One of the most critical aspects of a well-run executive search process is thorough referencing, both formal and informal.

An executive search is really the process of slowly getting under the skin of a candidate over a number of weeks, finding out more about their experience, becoming familiar with their style, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, drivers and motivators.

But, however well-developed the relationship becomes, it is always one of interviewer and potential route into a lucrative new role. We only know what that person tells us through the process, when they are presenting themselves in the best possible light. And, they can only convey their own perspective; it’s impossible for candidates to be objective about how others perceive them.

That’s why referencing is essential; to fill the gaps and to get a full picture of how the candidate relates to and works with others.

Informal referencing

Let’s get this straight – we are not trying to catch people out or find skeletons in the closet. What we are doing is checking their credibility by informal referencing within our network. It helps to complete the picture, particularly when it comes to cultural fit, management style, how that person interacts, motivates and inspires people.

Candidates will always have baggage: a CFO may have had a difficult time with fall-out from the recession for example. The private equity environment is a tough one, and learning to thrive within it sometimes takes time. But actually, bad experience is often as relevant as good in private equity, and sometimes even more so. The ability to turn things around, overcome challenges and deliver on the numbers when faced with difficult situations is extremely important.

And it’s a two way process; as we get to know the client better, we start to develop an idea of what pushes their buttons. However detailed an initial brief is, it’s only by talking to the client team and investors regularly that you get a true sense of the type of person they are looking for.

What if we find something of concern?

It’s always better to have advanced warning than surprises at the last stage of a process. Formal and informal referencing provide a safety net, validating our decisions to put someone forward, or in some cases, the opposite. On occasion, we do uncover aspects of a candidate that we know will be a deal breaker with a client. We have to advise the client about every aspect of our research, even if there is a front runner who will be bumped down the list. We need to ensure our clients’ interests are protected at all times.

Reference, reference and reference again

The client wants the best person for the job, with the minimum of risk. They need a complete profile of who the candidate is and how they are likely to react to certain situations. Only by talking to people who’ve worked with the candidate before can we provide it.

It might not be the most visible or exciting aspect of a search, but without referencing, executive search consultancies like us would be doing the job blindfolded.