Successful careers and businesses are built through good relationships. Having credible references initiates some of those vital connections, by almost instantly helping you establish trust and validity. Your professional references should be strategically compiled with a diverse roster of contacts, ones whom you actually stay in touch with. Maintaining good references is evidence of good communication skills, and says that you’re a well respected and a likeable candidate.
I recommend choosing your references according to five vital categories: Mentors, bosses, clients, peers and friends. Be sure that all references in all categories are well informed of your endeavors, and are properly prepared to respond when you include them as a reference.
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Here's the breakdown of why these five categories are essential, and of what each can offer.
A mentor reference should be very familiar with your personal vision and career goals, and should be willing to provide you with a letter of recommendation upon request. Mentors guide and counsel you, and understand how you respond to coaching. My mentor references help validate my preparedness to take effective action in the roles that I compete for. They publicly emphasize my strengths, but privately coach me on my weaknesses. They point me in the direction of opportunity, and warn me away from potential threats. The best mentor references are savvy promoters and powerful connectors.
The former boss or direct supervisor
It is imperative to make an amicable departure from every professional situation. Do not burn your bridges. If you've burned some already, then start making repairs immediately. Why? Because, in almost every potential employment scenario, your last supervisor is a primary person of interest. They know your roles and responsibilities well since they managed the execution and fulfillment of them. Your last employer has a heavy influence on your professional pursuits. Even if you're released from a job based on unsatisfactory performance, this reference is still necessary and can still be used in your favor.
Listing a client as a reference can provide a potential employer with testimony of your deliverables. Whatever outcomes result from your productivity (i.e., software code, website designs, photographs, sales revenue, manufactured products, project management, etc.), clients are probably the most reputable voice for feedback. The client is primarily concerned with the scope, quality, and timeliness of whatever it is that you do as a professional. I really lean on my clients for references because they are the best proof that I can produce satisfactory results on a consistent basis.
The peer reference is your character witness and should vouch for your interpersonal skills. This is someone who's been present during your day-to-day mode of operation. He or she can speak to your leadership potential, how you engage with others in the work environment, how you promote organizational culture, and how you function when under stress. My peer references speak of me as a team player, a motivator, and as someone that they enjoy working with on a regular basis.
The personal history buff, aka the old friend
This is the “true friend” reference, the person who knows your origins, how hard you work, and how far you've come already. My true friend references are able to share stories of trial and tribulation transformed into achievement and success. They know how I treat my wife, my kid, my mother, my siblings, and even my neighbors. They can attest to my continual progression. They might also share a funny story or two, just to lighten the atmosphere and give insight to who I am outside of work (in a positive, favorable light of course).
From a professional standpoint, mentors, bosses, clients, peers, and friends all have to be willing to speak for you in order for others to be able to trust what you say. Using this mix of references will certainly work in your favor because it's set up for answering any pertinent questions, while hopefully dispelling any doubts or concerns regarding who you are and what you can do.