The following blog post first appeared in July 2010.  It was one of the most popular I have written.  With leadership turnover in healthcare projected to remain between 16 and 18 percent, we felt the topic was deserving of a re-post.

Reference management.  This is a difficult issue for more executive candidates than most people realize.  Candidates assemble a panel of references. They talk to their references once, maybe twice, and then push the autopilot button.

Big mistake.

Surprisingly, candidates rarely ask their references what they might say regarding questions about “leadership strengths” or “weaknesses.”  On autopilot, they just assume their reference contact will say the right thing.

Bad mistake.

Most executives engaged in an active job search will identify three to five trusted colleagues as references. They submit those same references to five or six recruiters.  If they end up as finalists in more than one search, those references may be called four or five times.  At some point they will suffer from reference burnout. In the end, their comments will begin to drift to the realm of “damning by faint praise.”

For many candidates, reference management is hit or miss, and reference management seems to be an annoying necessity of the search process.

Dumb mistake.

Here are some things to consider:

  1. Develop a panel of 10 to 12 references so that you can rotate them.  You do not want to wear out your supporters.
  2. Stay in touch with your references.  Let them know what position you are up for, who may be calling, and when to expect a call.
  3. Keep your reference list up to date.  I once had a CEO candidate provide me with three references.  I had asked for eight.  Two of his references were no longer employed at the company where he said I could reach them. He was the favored candidate with political juice, but in the end he was eliminated.  Why?  The board was concerned by his lack of attention to detail.
  4. Communicate with your references.  The most frequently “botched” interview question is, “What are your weaknesses?”   Who better to help you craft a credible answer than your references?  This adds credibility.  There are other tough questions that references can help you answer, assuming you talk to them in advance.  Let them know that you want this job search to be a learning experience.  Most references will be very candid when you present it in that manner.
  5. Secondary references can be deadly.  If you mention the name of a colleague during an interview, that person can become what recruiters call a “secondary” reference.  He or she may not be on your reference list, but that does not mean they won’t be called. If you are going to be a name dropper, be sure they are people who will speak highly of you.
  6. Relevance and quality of the reference are critical.  If you are pursuing a CFO position, and your references cannot speak to your experience as a CFO, Controller or Director of Finance, this is not helpful.  In fact, it will become a negative.  The quality of the reference also is important.  You want to identify and use references who are articulate, up-to-date on the relevant issues, and who can enhance your candidacy. References who do not meet these tests will only compromise your career brand and your credibility with recruiters.

In trial law, young attorneys are taught to never ask a question of a witness to which they do not know the answer in advance.

The same principle applies to reference management.

Recruiters and employers see candidates who do not manage the reference phase of the search process as being sloppy, because they are responsible for giving names of people who can vouch for their abilities in a positive way.  In this competitive job search environment, the lack of attention to the very people who can help you could spell rejection.

Candidates cannot control their competition but they can be better prepared than anyone else.

© 2012 John Gregory Self