The voicemail left on my phone was all-too typical. “Mike this is Kelwin. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve applied for a few jobs and you may be getting some reference calls. Thanks for any help you can send my way. I’m really hoping one of these jobs work out.”
Limp job references, like limp handshakes, are never a way to make a decent impression. And having strong references you can provide for jobs for which you’re qualified and interested in a competitive job market is the stuff the separates new hires from almost-hired.
So how do you get great job references?
Getting the best job references possible, like a lot of things, starts upstream before the you ever need them. There are five steps, and while simple, they take time. Time that will prove valuable not just for a job reference, but throughout your career.
In my experience managing large staffing organizations at Barclays Global Investors, McKesson and Chiron Corporation, what makes for a great reference is someone who calls a recruiter back promptly, and who can talk both broadly and in specifics about candidates; people who really know the candidate being referenced. Here’s the 5 steps:
- You’ve identified people with whom you’ve worked (boss, colleagues, direct reports) that you like, can stay in touch with, and can speak articulately to your performance and abilities in roles they’ve directly observed. It’s even possible that they are part of your career network – people to whom you turn to periodically touch base regarding business and your career. These 5-8 people are folks who know you well enough to know to talk about how you’d actually do in the potential new job. In my experience running large staffing organizations, what makes for a great reference is someone who can talk both broadly and in specifics about candidates; people who really know the candidate being referenced.
- As you get deeper in the interview process – but before it’s time for references – drop potential referencers a brief line (joys of e-mail) or give them a call and tell them you’re considering (or being considered depending on your point of view) for a new job. Tell them briefly a little bit about the job and how/why you are interested in it. Ask if they have any thoughts; this is a great opportunity for feedback as in “You’re underselling yourself” or “Sounds like a great fit.” Your references – really part of the Advisory Board for You – would generally rather talk to you before you make a mistake than being your sounding board for woe after you’ve taken a job that’s a bad fit.
- When it’s time for references, give your references a heads up with a note describing (again) what the potential job is, and how/why you think you’d be a good fit. Just like talking points for public speakers, references don’t mind having in hand the things you’d like them to say about you.
- Whether you’re hired or not, circle back to your references to thank them. If you’ve taken the new role, give them new contact info, and offer to return the favor. Most of the time references feel like they’ve stepped out in the middle of the movie and have no idea how it ends; tell them the ending for this job hunt.
- Do great work in the new role. No one likes being a reference for someone who is flakey, undependable. It’s their word too – not just yours – that you’ll do well in the new role.
That’s it. Five ways you can get great job references every time you need them.
Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). J. Mike Smith is a San Franciosco-based career, executive and team coach with an international practice. More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview at WhoHub, as well as participate in a learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.