Done well the reference process not only validates a candidate’s suitability, but also provides the basis for an effective induction.

I have taken in excess of 3,000 references.

Done well the reference process not only validates a candidate’s suitability for employment (or otherwise), but also provides valuable insight and data to ensure an effective and tailored induction program, and supports the delivery of an executive development program – helping ensure the appointment is a success for both the client and the candidate. Done poorly a reference is nothing more than an empty conversation that wastes the time of both the referee and the head-hunter.


I explain to all my candidates at the start of the interview process that should we reach offer stage, I will reference comprehensively. I confirm I will seek validation of the candidate’s track record of delivery, referenced in the interview and by the candidate on their CV. I particularly focus upon qualified outcomes and deliverables. I also seek observations on leadership style, behaviours, attributes and values. I typically seek a minimum of 30 minutes with no less than 4/5 referees. I request at least two direct reports and two people the candidate has worked directly for. When taking references I explain to the referees that their observations are anonymous in that I do not reference them by name when sharing reference details with my client – but confirm I have spoken with a number of the candidates ex-colleagues and they have communicated the following to me.

Ensure the reference is specific to the role and business objectives to be delivered by the appointed candidate

It is crucial the reference validates ‘fit’ and suitability to the specific requirements of the role and expected performance outcomes for the appointed candidate. It’s at this stage that I validate with referees the examples provided by my candidate at interview around track record of delivery and referenced outcomes, and explore the candidate’s method and process for achieving performance improvement. For example, I provide situations presented to me at interview and ask the referee (ex-colleague) to confirm/ comment on quoted achievements. With all my references I seek referees observations on my candidates leadership capability, performance management, people development, change experience, legacy and track record of delivery and relationship / stakeholder management skills. I find it valuable to understand the referees views on leadership preferences, the candidates commitment to employee well-being and safety, communication style, his/her ability to set direction and clarity of purpose, employee alignment and engagement skills……all of this specific to my client needs.

Professional development and induction support

A good reference identifies a candidate’s weaknesses, as well as strengths in relation to to my client’s role requirements and company needs. A discussion around perceived areas of development and required support – specific to the role and business you are recruiting for are essential when taking a good reference. No one is perfect and everyone can benefit from constructive criticism and professional development. I always ask referees to share with me the areas of professional development they believe are specific to the candidate being referenced for the role they are being considered for. I explain that such insight will help my client ensure they offer the support needed to ensure my candidates transition to a new role and business is as smooth as possible. Observations are wide-ranging and referees often initially avoid remarking specifically about the candidates perceived weaknesses, – preferring to comment on environmental factors that may affect success, like the need to ensure Board sponsorship, the need for stakeholder and business preparedness for change and commitment of the investors and owners to support and ‘back’ the incoming executive. My experience suggests it’s important to be clear to the referee that you are seeking opportunities for development for the candidate and I find the best way to do this is to make an observation based on my own interview with the candidate – I may say that at interview he/she initially presents as a little understated, perhaps considered, rather than charismatic – is this in your opinion a fair observation, what do you think? Comments and observations again range, but can include – ‘the candidate could benefit from working with a strong CFO’; ‘he/she may have a tendency to on occasions be very forthright and direct’…..


I always ask the referee if he/she was surprised that the candidate left their organisation. This gives an opportunity to explore reasons and motivations for career change.

I always ask the referee if they had the opportunity to work with the candidate again, would they choose to do so.

I describe to every referee the career opportunity (without disclosing my clients name) and focus upon the role purpose and expected outcomes. I then ask the referee if they would or would not endorse the candidate’s suitability for appointment.

A good reference is an honest appraisal of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses against the core role requirements and business needs of the client.

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