5 Advanced Ways to Check References

TelephoneDo you remember that amazing scene in the movie when the lead character picks up the telephone to conduct the candidate’s references and all hell breaks loose?  No?  Me neither.  Unless Aaron Sorkin had written the script, it would be tedious to watch.  Yet reference checking is one of more “boring but important” parts of hiring well.  While many of us know that we should be doing it better, it is tempting to outsource it to some friendly but lowly person in the depths of the HR department.  In fact should we even bother doing references anymore?

 Many CEOs seem to be giving up on the idea.  Recently on a rainy afternoon in Baltimore I was speaking at a Private Equity conference on leadership and I mentioned that if you were about to make a key hire it was worth putting in some reference calls.  “That’s crap”, one of the audience members called out.  It was a CEO who argued that these days you only tend to hear positive things from former bosses.  Or HR will stonewall you by only providing employment dates.  Employers are loathe to bad mouth their former teammates even if they are thrilled never to have to see them again.  So what can we do?

Building on the approach outlined in Geoff Smart and Randy Street’s book Who: The A Method for Hiring, here are five approaches that we use at ghSMART to help you find out who the candidate really is:

1. Speak to the right people.  It amazing to us how many people who only plan to speak with the two references that the candidate has provided.  Guess what?  Those two former colleagues are going to sing their praises no matter what you ask.  Instead our best clients speak with 6-8 people (more people the more senior the hire).  These can include former bosses, peers, customers, suppliers, clients, direct reports…whoever will have a good perspective on what the candidate did well and where they struggled.  During the screening and selection interviews our clients find out the right people by asking for their names for each prior job / role the candidate has had.  Then they get the candidate to do the work of connecting you to the right person via email.  What if the candidate says you cannot speak with their current boss?  That’s very common.  Well who is their mentor or someone who has left the company who you can speak with?  Almost always an A player candidate will find creative ways to get you to speak with the right person.

2. Ask better questions.  Most people conducting references ask surface level questions and are rewarded with generic, warm answers.  Once you are told, “I really can’t think of anything he struggled at” we don’t know what to ask so we move on.  We encourage our clients to probe equally on strengths and potential risk areas.  Here are some ways you can really dig deep:

• How would you rate ______’s performance in that role on a scale of 1-10?  [listen for 8s, 9s & 10s].  What makes you say that?  What would have made it a 10?

• What are the skills that s/he was still developing at that time in their career (hadn’t yet perfected at that point?)

• Thinking back to the best [bosses, direct reports, peers] you’ve ever had, what skill / attribute would help most for this person to pick up?

• What do you wish ________ had more awareness of?

• What about his/her style could rub others the wrong way?

• If you were assembling a great team that included _____. Who else would you put on the team and what strengths do they have that complement ______?  [you then have to listen hard for the implied weaknesses / risks in the candidate]

3. Agree on what the big risks are.  Each of us has things that we are great at and things we suck at.  We are human and no one excels on all fronts.  When we are helping boards select CEOs on global multi-nationals even the most experienced CEOs have 3-5 meaningful weaknesses that the board needs to weigh carefully.  If you don’t know what the candidates’ risks, then you have not uncovered them yet.  Knowing their weaknesses and risks does not mean you can’t hire them, it just means you can be forewarned on what the issues are.  As the President of a large US Non-Profit told me recently, “all the warning signs came out in the references, we just didn’t listen to what we were hearing. And we have been living with our hiring mistake for the last 9 months, it’s awful.

4. Use other channels.  We see companies getting more creative on using their personal and professional networks to conduct references.  A number of prestigious Private Equity companies that we work with hire investigative journalists from the FT, Wall Street Journal & New York Times to dig into the reputations of particular candidates.  You may not be able to afford that but you can at least Google them extensively – you may be delighted or horrified at what you find.  Hiring a Chief Marketing Officer who gets into public arguments on Twitter attacking customers?  Hiring a senior sales leader who has <30 LinkedIn connections?  Hiring a CEO has low approval ratings on Glassdoor.com?  Maybe this is important to you, maybe not – but at least you should know. 

5. Create the onboarding plan now.  Most people write the onboarding plan for a new employee the week beforehand.  It normally involves lunches with team members and a few meet & greets.  The plans tend to be ill though through and only last a few weeks at best.  Instead we strongly recommend incorporating all the insights from the reference and interview process at the time.  If you learn that the candidate operates best with extremely clear goals but suffers from tunnel vision, then figure out what you intend to do about that.  If they lack industry context, then consider who could mentor them.  If they struggle to have difficult conversations with underperformers then plan to insert yourself in the annual talent review process.

When applying for my current role, the founder Geoff Smart personally interviewed me for four hours about my career to date.  Yes, that’s right, four hours.  At the end he shared that his teams needed to do 8-10 references.  The list included specific clients I had worked with at Bain, two direct reports, and four former bosses including the first consultant I had worked for ten years previously.  At the time I thought it was ridiculous.  While it wouldn’t make an exciting Hollywood movie, I now can’t imagine any other way.

Geoff Smart, Randy Street & Alan are publishing their new book, Power Score in June 2015.  You can pre-order it here.
Follow Alan at @alanvfoster
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