Most executives line up their top references with such confidence that they just assume that those recommendations will be sterling. That may well be the case, but why risk a slip of someone else’s tongue? The use of online recommendations on sites such as LinkedIn makes the importance of soliciting, influencing and managing your references all the more critical.

At the minimum, references provide a testimonial to your credentials, reputation and accomplishments. Most of the time, we stop there. However, the strategic use of references can assist in moving an executive up to a new challenge, across business sectors and towards an even more dramatic career change. The strategic use of references is now complicated by online social networking sites, as well as personal blogs and websites. These new areas provide high visibility to online recommendations and comments - now what others say about you online has as much or more bearing and influence on hiring decisions.

Let’s look at some ideas for determining your references, and the tactics available to pursue, acquire and deploy them. Keep in mind that more is better when it comes to references nowadays. Search consultants and hiring managers will go far beyond the references you provide to find out information about your background. They will pursue other people who may have known you. Make it easy for them while doing as much as you possibly can to control the access and messages they receive.

Determining References

  • Compile a list of all the potential people who could speak to your qualifications over the course of your work and professional life. References are no longer limited to people you have worked for and those who have worked for you - they expand to include all your circles of influence. Some of your best references may be individuals that you have directly worked with.
  • Evaluate and categorize your list by companies, organizations and professional connections. Include individuals that you know through your professional participation on boards, associations and other professional groups.
  • Within those categories, determine the strength of the reference in terms of their knowledge of you, their status and their relevance to your current search or career goals.
  • Finally, sort them by level. This relates back to status as you will want a mix of high profile/high ranking individuals as well as individual contributors.
  • Determine a final list in rank order of best potentials in groups of ten, prioritizing each group. Yes, you will want to have as many references as possible beyond the core top ten. Remember, your references will no longer be a list of people you provide to a search firm or hiring entity. Instead it includes everything mentioned about you online that is within your purview to control.

Pursuing and Acquiring References Online and Offline

  • Using your compiled lists, pursue the low hanging fruit first regardless of how high a ranking they have. They are quick and easy to get and will quickly co-operate with any request you make of them, including writing up a letter of reference, speaking to your abilities and making a recommendation on LinkedIn.
  • If you have been out of touch for awhile, make your approach gradually regardless of their affinity for you. They have a snapshot of you in time that has not changed, but you have. It important to reintroduce yourself in a way that enables them to apply their previous experience of you as relevant to your current situation.
  • Use all avenues, especially LinkedIn, to identify and find people. LinkedIn actually has a references tab in their ‘Find People’ section. It allows you to search people by companies by a range of dates. This helps jog your memory for people you may have forgotten.
  • Access your network to inquire about connections that may have slipped your mind and therefore your list.
  • Approach your potential references with an abbreviated elevator pitch targeted to your current job focus. Bring them up to date on your career goals and current employment status.
  • Listen to their reactions and ensure that you have implanted an accurate and positive image of your status. This starts the process (especially with the top ten) of getting them to speak to your qualifications exactly the way you want.
  • Ask them directly to be a reference being specific as to what part of your experience you would like them to speak about. Whether you plan to use them as a top ten core reference or not, you will want a long list of testimonials. For those individuals in the lower ranked lists, immediately enlist a recommendation on LinkedIn.
  • To help coerce or encourage LinkedIn connections to write recommendations, write one for them first. LinkedIn will help guilt them into responding with a reference for you in return.
  • An advanced avenue to capture indirect references online are the complimentary comments written on your blog postings. Capture these and include with selected blog postings at BlueSteps as links in your 'Portfolio'.
  • For difficult and undependable references, it is important to get their thoughts in writing or on LinkedIn. If someone does contact them in person, their written words will have preceded them which they will have difficulty negating or refuting.
  • Never take a less then optimum reference in your top ten. It will do you no good and may certainly be to your detriment regardless of their status, importance in your reporting to them, or relevance to your career goals. This is why you should have a list of at least 25 references primed and ready to go.

Deploying Your References

  • The best thing to do with references and recommendations is to cross-pollinate them across all platforms. The more views that people have of the comments about you, the better.
  • Put your LinkedIn address on the top of your resume to enable easy access to all your recommendations.
  • Add your LinkedIn address to your professional business card as well. This enables potential employers to view not just your credentials, but what others are saying about you.
  • Copy LinkedIn recommendations to your executive website. Without going into an argument about the need for a website, needless to say excerpts and quotes that testify to your thought leadership and accomplishments are a given category on the site. The same goes for the 'About' page on your blog, where you can embellish your biography with extracts from longer references.

Final Thoughts

It is critically important to alert all references, both online and on paper, that they may be contacted. If you have a specific position in mind, be sure to send the top ten the job description as well. Give all references, as appropriate, a copy of your most current resume for their reference. It may also be helpful to review it with your top ten list.

When you have successfully made a career change, let them all know of the good news with your profuse thank you. Be sure to keep in touch periodically with all your references as they are your core network. When you need them next time, it will be easier to activate their support and assistance. Assimilate new references into your lists, your LinkedIn profile, your website and blog ongoing.


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