When assessing a candidate, hiring managers can often glean more insights from references than they can from the resume or even the interview.
Ensuring the most relevant and valuable information is gathered during the reference call requires careful planning, adequate preparation time, and – above all – asking the right questions of the right people.
Keep in mind what you’re trying to validate,” says Greylock executive talent partner Holly Rose Faith. “You have an intention. You’ve planned your questions out. You know what you’re trying to achieve in this call. More so, ask open-ended questions.”
Faith,who works with startups to find, recruit, and interview executive-level talent, recommends approaching the entire interview process holistically, including the reference checking. As she has discussed previously, this 360-approach means having a solid, adaptable, and repeatable system in place.
Faith joined the Greymatter podcast to discuss in detail the best practices for startup hiring managers when performing reference checks. You can listen to the podcast at the SoundCloud link below this essay, on our YouTube channel, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Planning the references portion of the process is every bit as important, says Faith, starting with understanding which questions need to be asked of which candidate.
Things to keep in mind
- Ask for references from various levels, who can speak to different aspects of the candidate’s experience.
- Provide context: Introduce yourself, your company, and the role the candidate is applying for.
- Ask questions that are open-ended and naturally provide opportunities for the reference to give qualifying examples. For instance, “You said X, Y, and Z. Could you elaborate on that further?”
- Be sure to ask questions about management abilities and interpersonal skills, which is important for any executive that you bring into a company, no matter what stage, or size of business, and position.
- Pause after asking questions, especially the tough ones.
- What are the top things that you learned from this executive?
- How did this executive complement themselves with other hires?
- How did they inspire others on the team?
- How did they help promote individuals, both from a career perspective, and from a skill perspective?
- In working with this executive, were there any consistent themes that you saw in terms of the strengths that they brought to the company and within their role?
- How did they gain trust and respect from people around them?
- How do they react under pressure?
- What would detractors say about this executive?
- How did they manage personalities not like their own?
- How did they push back on you?
- What are some of the areas of improvement that you have seen this executive take on and address, and in what ways did they address them?
- If you could provide the candidate with some confidential feedback or coaching, what would that be?
- In working with this executive, were there any consistent themes that you saw in terms of the strengths that they brought to the company and within their role?
- Would you hire or work with this person again?
- Do you think this person has reached their peak?
- Do you think that we covered all of the relevant points, or is there anything else you wish to mention that would be relevant to this executive?
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Greymatter, the podcast from Greylock, where we share stories from company builders and business leaders. I’m Heather Mack, head of editorial at Greylock.
Today I’m pleased to be joined once again by Holly Rose Faith, who runs executive recruiting at Greylock. Holly Rose works with founders to source, recruit, and hire leaders for their teams.
Last time we spoke, Holly Rose walked us through the main part of the candidate search and recruiting process. Today, we’re going to drill a bit deeper into one the most important aspects of this practice, and that’s references.
Hiring managers can learn more from references than they do from a candidate’s resume, or even the main interview. Gleaning the most helpful information from references requires solid upfront work by that hiring manager. As we learned from Holly Rose last time, it’s crucial to have a system in place to guide you through the entire recruiting process, as every bit is true for each individual stage, like reference checking.
Let’s get down to it. Holly Rose, thanks so much for being with me here again today.
Great to be here, Heather. Thanks for having me.
As we’ve discussed before, recruiting and hiring executives is a tough job for anyone. Startups, especially early stage ones, can have an even harder time for a number of reasons, including the fact that they’re just generally less experienced with conducting the whole hiring process. Where would you say reference checking lands on the list in terms of difficulty? Do you hear a lot of concerns with this aspect of the process?
I wouldn’t say that references are difficult to do. However, they just take time to make sure you’re leveraging them in a way that helps you gain insights on the executive. These may be insights that you already have and you want more data on. They may be insights that you do not already have. Specifically, the references allow you to understand the executive from others that have worked directly with them.
Where references fall flat is when founders and the hiring managers don’t take the time to do them correctly. That could be either not spending enough time with a reference, not asking the right questions, or not digging deep enough into what they’re answering to really extract the value out of them.
How should founders and hiring managers approach reference checking? Given how different each candidate and reference might be, how do you devise a repeatable system for it?
When you’re at a point where you’re going to reference an executive, it’s okay for a founder, CEO, or a hiring manager to be upfront with the executive candidate and say, “Now that we’re at the stage of referencing, I’d love to have a better understanding of individuals who worked with you, for you, and those that you reported into.”
You almost want to think about it as a 360-type review that you’re going to be doing. Once you have that information, you should certainly follow up with the executive if they only share a few references with you and you want more references. It’s more than okay to go back. You also want to make sure those references are relevant from a time period in which is more recent than from, let’s say, 15 years ago.
When you have a list of references, the first thing that you want to do is to plan in advance. I recommend building out a document where you can identify the key factors for success for the role that you’re hiring for, and then orient your questions and discussions around these topics. Carefully plan those areas to be covered in each reference call, and then tailor the topics based off of who you are speaking with.
For example, if you are speaking with a reference who was a former direct report of this executive, you’ll likely want to focus on how they were as a manager. How did they inspire others on the team? How did they help promote that individual, both from a career perspective, and from a skill perspective? Those are just a few kind of examples. You want to plan specifically for who that reference is, and then orient those questions around it.
Where are all the references coming from?
References will come directly from the executive. I advise the founder, CEO, or the hiring manager asking the executive specifically for the types of references that they want.
Do you really need to have a reference of someone who worked below them, worked alongside them, and also worked above them? What if you’re provided with references that are all at the same level?
If you’re provided with references that are all at the same level, go back to the executive and ask them for references at the levels that they did not provide you. That’s why I think upfront when you ask for references is to be specific on the type of references that you want.
Pending on a role, it may be references from outside of an organization. For sales leaders, I sometimes see companies ask for former customers of theirs, because they want to better understand that experience with that customer. Sometimes it may be asking for a reference of a third party organization that this person often works with. In marketing, it could be asking for a reference at the PR agency that they partner with.
"There's ways to be creative in order to find out information from people that have worked with them in all different parts of their job."
Now, there’s also a level of referencing in which there may be mutual connections that you have with this executive of individuals that previously worked with them. In those instances, what I have seen work well is to be candid with the executive and say, “Hey. I realize we have some mutual overlaps. I just want to be upfront, if you’re comfortable if I touch base with a few of those as well.”
The reason being is, pending the relationship of that executive, it’s likely going to get back to them that you touched base with people that they previously worked with that may not be on their reference list. Now, if you’re forthcoming about it, you’ve put it out on the table. Then, at that point, it gives the executive a chance to respond if they are or are not comfortable. Maybe there’s nuances around some of those people you may be contacting that they can help further explain.
Got it. Once you get a reference on the phone, how do you make the most of your time with them?
Well, first, when you’re planning, when you reach out to the reference, it’s always to upfront ask for a set amount of time, whether that is 30 minutes. In some reference cases, it may be 60 minutes. I think it’s difficult to do a full evaluation and reference on someone in 15 minutes. I always err on the side of focusing on at least 30 minutes to make sure that you’re covering everything that you want to touch upon.
Now, once you have it scheduled and you get on the call, you want to explain to the reference of your intention of why you’re doing these references to ensure that the transition of the executive is successful, and to also better understand how to support this candidate in their new role. Take some time to introduce yourself. Provide the context of the company. Provide the context on the role, so that the person providing the reference understands the situation. Allow for an opportunity for the reference to also ask followup questions – which most of the time they do so they can better orient themselves.
In the beginning of the call after you’ve touched upon those two points, confirm the working relationship. Get enough information from the reference to understand how the candidate has interacted with the person. That helps give you your frame of reference for the relationship between the two, how they interacted, and then continues to set the stage for the questions that are going to follow. Clarify with the reference that you’d like to jot down a couple of notes, and to make sure that they’re comfortable with it.
Oftentimes, when you’re doing referencing, you’re going to hear someone typing in the background. I think it’s the best practice to proactively share that upfront, and to make sure that the executive on the other end is comfortable with you taking notes. There are instances when a reference may say, “No. I’m not comfortable with you taking notes.” You need to respect that.
The document where you’re capturing the notes also allows you to go back and refer to the conversations that you’ve had and the detailed experiences and examples that you’re likely going to extract in your reference call.
Got it. Before we get into the very specific questions, what are the overall guidelines for the types of questions to ask?
One of my favorite things in referencing is, one, keep in mind what you’re trying to validate. You have an intention. You’ve planned your questions out. You know what you’re trying to achieve in this call. More so, ask open-ended questions. Do not lead the reference or ask questions in a way that can put words into their mouths.
An example of that would be, “Did you think this person was a good manager?” That leads to a yes or a no. A better open-ended question would be, “How would you describe their management style? Could you comment on how they were perceived as a leader in the company?”
"You want to be crisp. You want to be very specific with your open-ended questions, so then you can continue to drill down onto more relevant points."
Now, when you are talking to the reference, you want to zero in on the most important areas. I think of these most important areas as the behavioral competencies, the technical skills and knowledge, the personal characteristics, the leadership ability, advice to new management, strength and areas of improvement.
Now, as you ask these kind of open-ended questions on these important areas, you’re going to want to ask for examples to support the comments that they make, both positive or negative. It’s very easy when a reference makes a point to then follow up with a question of, “Could you please provide me with an example of that?”
You can have three questions where you can spend 30 minutes of your time just kind of continuing to go deeper and deeper, but my biggest thing with referencing is to always ask for examples so that you have the concrete knowledge of what they did, how they were as a leader, that you can then speak to for why you want to (or would not want) to hire this person. If an area of concern does come up in the referencing, be sure to get the input of the other references on this same issue.
Right. You mentioned that you need to zero in on the most important areas, like behavioral competencies, technical skills. Could you go into some specific examples of what that might look like?
Definitely. Let’s use the theme of management abilities and interpersonal skills, since those are going to be consistent across any executive that you bring into a company, no matter what stage, or size of business, and position.
For the sake of keeping it clear, I’m going to refer to our example executive as a she. Some questions that you can use in evaluating someone during the reference process is, “How did she manage personalities not like her own?”
Pause. Wait for the person to answer. Pending what they say, then continue to follow on with, “Could you provide me an example of that,” or, “You said X, Y, and Z. Could you elaborate on that further?” That’s the pattern that you’re going to want to do with the questions.
Now, additional questions related to management abilities and interpersonal skills may be, “How did she gain trust and respect from people around her? How does she react under pressure? “What would her detractors say about this executive? How did she push back on you?”
This one’s one of my favorites. Pause. Wait for the individual to answer. If you notice, all of these types of questions are tailored to, one, finding information, but, two, they’re all real life scenarios that if you hire an executive onto your team, you’re going to be experiencing. It’s better to kind of find out some of this stuff in advance.
Another area we can touch upon is how to evaluate the strengths and areas of improvement based on what references may say.
Some examples of questions a founder CEO could use in evaluating would be, “What are some of the areas of improvement that you have seen this executive take on and address, and in what ways did she address them?”
Another question may be, “What are the top things that you learned from this executive? How did this executive complement themselves with other hires? If you could provide the candidate with some confidential feedback or coaching, what would that be? In working with this executive, were there any consistent themes that you saw in terms of the strengths that they brought to the company and within their role?”
One other area we could also touch upon is closing questions. After you’ve gone through which questions you want to ask to either understand skillset, management, et cetera, there’s always a set of questions that you’ll want to use at the end to make sure you’re extracting any information that you may not have already touched upon.
I think one of the obvious ones that many people use is, “Would you hire or work with this executive again?”
Another one to touch upon is, “Do you think that we covered all of the relevant points, or is there anything else you wish to mention that would be relevant to this executive?”
One of my favorite ones to do is to ask the reference, “Do you think this person has reached their peak?”
Pause. That one catches people off guard, because it’s a question that makes people really think, “Have they reached their peak, or have they not?” Of course, this question specifically should be asked to someone who managed them or who was a peer.
Yeah. It’s making me think it’s actually a lot of work to be a reference. I mean, what if they’re not as prepared? Just some of these questions, they might be a little bit reluctant to give their information. Is that awkward for the hiring manager?
It can be. I refer to this as the reluctant reference where either someone has listed this individual as a reference, or it may be a mutual connection that you have pre-cleared with said individual.
There’s a couple different examples why someone may be reluctant. One being there may be a company policy that does not allow him or her to provide data. If that’s the case, you can ask if they would be open to doing it as an individual, rather than a representative of his or her company, and stress that confidentiality is important. If you do receive resistance in regards to that area, then I would just probably end the conversation there.
Where you tend to see a reluctant reference that maybe isn’t as obvious is when someone is vague or unresponsive. I’ve managed through this. One of my tactics is to ask them why they’re being vague or unresponsive. That may then open a reason as to why. It could be that they don’t have enough data. It could be that they don’t feel comfortable. There could be a variety of reasons.
For any of those, you just might want to ask them whether he or she could recommend anyone else that they may contact if you do kind of fall in line with a reluctant reference.
Okay, so say you’ve gotten to the point. They have great technical skills. You’ve got all the information you already need from their resume and the interview, and then you get to the references. How common is it for that reference, or those references, to maybe make or break a candidate?
When you’re doing a thorough reference process, and you’re really thinking about it as a holistic 360 in some ways, you’re going to find out information about a candidate that maybe you didn’t know that may be concerning, or maybe a developmental area that you didn’t pick up on.
Now, at the end of the day, no one is perfect. My outlook is you should always be finding information that supports this person’s strengths, but also supports data with regards to their areas of improvement. If the data around the areas of improvement is more than the strengths that are needed for this person to be successful then, yes, it can. It can break a candidate.
There’s also instances where you may find out culture flags that are going to break a candidate. Not just from the work that they accomplish, but there could be a dynamic that existed in a company that you decide, “Hey, this would not be in line with our culture.” That could break a candidate.
There could be instances in which, through referencing, you start to realize the lack of self awareness the executive has. Is that something that you’re going to want to take on? You would have to decide. They do make or break a candidate.
Again, you want to have multiple data points. I think where things sometimes (in our industry) go sideways is individuals will do references. They’ll just do one reference, which may have some negative data points in it, and they’ll completely write that executive off. I think that is wrong.
Just because you have one negative data point doesn’t mean that the person is not the right person for the company. What it should do is signal to you, “I need to better understand this situation, or I need to better understand this executive, and I need to talk to more people so that I can get all of the information to then inform my decision.”
It’s unlikely that you ever have an executive whose references are 100% glowing. Because, at the end of the day, people have strengths. People have weaknesses. If you’re not able to identify the weaknesses in your referencing, then you haven’t done your referencing correctly.
When you do identify the strengths, lean into those. Find out from the reference how you can continue to build upon those, how you can empower that person in the company, because that’s going to be the superpower that that person brings in that will then help change the trajectory of your business.
Great. These questions are fascinating and sure to elicit a lot of information. Are there any more you can think of that someone might not be planning on asking?
Let’s touch upon character and personality. We spend more hours of our day working in our companies than we may do with other people in our life, so you really want to understand, “Who is this person that I’m going to be hiring onto my executive team?”
Additional questions that you could ask are, “If you were to describe this executive in three words, what would they be?”
Then follow up with the why and the examples. “When you think of this executive, what would be the three qualifiers that first come to mind in terms of the value that they add into the company?
“What was the perception of the executive from those that worked below them, with them, and from above them?”
This is one of my favorite questions, because it helps you identify how this executive treats everyone at every different level within an organization. I would spend a fair amount of time on this question when you can.
Two additional questions that you can ask, “What energizes the candidate?” Then another one of my favorites, “What frustrates the candidate?”
Often, this question helps you identify what may be blockers to their success, or blockers to their ability to make change happen.
Got it. This has been really great, Holly Rose. These are excellent questions. Great instructions for how to put a process on this very complex and important process. I really appreciate you being here with us today.
Thank you so much for having me, Heather. I always enjoy doing these conversations, and look forward to future ones.