Many people think of their list of references as an afterthought, something employers look at only after you dazzle them with your killer resume and stunning interview skills. But references can actually help you get your foot in the door, if they carry enough weight.
Big names and impressive titles can grab the attention of potential employers. Most industries are incestuous—everyone knows someone who knows someone. So, with the right names in the right positions, your references can be the key to landing an interview at your dream job. Here are a few tips to find and cultivate some impressive references.
1. Network, Network, Network
Finding great references is like dating: you have to wade through an endless pool of candidates to find the cream of the crop. Everyone in your line of work is a potential reference. But that doesn’t mean you have to solicit every single colleague. Do your research. Find out who the big names in your career field are and where they work. Pinpoint the names that could help your career (even if they are in your own office) and focus on networking with them.
Tips: Bring business cards along to any networking event. Find out what networking events the big names in your field attend. Be aggressive. Most high rollers in your field probably don’t like being accosted at random events or being solicited by random email, but give them a reason to stop and listen.
2. Choose a Few Mentors
Once you’ve made contact with your desired references, it’s time to give them a reason to recommend you. Beyond the benefit of being linked to these names, these people are a goldmine of information about your field. Ask them to mentor you, to give you advice on your career and how you can get ahead. This will not only link you to them, but also showcase your ambition and eagerness to grow.
Tips: Make it all about them. Just by asking them to be your mentor, you are stroking their ego. Pinpoint skills that you know they have a wealth of knowledge in and ask specific questions about those. It’s all about making them feel important and connected to you. If they are invested in you, they will be more likely to help advance your career.
3. Cultivate Your Contacts
Don’t let the initial contact be the only correspondence between you and your desired references. One face-to-face meeting and an email don’t give them enough material to recommend you to a future employer. Make sure you are emailing or calling your contacts at least once a month. It will keep you fresh in their minds, and hopefully spark some discussions that will give them a better idea of your skills.
Tips: Not sure when is a good time to contact your desired references? Try when you’ve accomplished something substantial at work. And bonus points if you can work in how their advice helped you achieve your goal, such as “Thanks for the advice you gave me, it helped me launch this project, which was hugely successful.” This will also give them specific examples to pass along to future employers.
4. Cover Your Bases
In most career paths, there are a multitude of facets to each job. Make sure each of your references can speak to the different parts of your job description. If all of your references speak to one skill set, the employer might think you are a one-trick pony. Your references should be able to cover and corroborate all the skills that you plan on covering in your resume and interview.
Tips: Pick three references that have three completely different backgrounds. Make sure that each can speak to a different one of your skill-sets. Cover a range of companies and manager levels. The more eclectic and diverse your references are, the more you are presented as a well-rounded employee.
5. Successful Doesn’t Equal Articulate
The CEO of a competing company could be an outstanding reference to grab future employers’ attention, but if that CEO doesn’t know you well enough or isn’t articulate enough to talk up your skills, then they are worthless as a reference. References who give one-word answers or ramble incoherently are not solid references. They need to sell you, as if they were interviewing for the job themselves.
Tips: If you are unsure of your references speaking abilities, make contact with them on the phone or in person as much as possible. Ask questions that require well thought out and informed answers. Discuss projects you are working on and success you’ve had, so they can give details if asked. Make sure they are intelligent and well-spoken, which will in turn look good on you.
By Jeff Hindenach for Excelle