Candidates for executive leadership all have a couple of things in common.  They don’t like negative questions and they would prefer you not ask their references anything that might detract from their ability to be “sainted” in the course of winning the job.  Most candidates guard career setbacks and perceived weaknesses like a candidate referencesvery sore toe.  You can’t blame them.  It’s human nature.

It’s too bad the recruitment vetting process does not work that way.

Over the past several years as competition for the best jobs has intensified, I have seen candidates become more savvy in dealing with their strengths and weaknesses, and that is a good thing, especially since every candidate that has looked for a job has weaknesses and virtually everyone has had more than a failure or two. 

An executive who is honest and takes steps to manage those possibly negative issues in an affirmative, transparent manner, is potentially the best person for a job since those are characteristics you like to see in a leader.

The first step to constructively address potentially negative issues begins with an honest self assessment.  Begin by understanding your Value Proposition — those four or five strengths you possess than can be proven with quantifiable examples of success.  Once you understand your Value Proposition, says Dallas-based executive coach Nancy Swain, you will be a better communicator, and the candidate who does a good job communicating is usually the one who gets the job.

But the Value Proposition, by itself, is not enough. The references can be, should be, the finishing touch to help a job seeker close the deal.

While some outplacement consultants tell their clients to avoid any negative issues in an interview, lets face it, that is just not realistic.  You are going to be asked, so rather than launching in to some spin, the best response is to be prepared and be honest.  It does not have to be a negative in your story line.

The second step is to have an honest and complete conversation with your references.  Ask them to talk with you about your strengths and weaknesses and to share their insights regarding your setbacks and/or failures.  Ask questions and listen carefully.  Incorporating their advice into your answers about negative issues will enable you to provide an honest and positive response. 

If you are not prepared for those inevitable questions and your answer is extemporaneous, there is the real possibility it will be disjointed, defensive and yes, negative.

For so many candidates, the references are almost an afterthought in the search process.   That is a recipe for a setback.  References can be — should be — one of the strongest parts of your message.  Leverage their support to help you prepare at the start of the search.  At the end, their comments will come across as more relevant if they echo what you have said.

References can help you close the deal if you use them properly.

Join John tomorrow on the SelfProspective podcast.  He provides SelfPerspective Podcast with JGSP logofive tips on how to manage your references in the job search. 

SelfPerspective is distributed on our web site, LinkedIn and by iTunes.