Project Management Institute

References Done Right

To Make the Most of a Professional Recommendation, Take a Strategic Approach

BY ASHLEY BISHEL
ILLUSTRATION BY DANIEL STOLLE

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PHOTO BY DEREK MEIJER / ALAMY STOCK

The post-project glow had not even lifted when Alex Lu-Pon, PMP, reached out to his teammates and asked each to write him a letter of recommendation.

“I didn't know what I was going to do after that gig, but I wanted to gather their recommendations while their memory of working with me was fresh,” says Mr. Lu-Pon, who is now a senior project manager at PMI Global Executive Council member Cisco, San Francisco, California, USA.

And later, during his job search, when a hiring manager asked for recommendations, Mr. Lu-Pon was able to pass the recommendations along without slowing the momentum of the hiring process or having to circle back with teammates who might have moved on to other organizations or more pressing deadlines. “I ended up using every single letter I got,” he says. “Having those recommendations really put me in a great position for finding the next project.”

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—Alex Lu-Pon, Cisco, San Francisco, California, USA

In today's tight talent market, one might expect that more hiring managers are skipping the reference stage and jumping straight from interview to offer letter. But that's not the case, according to SkillSurvey, with 80 percent of hiring managers still requiring references as part of the application process. Project professionals who are proactive about gathering résumé references or LinkedIn recommendations won't just have professional endorsements at the ready, says Mr. Lu-Pon. They also might find that the process of gathering references and recommendations helps nurture their professional network, puts them on others’ radars for future opportunities, and gives a different perspective on their skills and experience that can come in handy when crafting cover letters and résumés or CVs.

WHOM TO ASK?

There is no one-size-fits-all rule for who makes a good reference. But diversity is key. “I prefer to have references from a project sponsor or steering committee member, a boss and a peer, because that covers a spectrum of stakeholders who have seen my work in varying capacities,” says Katrina Crouch, PMP, project manager, PMI Global Executive Council member Medtronic, Boulder, Colorado, USA. A team member might share nitty-gritty details about a project manager's team management style or finesse with work breakdown structures, while a sponsor might home in on business-case analysis or the ability to translate the project's risk register to a C-suite audience. Both perspectives can be wildly helpful, and having the right mix of references will help paint a complete picture of a project manager's skill set.

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—Katrina Crouch, PMP, Medtronic, Boulder, Colorado, USA

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For Rosemarie Santos, PMP, an independent project manager in Sydney, Australia, finding the right variety of references starts with an analysis of the position she's applying for—and the specific skills mentioned in the job ad. “I then determine which stakeholders could provide the most relevant feedback in terms of that role,” she says.

Mr. Lu-Pon took a similar tack when he applied for a senior project manager position that called for skills in human resources data systems and distributed project teams. “I thought about my partners and clients during that experience, then I went to the relevant persons and explained the opportunity and simply asked them to ‘please write about this specific item for me in your recommendation,’” says Mr. Lu-Pon. At some organizations, a direct boss might be the most obvious ask, but “project managers don't always roll up to a program or portfolio manager,” he says. When a direct supervisor isn't an option, don't be afraid to ask the person who can speak most specifically to the skills and experience at hand—even if it means a surprising title, such as the vice president of IT or chief marketing officer. “The title of the reference can sometimes matter, but I think it's really the content and quality of the work you did together that carries the most weight,” Mr. Lu-Pon says.

If possible, though, steer clear of other project managers, says Murray Duke, PMP, project management office director, AIG Technologies, Tokyo, Japan. “A fellow project manager might be seen more as an office buddy than someone who can really speak to your ability to manage projects,” he says. Finding impartial references is paramount, adds Nirbhik Sengupta, PMP, Far East business development manager, Astaldi, Singapore. For instance, he's a fan of reaching out to external stakeholders and clients. “These references will be seen as the most honest ones, because they don't have any conflict of interest or bias,” he says.

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—Nirbhik Sengupta, PMP, Astaldi, Singapore

HOW TO ASK?

The consensus is clear: If it's feasible to ask in person, that's the best bet for a positive response and a warm reception to the request. If timing or distance makes that tough, asking via phone call—no matter how awkward that might feel—is a close second, says Ms. Santos. A phone call ensures a live conversation, which is the best way to communicate exactly what's needed. “I explain the role that I am applying for and the prerequisite skills and experiences, then I usually discuss with them the core requirements of the role,” she says. Talking it out in real time also allows the reference to ask questions and voice any concerns.

How can project professionals groom good references to become truly great ones? Get them to provide specific project details, positive anecdotes and relevant metrics, says Mr. Duke. And the more a reference knows about the type of position a project manager is hoping to land—whether a new industry, a specific niche or an upgrade in responsibility—the easier it will be to deliver a recommendation that provides strong support. “You should have an honest conversation about what you're doing, what your goals are and what you're hoping the outcome will be,” he says.

“If there is an example or experience that the reference was a part of, you can gently remind them about that event,” says Mr. Duke. “But do be mindful not to take up too much of their time or burden them with all of the specifics of your job search.”

If the thought of contacting a former stakeholder or supervisor generates anxiety, that might signal the person wouldn't be a strong reference anyway. “In my experience, it's best not to ask for a reference so far removed from yourself that you can't call the person and discuss the role you want, why you want it and the qualifications you bring to the table,” says Ms. Crouch.

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Still, if there are constraints that prevent a realtime conversation, a well-crafted email can do the trick. This approach is especially effective if email is the standard form of communication in the relationship or if time-zone differences would make coordinating a call burdensome, says Ms. Santos.

WHEN TO ASK?

Project professionals can set the stage for strong references from their very first day managing an initiative. “Getting a great reference starts with delighting and over-delivering to the client or collaborator well in advance of when you need their help,” says Mr. Lu-Pon.

When it comes to making the formal request for references, the sooner the better, says Ms. Santos. In today's talent market, passive recruitment and casual opportunities abound. Even if a project manager isn't actively looking to change roles, a dream job might present itself—and require swift action.

Project close can be a natural time to ask for references, as the team is already feeling reflective and in a retrospective mindset, says Tushar Shah, PMP, software service delivery head, Atlas Copco India, Pune, India. Just be sure not to make the request feel perfunctory or standard. Each ask should feel like a thoughtful request and should be made with a healthy dose of appreciation. “Highlight what you've learned from the person and be sure to thank him or her,” he says. “That way, people know you value them for their guidance, direction and motivation, and they're happier to be part of your references.”

WHERE TO PUT THEM?

Although Mr. Lu-Pon had great results with written recommendations, they aren't always a must—or even necessary. Project professionals also should maintain contact information for their best references, to satisfy hiring managers who might prefer to call or email people directly, he says.

LinkedIn has reshaped the reference landscape considerably. While hiring managers might prefer to contact references for follow-up questions or ask for written letters, there's no question that public recommendations can have a considerable impact on someone's job search. “A recruiter or hiring manager can see all of this information about your skill set, and those recommendations can even help you show up in searches,” says Mr. Lu-Pon. “They're incredibly powerful.” Recommendations from someone more senior or with considerable clout can lend even more heft to the public endorsement.

—Alex Lu-Pon

“I try to get references who have impact in my industry—people with more prominence and a powerful industry network,” says Mr. Sengupta. But knowing whether to ask for a public recommendation, a private letter or simply contact information for a future reference will come down to a combination of the reference relationship and what type of job search is underway. PM

Give and Take

At some point, almost every project professional is asked to provide a reference. Here's how to give one that can strengthen a relationship and provide future payoff, says Rosemarie Santos, PMP, an independent project manager in Sydney, Australia.

Offer up: Rather than wait for someone to request a reference, make it a point to let select people in a professional network know that one would be happily given. “I believe in having a strong network of people who really believe in my skills, talent, ability and work ethic,” Ms. Santos says. “And as part of my relationship with these individuals, I usually offer to be a reference should they need one.”

Set parameters: “If you are giving a reference for another person, your reputation is also at stake,” she says. “I always tell the person needing a reference to use me as long as they are comfortable that I will be honest with my feedback and will only say things from my heart. Mutual respect always has a positive outcome.”

Extend your reach: Don't assume that a reference pool is limited to co-workers. For example, Ms. Santos frequently volunteers with the PMI Sydney Chapter, which is a great resource for references. “We're happy to provide each other relevant professional feedback,” she says, including sharing tips on how to gather and give great references.

Self-Written References?

It's true: Some people who serve as references might flip the script and ask the applicant to draft his or her own recommendation. Whether they're time-strapped or just want to make sure the recommendation is spot on for the applicant's needs, references sometimes are happy to sign off on a letter written on their behalf.

That happened to Katrina Crouch, PMP, when she approached one of her first project directors about being a potential job reference.

“It sounds strange, but it was a valuable exercise to try to objectively articulate what I had contributed to the organization and what my skills and strengths were,” says Ms. Crouch, project manager, Medtronic, Boulder, Colorado, USA. “Writing a reference is a completely different skill set than writing a résumé or cover letter.”

Project professionals shouldn't suggest a do-it-yourself approach outright. But when a reference is finding it difficult to deliver, it's acceptable to offer to draft a few bullet points to make the task as easy and efficient as possible. From there, some stakeholders might just take it one step further and suggest a self-written reference entirely.

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

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