Sunday, June 13, 2010

With all thy getting, get references...

School, jobs, relationships, journeys... through life one accumulates many experiences. Surprisingly, however, few people pay much attention to externally validating these key experiences. Sure, you take a photo from that remote mountain peak or your visit to the Taj Mahal... but how can you let others know what you have done when you can't just take a picture? For many experiences, people don't take the picture when they are on the peak... they wait a while, and then try to recreate the moment by putting it on their resume. "See this picture from a magazine? I climbed this mountain." Wow.

Your resume should present your accomplishments. But how did you do it? For that, people (such as employers or investors) may want to find external perspectives. Say your resume claims you ran a successful product launch at your last company... have you won awards? If so, put them on the resume. If not, and you think this is important, you need a reference. Who can say: "Yup, she climbed it in tough conditions, had a great attitude, I'd love to climb with her again"?
The world works on references. Not just employment references... but the many discussions that go on about you. What do people say? What would you like them to say? What have you done to increase the chances of a good reference as you go through your life's journey? Who are the best people to validate what you have done? (perhaps you should make a list right now)
Most companies won't provide meaningful references now. The HR department will confirm dates of employment. What if it happened 5 years ago? Or if the company you worked for has gone out of business (do you imagine anyone at BP is looking for a job right now)? Have you kept up with co-workers? Former bosses? Perhaps you saved a copy of your 2005 performance review.
I send people the following memo when they ask for a formal reference. A number of them have said it was helpful. Disturbingly, a number have also said "no body ever told me how to do this."
________________________________________________________
To: People requesting references
From: Paul Hudnut

Asking for a reference is an art…you only want good references. So before approaching me (or other professors, bosses, co-workers, etc.) think about whether you think they can give you a good reference. Your goal should be to have each reference validate a piece of the picture that you have painted about your qualifications: education, work, character, accomplishments. Then think about what you want each of them to say about you…do they have a basis to be able to say that?
Overall, I am happy to give references if they are requested ahead of time and I am given background materials necessary to write or provide the reference. Last minute requests for written recommendations will be declined, and I will not provide a phone reference or a written reference if I am not provided the minimum requirements below.
1) Keep in mind that if you know what you want, it is easier to ask for it! Your target should be to tell me what you want, and then make sure you give me what I need to help you get what you want. Employers are trying to understand your competence and your character. You will strengthen your references by focusing on, and providing examples of, activities and experiences that demonstrate both.
2) When you request a reference it is helpful to ask for a detailed reference and to provide background information. For instance, telling me: "I am applying for a job with golf resort development and management companies as a marketing manager” is OK, but adding “Would you be willing to give me a good reference with respect to my performance in your class, my interest in the golf industry, my honesty on the course, and my habit of always buying a hamburger for my professor at the end of the round" is much better.
For most of my students, though, I can only write about the first item. I can't write about the others unless we have actually had a chance to sit down and talk about your interest in the golf industry, we have played golf (and you didn't take a Mulligan) and you bought me a hamburger. Golf is only an example, folks- it could be your interest in fashion design, green building, biotechnology, etc. In all, though, for me to comment on it, you need to have given me the material. LinkedIn and Facebook can be helpful ways to informally keep me up to date on your activities.
3) As a reference writer, I like to get help from YOU. It makes it much easier for me to write a reference if you tell me what you are trying to accomplish. At a minimum, include your resume with your request. Even better, attach a "draft" recommendation letter or outline covering the points you want me to cover. If it is a specific job, include the job posting.
4) If you don’t need a letter, but just want me to be available by phone, then please provide a resume, and an outline of the main points you would like me to cover in the call. Then let me know by email or voicemail when I should be expecting a call.
Good luck. I look forward to helping you find, or create, your next opportunity!

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