What would your manager say in a reference call?
Try working backwards from a future reference check call.
Yesterday I did a reference call about a former co-worker who is close to being hired into a PM leadership role at a startup. The call has me thinking about reference checks, and the importance of continuous self-reflection.
Beyond the standard ref check questions around impact, mindset, and more, my three favorite questions to ask about a candidate are:
(1) Rate of improvement after constructive feedback — What was the most difficult piece of feedback they received while working with you? How did they respond? What was the trajectory of change?
I find that focusing on (a) the specific feedback they received and (b) the trajectory of the change is a helpful way to get insight into how this person may react specifically when given constructive feedback. We can all improve, and what I’m hoping to hear is that they made quick/positive adjustments based on the feedback.
(2) Finding out the unexpected early — What will I discover in the first three months of working with this person? Or, what might surprise our team in the first few weeks of working with this person?
Part of the reference check process is discovering what you don’t know already. I find that framing the question with a specific time horizon helps bring the person back to the early days of working with that candidate.
(3) Advice to their next manager — What advice would you give to their new manager to help make sure they are successful, engaged, and happy? What types of projects would you steer toward or away from?
This question can be helpful for both exposing interesting insights, and also for when you’re likely to hire the person. Part of reference checking is making sure that you’re going to be able to set someone up for success in your organization. For example, if the person you’re talking to mentions that the candidate need lots of structure and guidance, and you can’t offer that, it’s another data point to cross check and reflect on.
Each time I ask these questions of about candidates, I find myself reflecting on my own work, and how I might improve. What’s my own trajectory when I receive feedback? In what recent scenarios have I done my best work?
Take a minute to really put yourself in the shoes of your current manager, what might they say to questions like these? What legacy are you leaving at your current job? It’s a little bit like a personal version of Shreyas Doshi’s pre-mortem exercise. I find the frame of working backwards from a future reference call to be a helpful frame to step out of your current situation.
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