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Strategies to Maximize the Impact of Your Job References

Let’s say you’re in the running for a coveted C-suite position at a company for which you’ve always wanted to work. You’ve passed the initial interviews with flying colors, and now it’s down to the wire. At this stage, your job references aren’t merely formalities—they’re your professional champions, vouching for your skills, work ethic, and achievements. Here’s how to strategically select and prep your references to make a good impression and a lasting impact.

Choosing the Right References

Who knows your professional life best and also carries weight in your field? Most people immediately default to their former bosses—a strategy that works well if you have a good relationship with them—but you should also think outside the box (LinkedIn):

  •         Clients or customers can speak to your professionalism and ability to manage expectations and deliver results.
  •         Mentors or industry advisors know not only your skills and achievements, but also your growth, potential, and commitment.
  •         Collaborators from other departments can offer a unique perspective on your ability to work cross-functionally, manage diverse teams, or handle multi-disciplinary projects.
  •         Subordinates or direct reports can attest to your ability to develop talent, delegate effectively, and promote a positive culture.
  •         Professional associations or board members can provide insights into your leadership, strategic thinking, and contributions to the field beyond your day-to-day job.

Prep Your References

Here’s a pro tip: Don’t simply list your references and think your job is done. Once you’ve picked your champions, give them a heads-up. First and foremost, make sure you ask them if they’re willing to be listed as a reference. Once they give you the thumbs-up, President of Career Strategies, Priscilla Claman says, “Give them a framework. Tell them why you believe the company wants to hire you and how you are likely to be useful […] so they can reinforce that” (Harvard Business Review).  Discuss the specific job you’re going after and highlight relevant projects or achievements especially. This way, when they’re called upon, your references can provide targeted and compelling information that aligns perfectly with the role you want.

Tailor References to the Job

In his book  Knock ’em Dead Hiring the Best: Proven Tactics for Successful Employee Selection, career coach Martin Yate recommends you adjust your reference list to fit the job description for each application. For instance, suppose you’re applying for a senior strategic planner position at a large consulting firm. The job description calls for innovative strategic thinking, complex problem-solving, and the capacity to lead large-scale projects. When selecting references in this case, you might consider a former project leader who supervised you during a major project, a senior executive who can attest to your strategic thinking skills in a broader organizational context, and possibly even a high-profile client who benefited directly from your strategic advice or consulting services.

Consider Letters of Recommendation

Sometimes, a good word can come in the form of a letter, especially if it’s from someone prominent in your industry who’s often too busy to take calls. A specific, articulate letter of recommendation can have a powerful effect, providing a permanent endorsement of your capabilities. Hiring manager Lisa Quast says, “Try to obtain three to five letters of recommendation—and use these to differentiate yourself from the other job candidates” (Forbes).

Show Appreciation

Always thank your references. A quick email, a phone call, or even a handwritten note goes a long way. It keeps your professional relationship warm and appreciative, ensuring these people will be there for you in the future as well, should you need them.

Update Your References Regularly

Your career will evolve, and so should your references. Make it a point to review and update your list periodically. New roles might benefit from new advocates (see the section about tailoring your references to the job). You want to make sure your references always add relevant value to your applications.

Use Your References Strategically During Interviews

Before even supplying your reference list, you can strategically drop names during the interview process. For example, if you know your prospective employer admires a CEO with whom you’ve worked, mention how that person influenced your career path or management style to create a connection and add an extra layer of credibility to your application. However, you must be very careful to do so tactfully and only in the right contexts. Read here for a good list of helpful do’s and don’ts regarding name-dropping.

Well-chosen and prepared references can be a decisive factor in your job search. They do more than verify your resume—they illuminate your past achievements and potential future success. By choosing the right people, keeping them informed, and showing your appreciation, you turn your references into a powerful part of your career advancement strategy. Think of them as part of your team, playing an important role in landing you that dream executive position.

By Octavio Lepe

By Octavio Lepe

Executive Vice-President

Octavio is the search practice leader for Executive Management, Food & Agriculture, Sales & Marketing, and D&I in the Americas.

Barbachano International is the premier executive search and leadership advisory firm in the Americas (USA, Mexico, Canada, and Latin America) with a focus on diversity and multicultural target markets.  Outplacement, Executive Coaching and Onboarding services are provided by our sister allied company Challenger Gray & Christmas. BIP has been recognized by Forbes as Americas’ Best Executive Search Firms for 8 consecutive years and currently ranks #10 and #3 on the West Coast.  




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