References Done Right

Strategic References

Developing the right mix of professional references is similar to building an effective project team. You need the right balance of knowledgeable, reliable and versatile people in your corner who, in this case, can vouch for your skills and experience in a way that’s strategically aligned with your career aspirations. Your next job search will depend on it.

Hiring managers say they reject one in five candidates after talking to references, according to research from Robert Half. So you can’t afford to pick references or LinkedIn recommendations that turn out to be duds.

Been-there-done-that project and program managers explain how they have cultivated references that deliver targeted help when opportunity knocks.

Tailor the Team

Your résumé or CV references and LinkedIn recommendations should illustrate how you’ve been able to influence all phases and facets of the project lifespan. Choose people who work above, beside and below you — and from all types of project roles. Such variety will give potential employers a broad sense of both your technical and people skills, says Billi F. Taylor, PMP, strategy consultant, IBM, Washington, D.C., USA.

“Supervisors assess the quality of your work and your growth as a leader, while a peer can dive more deeply into day-to-day,” she says. A reference by someone who works below you can speak to your leadership style, such as whether you engaged in knowledge sharing or supported the referrer’s career development.

Having a varied mix also allows you to lean on different references for different potential roles. You can reshuffle the deck each time to ensure you have the right people to discuss the critical skills addressed in the job description. For instance, having references from third-party specialists such as IT professionals can come in handy if the new role is focused on tech projects.

When Stefano Riva, PMP, applied for his current role as a global talent acquisition program manager for Philip Morris International, he knew the position involved a large degree of stakeholder management. So he provided references from the C-suite rather than IT specialists to emphasize his engagement skills. “Tailor the references to the position,” says Mr. Riva, Lausanne, Switzerland.

Don’t Script — Just Prompt

Control freaks might be tempted to script everything a reference should say to a prospective employer. But you don’t have to go that far to ensure each person in your corner is sending the right message. Just let each person know the specific skills that are most important for the role you’re pursuing, then let the references craft their own responses, Ms. Taylor says.

For instance, when a former colleague recently asked her to supply a reference, the colleague explained that the position sought a project manager with a strong background in risk management. “That helped me prepare and provide solid examples of that skill, as opposed to providing a general response that might not have been as helpful to the recruiter,” Ms. Taylor says.

Helping your references understand the context of the role you’re pursuing triggers them to recall particular achievements or anecdotes that can illustrate why you’re the best fit, Mr. Riva says. When he was applying for positions that sought strong networking skills, “I was very open about asking my references to highlight my ability to build excellent relationships with both internal and external stakeholders at all levels of seniority.”

Schedule the Praise

Timing is everything to ensure references and recommendations will be relevant. Secure them as you close each project so that your contributions (and corresponding skills) will be fresh in the minds of those you ask to sing your praises. Waiting too long to secure praise from team members on a project is a risk: Those people might be too occupied with their next project to help you later.

Being proactive is especially critical for LinkedIn recommendations because recruiters can see the time stamps of the recommendations posted on your profile. So request and post recommendations throughout your career to avoid giving the impression that you only seek them when you need a new job — or that they were provided only as a quid pro quo to recommendations you gave.

“Any project manager, whether looking for a job or not, should constantly ask for feedback on LinkedIn,” Mr. Riva says.

Managing your career is a project of its own. So invest time in cultivating a diverse team of references and recommendations that can help deliver professional ROI.