Anyone in a leadership position needs to master the art of writing a superb letter of recognition. After all, we are in positions to develop others. I’ve seen over and over that the best and most successful leaders are committed to the success of those they’ve mentored, taught or worked with side-by-side.
I’ll first say, however, that you do not have to write a recommendation letter for everyone who asks. If you cannot recommend them, let them know you are unavailable to write a letter. Though I enjoy writing fiction, myself, I wouldn’t try to pass my fiction as truth, and a letter of recommendation is supposed to be true. Moreover, if I did agree to writing letters of recommendation for people I wouldn’t recommend, it would destroy my reputation. It also might be that I simply don’t know this person well enough or observed them long enough to write a thoughtful letter. In this case, be honest with the person and let them know these reasons. Tell them it wouldn’t benefit them to have a letter from you.
If you do decide to recommend someone, take it to heart, and follow the steps below to get the best results:
Ask the “asker” for more information. Find out what they need the letter for—that way you can focus the letter on the desired result. It might be for a certain position, school or even a scholarship. Also, have them write a brief bio for you, so you can include salient details about their experience. Also, make note of how long you have known the person and in what capacity.
First paragraph. State what you are doing, who you are writing the letter for, who you are (credibility) and how long you’ve known the person and in what capacity. Make one general statement on why the person should achieve the desired goal.
Dear Selection Committee:
I am writing to highly recommend FIRST AND LAST NAME for the position of executive chef at BUSINESS. As YOUR POSITION for YOUR COMPANY, I have had the opportunity to supervise FIRST NAME for the past five years. In that time, FIRST NAME has increased profits and broadened our customer base, while also spearheading a profitable expansion into catering.
Second and third paragraphs. At this point, you want to specifically describe the person’s qualifications. Ask yourself, what value did this person add to your company via the following categories?
- Data & results
- Education, certifications, training & awards
- Skills set into action
Example: FIRST NAME developed our chef intern program, whose participants were disenfranchised youth. Through successful fundraising and developing relationships with members of the community, he was able to instruct youth toward becoming the chefs of tomorrow.
Fourth paragraph. Describe—briefly—personal qualities you have witnessed firsthand and end on an affirmative offer that you can be contacted for additional information.
Example: Furthermore, FIRST NAME’s interpersonal skills, displayed through his staff’s loyalty and high performance, are rare qualities sought after by most employers. FIRST NAME’s investment in his staff’s development and growth is clear, and he has the ability to teach and guide people through modeling behavior and identifying skill sets. FIRST NAME‘s knowledge of BLANK and skills (be specific) will undoubtedly be an asset to your business. If you need additional information about FIRST NAME, please do not hesitate to contact me.
If you use the guidelines above, you’ll have a solid first draft, which you can then shape into your letter. I caution you to avoid too much hyperbole. Sure, I added the word “undoubtedly,” but this was well placed and left until the end. If you overuse adjectives or adverbs without proper factual support, they lose their effect. Plus, the letter becomes vague and chalky, which is another thing you want to avoid.
Also, you don’t want the letter to be too short or too gassy. Readers of these letters aren’t interested in two paragraphs that sound more like greeting cards, nor do they have time to read through a seven-page declaration of your love. In addition, be wary to avoid areas in which the person has improved, focusing instead on the “now.” No one needs to know that person used to really stink but has since become one of your best employees. Focus, instead, on who the person is today.
Remember that writing letters of recommendation is necessary but not simply as a gesture of goodwill; mastering the art of recommendation letters helps build your reputation as a credible business leader who supports people along the way.