are at the beach.”

Kish has owned her company for over 25 years and has corporate experience in marketing and strategy with NBC, Harcourt Brace, and Singer. She opened Market Entry in 1982 after realizing, she says, “that in the days of the glass ceiling, if I ever wanted to run a company I had to start it myself.”

“We aren’t a traditional ad agency,” she says. “We are an advice firm. We focus on how a company thinks about launching a new product or services, or rebranding itself.” Her clients vary from corporations to universities to private practices. She is active in the Princeton Chamber and is co-executive director of Einstein’s Alley, the central New Jersey business advocacy group.

Best kept secret. Summer marketing is “the best kept secret,” says Kish, because so many companies do not market in the summer. “If you’re the only one sending a postcard you’ll be noticed.” Summer is a great time to experiment, she adds. “If you haven’t tried an E-mail campaign, do it now. If you haven’t tried telephone marketing, try it in the summer.”

Something new and different will not only catch your customer’s eye, but will have the added advantage of keeping your focus on your business on those days when you would rather be at the beach. “A fun, clever promotion will make you feel on top of things,” says Kish. “Give a free ringtone to new customers. Add music to your marketing. If it doesn’t work, just like summer, it doesn’t last forever.”

Go with the summer flow. Yes, from June through August scheduling is more complex, says Todd Royer, of DiscoveryTech, a Montgomery Township-based technical recruiting company. Royer has been in the business of recruiting employees for pharmaceutical, bio-tech, and IT corporations for over 15 years, the last five as the owner of his own company.

“People are away on vacations, schedules are pieced together, and business will be more strung out. It may take longer to accomplish something,” he says. The best way to maintain your momentum is to acknowledge it and work with it, he says. “Set up interviews in advance. Be proactive, always ask when someone will be on vacation. Don’t act as if things aren’t going to slow down.” In the corporate world, the summer quarter might not be as active as the spring, “but business still goes on.”

Royer consults, speaks, and writes on personal value and growth in career development. His weekly online newsletter can be found at ToddRoyerWriting.com. He is currently completing an E-book on the subject which will be available through his website in June.

Learn something new. Keeping up with your industry is one of the most important things in developing a career, says Royer. Summertime can be a great time to do that. If business slows down, or you take a vacation, use the time to learn something new. “Look at what other companies in your field are doing,” he says. “Learn about a new technology.”

Take the time to learn about something in your field that is not directly related to your day-to-day duties, he advises. With the Internet, research that used to take days or require you to attend a class or seminar can be done at home. Using a few hours of vacation time to learn something new will make you fresher when you return to the office.

Plan ahead. For Marsha Stoltman, summer may be a traditionally slow time in her business, but that doesn’t mean that she stops working. As a corporate event planner, summer is the time of year she uses for strategic planning and building relationships.

Stoltman founded her firm, the Stoltman Group, six years ago. Her company focuses on “the soup to nuts of planning events, from coming up with a concept, to the budget and timeline, the location, food, decorating, and marketing,” she says. Her clients include both corporations and non-profit organizations.

While there are fewer actual events held in the summer, now is the time when many businesses begin to plan for the fall, and even the holiday season. That means that the summertime, for Stoltman, is a great time for business development, marketing her services to new and former clients.

Develop relationships. She also uses the summer to meet with the vendors she works with in a more relaxed way. “I can sit down with someone from a hotel or catering company and talk about how we can better do business together,” she says.

Don’t stop networking. There may be fewer networking events in the summertime, but they are out there. In fact, Stoltman says that summer is an excellent time to network, because of the type of events offered. Instead of formal lunches and dinners with guest speakers, organizations such as the chambers of commerce are more likely to hold golf outings or other informal parties, giving people a chance to get to know each other in new and different ways.

And, she says, if you can’t find enough events, create one of your own. The summer is a good time to thank clients or referral partners with a picnic or other party.

Stoltman didn’t start her career as an event planner. She worked in marketing and business development for a number of years, then moved to the Kelsey Group, a Princeton-based company, where she managed conferences and seminars, and found that event planning was a perfect fit. “I’m an organized, detail-oriented person,” she says. “I love the process of planning anything.”

She moved from the Kelsey Group to become vice president and general manager of Editor and Publisher, the trade organization for the newspaper industry, and “turned entrepreneur,” opening her own company in 2001.

Her best advice for keeping up that summertime momentum? Remember that no matter what the season, “every day is still a business day.”

— Karen Hodges MillerThe Art of Writing a Killer Resume

Few pieces of paper are the object of more myth and mystery than the simple resume. A sea of conflicting advice and supposed “rules” surrounds this personal sales tool. Every bookstore and library devotes several feet of shelf space to book on writing the perfect resume. Job hunters pin all of their hopes on this one piece of paper. The problem is that we are trying to second guess an unseen audience who literally holds the power of the next paycheck — and with it the next mortgage payment, car payment, and sack of groceries — in its hands.

In the face of all the anxiety and shopworn advice, Ellen Judson, founder of Resumes to Go (609-799-0431), sets down some flexible guidelines. Judson works with private clients and frequently teaches a course on resumes and cover letters at Mercer County Community College.

Judson grew up in Westchester, New York, the daughter of two CPAs. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English and communications from the University of Pennsylvania (Class of 1987) and an MBA from Columbia in marketing and management.

“I’ve always loved doing all kinds of writing, and I just happen to be one of those people who can spot a typo a mile away,” she says. Throughout her career she has done public relations writing for a number of corporations and has worked in marketing for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and Unilever.

In her second business, Peer Poetry, Judson writes customized poetry for special occasions. As laureate incognito, she talks to a client, usually over the phone, gets the family history, writes the rhyme, and then, the client can whip out a specialized poem for his parents on their golden wedding anniversary.

New media, the kinds of employment offered, what employers want to see, everything about resume sending has expanded. The little job histories can travel via snail-mail or E-mail, or can be personally delivered. Each option has advantages in specific situations.

Thanks to word processors, tweaking a basic resume to fit each company is now easy — and strongly advised. Judson says that turning out the perfect resume is merely a matter of knowing the about all of the acceptable presentation styles, and selecting the best one for each situation.

Cover letters. “The resume is about you, but the cover letter is about them,” says Judson. “You’ve got two to four paragraphs to show what you can do for them.” So the cover letter has to be powerful, memorable, short, and sweet. Probably the worst, and also the most common, opening for cover letters is “I am writing to apply for the position of…” You can almost envision yawns this less-than-riveting sentence brings.

Even though the letter is about the company to whom the cover letter is addressed, using the personal pronoun is acceptable: “With MY skills in this and that… I can help you.” is fine. In the resume itself, however, you want to present your skills and experience in a pithy, non self-laudatory form, so avoid using “I.”

Applicants typically write two types of cover letters. The solicited letter is responding to some posted job. Here, you have to powerfully match your skills to what is called for, and you have to do so in a few short sentences, without overkill.

Second — and tougher letter — is the prospect cover letter. No specific job has been listed, rather the applicant is bidding to be considered by the company. In this letter, the applicant must leave something personal and memorable about himself in the reader’s mind. “This one takes a lot more creativity,” says Judson. You have to know the company and its products or projects very well, and you have to be genuinely convinced that you will be able to make an important contribution.

Whether responding to an ad or letting a company know that you are just the person to round out their staff, remember that if you send your cover letter electronically, the shorter-is-better rule is especially important. You don’t want to force the reader to scroll down, and most screens do not encompass a full 11-inch page.

Chronological resumes. This is the old standby format used since our grandparents were looking for work. It lists in reverse every position with accompanying dates, going back to education, which is outlined in the same descending order. For some people, this historical record is still the best approach.

If you have been a marine biologist pursuing an increasingly narrower specialty, or if you have been a salesperson for the past 20 years, and are looking for another sales job, this is your best resume style.

But a chronological resume could be a poor choice if for anyone who has done a good deal of job hopping and changed fields a few times. People with major gaps in their employment, or with very short work histories, will not be shown in their best light in a chronological resume, but neither will people with 25 years in the accounting sector of a mega-corporation.

The applicant who has had a meteoric rise, and wants to show it with this style, should remember to emphasize his accomplishments by giving each the right amount of space. Educational history should be listed minimally, with the most ink going to the professional career — and particularly the most recent job.

If there are gaps in the work history, remember the magic word “sabbatical.” You may have gone to Greece, wandering the ruins and beaches just to get your head straight, but mentioning that you had a specific purpose for the break, preferably recorded in a journal, makes you sound more directed.

Functional resume. As employees leap from company to company and change careers with abandon, they are best represented by a record of their accumulated skills.

Such a resume lists individually the groups of skills the applicant has acquired. In each section the specific positions and employers are listed as contributors to the whole skill heading, sales for example.

Many employers prefer functional resumes because they are searching beyond traditional categories in hopes of getting top employees. They care less about where and when you picked up your managerial, marketing, and technical expertise, than that you have each in abundance.

Also, it is no longer the accepted wisdom that the best employee is the one who has had his nose to the grindstone unrelentingly since college.

With the functional resume, individualization is the key. Read the job listing, do a little research, and find the prime skills this job demands. Then tweak your skill presentations and list them in an order that matches this employer’s needs.

Five years ago, one of New Jersey’s largest city libraries put a former supermarket manager on its short list for assistant director. He knew nothing about libraries, but he presented his managerial, marketing, and display skills so well that they were eager to interview him.

Cyber applications. “Over 95 percent of all resumes today go out electronically,” says Judson. “It’s easier to individualize, faster, and demanded.” The same writing rules apply, but Judson offers several format caveats.

First, avoid fancy fonts. Often they cannot be read by the receiving computer, or they will be substituted for a more recognizable type anyway. Send the resume as a simple attached file, not a PDF or some method that’s harder for the computer to ingest. And before E-mailing the resume to the company, send a test copy to a friend, and have him look at it on screen, and print it out.

Many resumes now are electronically pre-scanned. The computer looks for certain buzzwords and makes the first cut accordingly. So be prepared. Make sure your topic headings and topmost sections are abundantly laced with the words in the job listing.

On the matter of length, remember brevity is the soul of wit and is also the best way to write a resume. If you are young and just starting out, keep it to one page. If your career is longer, go on to two pages, but don’t use just three lines of a second page.

These guidelines also apply to electronic submissions, since most resumes will be printed out.

In all resumes, consider that you are a person, not a position. Assess yourself, and try to work in those unique interests that make you a fascinating, valuable hire. And finally, remember that you only get one life. Never send your resume out to land a job that you really would not enjoy.

— Bart Jackson

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