Finding the Right Executive for Your Business Needs Part 10 – What to Ask in a Reference Call

reference callIt’s All about How You Ask the Question. To get value from a reference call, focus questions more around the “how.” Conduct reference calls like mini-interviews and ask for examples.

If the reference call mentions the candidate’s great communication skills, for example, ask what specifically about the executive’s communication was particularly helpful in turning a situation around, or creating buy-in, or motivating employees, or solving the particular problem. How did the executive communicate with the team or customer? How did the executive contribute to the company’s goals?

Keep reference-checking in perspective. From our experiences, a fixation on references tends to be more of a North American trait than in other parts of the world. Kristen actually had an international board member once say to her, “What is it about Americans and checking references? No one else does it; why do you insist on doing this fruitless task?” In fact, we have found the importance placed on references in international organizations to be very minimal, particularly if the references are checked via survey or in writing.

We found this when we sent out a written reference request for an executive in which all of his references were non-U.S. residents. When we received them back, we could not believe the poor ratings he received compared to what we knew about this executive’s background and objective measures of prior performance. Our rating system at the time used skills sets required for the specific job then solicited feedback on whether candidates were an expert, competent, or had little knowledge of each skill set; there was also not a single comment field. One of the key areas of focus for this particular executive was going to be managing potential acquisitions for the company. He had completed a number of M&A transactions previously, in addition to broad experience with other needs the company would have in the near future.

His M&A expertise would add a lot of value to this engagement. However, one of his references rated him as only “competent” in M&A. In America, such a seeming vote of no-confidence for this area of expertise could be a deal-breaker. We were curious about the level of competency versus expert rating. So we started contacting the references one by one, time zone by time zone. After speaking with a UK expat who was then living in Australia, we quickly got the answer.

The reference clarified that he himself had done about twenty M&A transactions and did not personally think this area of practice was a particular expertise of his. The executive for whom he was acting as a reference had done about five such transactions with the reference; therefore, in the mind of the reference, five is fewer than twenty, and since he did not consider himself an “expert,” then the executive he was rating certainly was no “expert,” either.

The reference was using two biases:

1. Measuring the executive’s competence against his own experience level

2. Measuring the executive’s expertise as a matter of quantity of experience rather than quality

Come back tomorrow to read part 11. You can find part 9 here.

To learn about how Cerius Interim Management can help you and for more information on interim executives, please visit our home page by clicking here.


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