Who should I ask for a reference?

It was a great interview. As you start to leave the office, your potential employer asks you for the names of two references. Who do you ask? What is an employer looking for from a reference?

This is not a passive process, let to the whims of friends adding comments to your skills on social networking sites.

If you are applying for a job or completing a graduate school application, at some point you will have to ask someone to provide a recommendation. Whether you are starting out or advancing in your career, selecting the perfect reference should confirm an employer’s intent to offer you a position.

As a student, your list of references should include a faculty member, preferably in your major and an employer reference from an internship or part time job. Most graduate programs will require two faculty references and perhaps a non-academic reference.

Develop a list of 5-6 people who are potential references. Qualify each of these professionals in respect to your relationship. Is this someone who knows you well because of your participation in classes and who can comment on the academic quality of your work? Can they adequately predict your ability to succeed? As a former internship employer, will your reference be able to cite specific projects along with an assessment of your performance?

Arrange an appointment to meet face to face with each of the people on your list. Be prepared. Bring a copy of your resume and the job description or graduate program brochure. (Do not text a recommendation request with a link to a website.) Create a short list of why you are pursuing this job or graduate program and talk to your potential reference about what you would like them to emphasize. Does the employer require good communication skills? Ask if the faculty member could cite your final paper and presentation as an example of your skill match. Is the graduate school looking for people with a commitment to their community? Suggest the reference  mention the time you spent tutoring in the local elementary school.

As a seasoned professional, changing jobs or changing careers you need support from colleagues and managers who can speak to your skill set and adaptability.

Develop a list of people who can comment on your abilities related to each element in the job description. An employer is trying to determine if you will ‘fit’ in an organization. Do you have the skills that complement other team members? Will your approach to problem solving facilitate collaboration? This is where your sense of an organization’s culture helps you narrow your potential field of references.

It’s good practice to nourish your list of references over time. As you advance in your career, your roster of possible references will expand relative to your experience. Choose one or two key folks from your list who are credible in the eyes of your potential employer. At the point an employer is having conversations with a reference, they are trying to differentiate you from other qualified finalists for the position. Your reference is a key part of that decision.

Selecting a reference takes time. You may have someone say no. Or, you may have someone agree and not follow up. Always have a back up. People forget. Provide deadlines and enough lead-time to avoid last minute panic. This is not a time to be shy. This is part of your marketing strategy. Your references should feel confident with both the information you have provided and their direct experience with you to provide a recommendation without reservation.

A great resource for anyone seeking work today is the Corner Office column in The New York Times. Adam Bryant summarizes his conversations with CEOs from all sectors, exploring their values and how they hire.

Jana Eggers, CEO of Spreadshirt, a maker of personalized clothing, described how she solicits feedback from references, not only the ones on the list:

I’m also going to see how they treat the receptionist. I always get feedback from them. I’ll want to know if someone comes in and if they weren’t polite, if they didn’t say, ”Hello,” or ask them how they were. It’s really important to me.

I also check references myself. One question I ask on references is, ”Where should I spend time coaching this person?”

The ghost writer and your resume

Can I hire someone to write my resume and cover letter? Of course you can, but why would you? Cover letters and resumes are documents that convey a voice, your voice, and outsourcing your career narrative surrenders ownership of your story.

We are all ‘resume procrastinators’ to a point. It’s only when we face a career transition that we scramble to pull something together. And it’s at these times that we may be at our most vulnerable, and not thinking from place of confidence in our talents.

A resume is a living document requiring ongoing updates. It’s an opportunity to organize your experience and reflect on where you are in your career. The simplest approach is to set up a file, physical or virtual, and periodically add accomplishments, community activities and education. At least once a year, create a revised resume, incorporating your experience from the previous year.

The cover letter allows you to connect the dots of your experience in a coherent presentation of value to an employer. It can only be written when you know the requirements of a potential position and can articulate the links between your resume and the employer’s requirements.

If you reset your thinking and use the resume as a career management strategy vs. a job search tool, it becomes less daunting and more useful. If you are concerned about your writing skills, it’s a bigger issue than crafting a cover letter. Consider taking a continuing education course in professional writing. Strong communication skills are fundamental to your career advancement.

Once you have a first draft of your resume and cover letter, you can begin to ask for feedback. Career counselors can offer suggestions on content, emphasis and presentation. Industry professionals can add a layer of expertise based on the documents they see specific to their career field. At the end of the day, these are your documents and you are the final editor.

Your resume and cover letter are your RSVP to a potential career opportunity. These two documents start the conversation that will continue in an interview. Begin the conversation with your voice, not the voice of the ghost writer.

An important question to ask in an interview

The interview is coming to an end, all has been going well and then they ask: Do you have any questions for me? There are a number of questions you may ask at this point. The key is to ask a question that will help you figure out if this is a place where you will succeed. My question is a bit of a ‘turnabout is fair play’: Can you describe a time you failed and how did the organization respond?

Every survey I have ever read lists who you will work for as the most important determinant in accepting a position. And your immediate supervisor will be key to your decision to stay. It’s not money. It’s not the nature of the work. It’s the relationship.

Why the question about failure? An interviewer will ask you some version of the question to determine how you deal with setbacks. It’s just as important for you to understand how they deal with failure. You don’t want to work for someone who was valedictorian of their high school graduating class, and who has since progressed in their career by managing not to fail. It will limit your freedom to take risks and you may be micromanaged to the point where your hair catches fire.

The opportunity to ask questions at the end of the interview gives you the chance to have the conversation about the potential for professional growth and success.

As the economy improves, there is opportunity for mobility at all levels. There is always the possibility that your boss may move on within a few months of your arrival. And it may be that the opportunity for advancement is the component that attracts you to the position. You may want to work for the person who is moving on in six months.

Can you make an impact during his/her tenure? What happened to the last person who held the position?

Many candidates miss the opportunity to have this conversation about success and failure with a potential employer. Often time is limited at the end of the interview. Be prepared with the questions that will help you differentiate this offer from the others. And take a chance to ask about failure and its’ consequences.

The week@work – April 6 – April 12

This week@work included a new book describing how to get a job at Google and magazine articles detailing what you will need to get hired by a non-profit in 2020 and the new etiquette for quitting your job; which will come in handy if you plan to leave to work at Google or a non-profit in the next five years.

‘Work Rules!’ the new book by Laszlo Bock, the SVP of People Operations at Google was received well amidst an impressive media roll-out. However, the Bloomberg Business review was skeptical. Here is a sample:

Take interviewing: Most companies let their managers make decisions on hiring, but Google has a universal system, horrifically called qDroid, that produces algorithmic questions meant to tease out various attributes of applicants. Bock concedes that the questions are often rote, but “it’s the answers that are compelling.” So compelling, in fact, that Google “scores” the responses with “a consistent rubric” it calls Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scales. He’s certain this automated process, which takes months for most applicants to complete, brings in the “most superb candidates.” Google does get top employees, but you have to be squinting pretty hard to think this is the right way to find them. The reason it has talented workers is that it’s a multibillion-dollar company that pays extremely well.”

If you are thinking about working at Google, I would recommend David Eggers‘ 2013 novel ‘The Circle’.

What will non-profits be looking for in 2020? A Fast Company article based on interviews with innovative non-profits found opportunities have grown with the market in recent years.

“According to The New York Times’ analysis of data from the American Community Survey of the United States Census Bureau, 11% more young college graduates worked for nonprofit groups in 2009 than in 2008. A 2012 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that the U.S. nonprofit sector grew an average of 2.1% between 2000 and 2010, while for-profit sector jobs declined by an average of 0.6% a year during the same period.”

Technology, social media and design skills will be needed by non-profits to develop solutions to complex problems. An ability to work across private and public sectors will be key in courting donors and allocating resources to meet global needs.

Whether you are considering a move to a non-profit or a Fortune 100 organization, how you depart your current employer will have long term effects on your career. Social media provides opportunities to create online networks, but the virtual world can be both an asset and a liability in your career advancement. Entertainment, Financial Services and Silicon Valley organizations share information informally, and with mobility increasing in an improved economic environment, there is always the possibility that the boss you just left shows up in a few months as your new leader.

Another Fast Company article offered some basic suggestions including providing enough notice, keeping positive and maintaining momentum on tasks. One piece of advice that resonated is to visit with colleagues before you leave and acknowledge your appreciation for their support and contribution to your career growth.

As with any advice, the culture of your organization drives behavior. You may be in a place that welcomes a professional exit approach, but you may not. Adapt your plans to the reality of your workplace, ensuring your reputation stays intact as you depart.

Finally, this week, ceremonies in Appomattox and Arlington, Virginia marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Timothy Egan, visualized Lincoln in the aftermath of surrender in an opinion piece in The New York Times  “Imagine him in the last week of his life, 150 years ago this month. Shuffling, clothes hanging loosely on the 6-foot-4-inch frame, that tinny voice, a face much older than someone of 56. “I am a tired man,” he said. “Sometimes I think I am the tiredest man on earth.” 

This was a President @work, nearing the end of his term. The challenge ahead was to unite the nation and welcome back the soldiers to their places of work now that the war had come to an end. History repeats, as today we once again welcome soldiers returning from war to their modern day workplace.

Bracketology for the job search procrastinator

It’s that time of year, ‘March Madness’, when everyone, including the President is selecting who they believe will advance to the final four in the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championships. With a little imagination and humor, you can apply the bracket concept as a way to narrow down your career interests and begin to identify potential employers.

Let’s say you are totally confused and quickly losing your confidence in the process. Everyone you know seems to have this ‘career thing’ mastered while you’re still floundering.  Where do you begin? Try categorizing your interests using the bracket system. Instead of four regions, fill in four career fields that might interest you. Identify sixteen possible employers in each field. Go to each organization’s website and get a sense of how they describe what they do and the culture that enables their employees to succeed. Utilize social networking sites to identify folks you may know who are employees in your selected organizations or have contacts that could be of help.

Your goal in this first phase is to access a basic level of information for comparison.

As you progress with your research, you will begin to eliminate some organizations in favor of others. Once you get to your ‘elite eight’, schedule your information interviews. As you talk to people you will begin to establish a realistic assessment of your chances for success in an organization.

This ‘elite eight’ forms your target list. By the time you have narrowed your selection to eight, you should feel comfortable that each employer presents a realistic next step in your career.

As with any selection process, you don’t have complete control of the outcome. The employer extends the offer and you have the choice to accept or continue to explore other options.

The NCAA tournament lasts three weeks. If you start filling in your career fields now, you will advance the exploration process at a pace to be ready for interviews by ‘tip-off’ in the championship game.