Obtain Impactful Recommendations And References: Leverage Social Norming To Get Into Graduate School Or Score A Job

Mongolian PassportIn 1266, the Emperor of China, Kublai Khan, granted the Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, a life-saving letter of recommendation. The reference was in the form of a gold tablet that stated, “By the strength of the eternal Heaven, holy be the Khan’s name. Let him that pays him not reverence be killed.”

The tablet allowed Marco Polo and his fellow travelers to transverse nearly 7,500 miles unmolested during their three-year return trip to Italy. This golden reference effectively communicated the Emperor’s sentiments in absentia.

Although it may be a bit much to ask your Referencers to provide you with a golden tablet, you should strive to obtain similarly impactful references.

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Social Norming

referenceModern-day references are effective because they rely upon a powerful principle of influence, Social Norming. From the beginning of tribal cultures, mankind has valued non-biased, third-party opinions. Independent validations of what foods were safe to eat, where game migrated during the winter, and which people were to be trusted were basic tenets of survival. As noted in Net Profit Score, salespeople have used references as a means of establishing credibility with strangers for hundreds of years.

A Dozen Tactics To Make Your Recommendations And References More Impactful

Typically, serving as a verbal Referencer involves little work. A quick phone call or two is generally all that is required. The conversations are transitory and thus the Referencer does not need to be as thoughtful as comments that are codified in written form.

4 out of 5 doctors agreeAlthough some of the tactics described below are also applicable to verbal recommendations, the focus of this entry is on obtaining impactful written recommendations and references (collectively referred to as “references” hereafter). The people from whom you generally want a written reference are busy and difficult to reach. Thus, in order to increase your chances of obtaining meaningful references from successful people, deploy the following dozen tactics.

Contemporaneous – Ask for references immediately following the completion of your interactions with the Referencer, even if you do not have an immediate need for a reference. This will result in personal and specific descriptions of your involvement. The longer you wait to ask for a reference, the more difficult it will be for your Referencer to recall how you specifically added value to her organization.

References from people with whom you have not interacted with in years are suspect. They cause the reader to wonder why you have not sought more timely references. I occasionally receive reference requests from people I have not spoken with in years. Such references tend to be generic and unimpactful.

Specificity – The more your reference specifies how you added value to your past organization, the more influential it will be. Thus, cite quantified results, such as percentage growth in revenue, number of new accounts closed, Net Promoter Scores achieved, etc. However, be sure that any statistics you quote are primarily attributable to your personal efforts. If they are the result of a team’s performance, be sure to state such and clarify your role on the team.

Avoid too much emphasis on your character traits. Such “character witness” references do little to influence the reader. Imagine a resume that only describes the person’s personality traits, likeability and strong character. You might be inclined to have a beer with the person, but it is unlikely you would be motivated to hire them, simply because they seem to be “pleasant, honest and easy to work with.” Just like a resume, your recommendations should state why you will be an effective addition to the organization you are attempting to join.

Fork Lift – As noted in Personal Pitch, you should always do the heavy lifting on behalf of your Referencer. Start by writing a draft of your reference. When sending the proposed text to your Referencer, make it clear that your intent is not to be presumptuous. Rather, let them know that you are attempting to make the reference as effortless as possible while giving them guidance regarding the key points you want conveyed in the reference. Also, encourage them to make any changes they deem appropriate. As noted in Thrill The Messenger, as long as the original text is reasonable and accurately depicts your accomplishments, most Referencers will make few changes.

Audience – Let your Referencer know with whom you intend to share the reference. For instance, is your reference for graduate school or a job at a startup? If you are looking for a job, denote your preferred: target industry, position(s) and the maturation stage of your target company (i.e., startup, capitalized growth stage, large, established company, etc.). This detailed information will help your Referencer identify specific anecdotes and accomplishments relevant to the prospective position you are seeking.

Peers – Seek Referencers who are peers of those whom you wish to influence. As noted in Cialdini et al.’s Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways To Be Persuasive, studies support that, “…the more similar the person giving the testimonial is to the new target audience, the more persuasive the message becomes.” For instance, if you intend to share your reference with a startup CEO, a reference from the CEO of a young, vibrant company will likely have a greater impact than a reference from a CEO of a large, slow growth company. Peers naturally relate to each other and thus they correspondingly tend to trust each other’s opinions.

Variety – Do not burden a handful of Referencers with requests for multiple references. Although you want to target each reference to a specific audience, do not ask a Referencer to create more than one written reference within a reasonable time period (e.g., six months). Pursue references from a variety of sources, including customers, suppliers, subordinates, etc. References from all the relevant aspects of your professional life will give the recipient a complete understanding of your capabilities. It will also demonstrate that you have the Whole Package and are not someone who impresses their bosses while mistreating everyone else they encounter.  

Non-reciprocal – Do not ask for a reference in exchange for giving one to the Referencer. Such reciprocal references are worthless, especially when they are published on a social networking platform. It is easy for a potential employer to identify such reciprocal references by clicking on the Referencer to learn more about their background. When they see the glowing reference from you, they will naturally question the veracity of all your references.

Protect – Ask the recipients of your references to notify you before they contact any of your Referencers. This will give you an opportunity to alert your Referencers regarding the specific opportunities you are currently pursuing (see “Heads-up” below). It will also reduce the number of errant phone calls and email exchanges your Referencers will have to administer on your behalf.

Heads-up – Keep your Referencers apprised of the recipients of your references in order to avoid anyone contacting one of your Referencers when they are unprepared. This is especially important if you received the reference a number of months previously. If your Referencer is caught off guard, they might not be as effusive as they otherwise would be, thereby compromising the reference’s impact.

Step-by-Step – If the reference involves completing an online form and uploading the reference document (as is the case with most graduate school applications), specify each step the Referencer must complete. If the document has to be submitted in the form of a PDF, convert the reference letter to the proper format so your Referencer does not have to spend their valuable time performing this trivial task.

Do not simply send the Referencer a link and ask them to “follow the onscreen instructions.” As noted in Fork Lift, the onus is on you to reduce the friction involved in getting an impactful reference from busy, otherwise deeply engaged people.

Rifle Shot – Although it is wise to gather a small library of references from a variety of sources, do not dump all of them on the person you are attempting to influence. Too many references may cause the reader to assume you are compensating to obfuscate your inadequacies. Instead of a shotgun approach, select two or three references that are the most relevant to the target opportunity and let the reference recipient know that you have additional references that you are happy to share, as appropriate.

Follow-up – As noted in Thank You, always close the loop with your Referencers and let them know the outcome of the reference they provided. For instance, if the recommendation helped you get into your target school, let them know where you were accepted and tell them how much you appreciate their assistance. Even if the reference does not result in the outcome you had hoped for, thank the Referencer and let them know you appreciate their support. By doing so, you are being polite and you are increasing the probability the Referencer will be willing to help you again in the future.

A Swimming Success

Marco PoloMarco Polo’s reference from Kublai Khan proved invaluable in his explorations. If you are able to secure likewise a library of impactful recommendations that act as envoys of your past achievements, your future success may rival that of Mr. Polo.

Who knows? If you are immensely successful, children 700 years from now may name a game after you. Now wouldn’t that be swimming?

John Greathouse has held a number of senior executive positions with successful startups during the past fifteen years, spearheading transactions which generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.


Copyright © 2007-10 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.

John Greathouse has held a number of senior executive positions with successful startups during the past fifteen years, spearheading transactions, which generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is currently a partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage web-based businesses, and is a Co-Founder of RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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