Rockin’ References: Getting References That Make a Difference


Recruiting is inherently a risky business because you are dealing with an unstable product – people.Though we try to reduce risk with a thorough interview process, it is still an imperfect science . Resumes, at least the good ones, highlight successes and minimize negative experiences; According to Paul Croteau, up to 30 percent  of resumes contain exaggerated information. Most executive level candidates are also good at marketing themselves in personal meetings, one-on-one and panel interviews. Meetings over meals can help assess professional and social skills as well as cultural fit. But when all the interviews are over, the question remains, “What don’t we know?” 

Background checks confirm candidates completed the degrees listed on the resume and ensure there isn’t a criminal record, bad credit, or other potential risks to the company.  Now, for the references.  Every prospective employer or executive search firm  asks top candidates for references, or at least they should.  But, given that these references are selected by candidates they, presumably, have only good things to say. So are their comments really useful or should they be taken with a grain of salt?  While skepticism is a useful tool, I believe there is actually much to gain from these chosen advocates.  Part of it is in the questions asked and part of it is in the listening.  It’s not always what they say as much as what they don’t say.

1.  Who is included as a reference? It is sometimes more telling who candidates don’t list as a reference as who they do list. References should include managers to whom the candidates have reported (directly or indirectly), peers, possibly external clients (especially for consultants who spend more time with clients than their own managers) and people on their team.  Make sure you know who these people are, when they worked together, and the role they played in the candidate’s career.  Ask who the candidate reported to in their last position.  If they hesitate, probe about the circumstances and ask if that person could be included.  If they resist, take note.

2.  Focus on the negative. Entrepreneur Josh Hannah recommends largely devaluing positive information (extreme referencing) and looking for negative information.  While I believe Hannah’s position is indeed “extreme,”   he makes a valid point, although it doesn’t mean that some of the positive attributes shared aren’t true or valuable. Asking directly for weaknesses can make people very uncomfortable.  Instead, ask for examples of how the candidate has grown professionally and you might discover whether they strive to improve and if they learn from mentoring and constructive criticism.  Maybe Sally used to have difficulty working in matrixed environments with competing demands, but with conscious effort is now a master of making things happen through influence.  But maybe Sally hasn’t changed at all, which is also good information to have. Beware of the reference who says the candidate has no weaknesses. He either doesn’t know them or is not being honest.

3.  Delve into the candidate’s interpersonal style.  How did they interface with the management team, peers, and their team?  Were they respected and sought out or were they typically on the sidelines?  How someone treats their team is just as important as how they communicate upward.  If their teams don’t like them and won’t follow them, they’ll quickly prove ineffective when they can’t get anything done. Every position, including even individual contributor roles, requires some level of teamwork and collaboration.  How well does this person work with others, especially those with conflicting interests and viewpoints?

4.  How do they handle stress?  We all handle stress differently. Some become quiet and intense. Others become controlling, dogmatic and in some cases rude and unprofessional.  Many candidates  not under stress might be a good fit for your company, but when under pressure, would be the kiss of death. Understand how your company as a whole operates under pressure and do your due diligence to make sure the executives you hire operate within those parameters.

5.  Cultural fit. Most executives  who fail in a new organization do so because of  poor cultural fit, not technical skills.  Is the candidate a self-directed, take charge type of person? Sounds great unless the company that is considering him is one that makes decisions slowly and collaboratively. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh touts the online shoe and apparel shop’s two-part hiring process that focuses on cultural fit and Zappos’ success supports the value of this process. Ask what type of culture will mesh well with the candidate’s style. If a candidate is not a cultural fit, she is not a fit.

6.  Dig deeper. Although it requires more effort, explore other avenues to learn about candidates without compromising their integrity or sacrificing confidentiality. LinkedIn can be a helpful resource, especially to match past work history with the information shared with you and to possibly uncover other potential connections  that you and the candidate have in common.  For public CEO candidates, Yahoo! or other investor message boards can offer additional insight into how the CEO is perceived by investors and employees. And always check Google.

7.  The hardest part: be prepared to walk away.  If you hear anything that makes you uneasy, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it, be willing to start over with another candidate.  It can be painful for everyone involved, but in the end it may be a lifesaver – or a career saver.  After all, your success, as well as the success of your organization may rest on getting this right.






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