Reference Management is an Art

Q. I left my last job after a few years because I did not get a long with the CEO. He is difficult, as many people in my industry know. Most people want to know how I lasted as long as I did. Following my departure, the Chief Marketing officer left and another executive team member. I am now unfortunately left with no senior references at this company. I don’t want to use the CEO as a reference because I don’t trust what he’ll say. Do I ask junior people?

A. CEO’s, are you difficult? Are you losing your senior team because your skill set working with peers is challenged? Review the cost to your organization and learn a new way. What is your industry reputation? OK, I got that out of my system.

Working for difficult people is a skill everyone needs to develop; people find it becomes old fast staying in these roles at these organizations. It is usually no secret that a leader is difficult – some amount is expected at the top of an organization, but more than that amount doesn’t produce better results. It crushes people and trickles down resulting in poor leadership throughout the organization as managers emulate bad practice.

For your situation, the fact that other senior leaders left the organization will work in your favor. These people can still be your references for this company. First, connect with them on LinkedIn and connect with junior people you had positive relationships with that remain at the company. Ask all senior level colleagues to be a reference. Make sure they have your resume and can speak to your accomplishments. You also need to ask them if they would be comfortable letting any reference know that the CEO was difficult, but you managed it well. You need them to do this so you don’t have to. They can say that a difficult leader contributed to their decision to leave. In this way, there is no bad mouthing, just information about the style a leader had.


If the person you are interviewing asks about your relationship with the CEO, you can say the executive team found he had a challenging style, but you were able to work with him to accomplish your goals.

As much as you hope to control who people call as references, it is out of your control. Fill LinkedIn connections with people you know who can speak highly of you, and will add written recommendations. People checking references will look for people they know to ask about your style and capabilities. They’ll also ask about the person you reported to. Managing references and information about your own reputation is doable, and it doesn’t happen by accident.

-Elaine Varelas, Managing Partner, Keystone Partners

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