Reference-Checking Scenarios: Senior Management Candidates

HOW DIFFICULTIS IT to gather critical background data on senior management candidates in the reference-checking process? Well, it's not as difficult as you'd think, considering that most high-level executives are wise enough to realize that providing reference feedback for a peer is nothing short of career insurance. After all, a quirky twist of fate may have that past supervisor depending on his subordinate for career opportunities in the future.

Combine this with the fact that senior managers don't get the same drill from human resources departments regarding the legal pitfalls and judicial exposure associated with providing reference feedback (HR's dictates, after all, won't always carry all the way to the executive suite), and you'll see why many senior managers are willing to share their opinions freely and help out peers and subordinates who are in a career transition. It's simply in everyone's best interests to say good things about a fellow executive who— ''there but for the grace of God go I''—has the misfortune of being terminated because of political upheaval, management change, or lackluster stock performance.

However, even though senior managers are willing to talk, they can sometimes sugarcoat their responses. Again, what goes around comes around in the inner sanctum of the executive suite, and competitors today may be allies tomorrow. Consequently, you may end up with an overly optimistic picture of a candidate's performance because of this unspoken gentleman's agreement'' to aid others in transition. Therefore, it becomes critical that you fine-tune your questions in the reference-checking process to highlight performance and style issues that otherwise might be covered up with a polite and safe, Oh, Ralph is great, and he'll do a wonderful job for you'' response.

Is this candidate's management style more autocratic and paternalistic or is it geared toward a more participative and consensus-building approach?

Why Ask This Question?

We know that individuals influence corporate cultures. We also know that senior managers, more so than anyone else in the organization, set the formal tone within their divisions for internal communications, problem solving, performance expectations, sign-off procedures, and accountability. Employ this query first in the reference-checking process to get straight to the people-skills issue. The response you generate will set the tone for all the answers to follow. (After all, if you find out that the candidate takes a ''my way or the highway approach to problem solving, that will most likely color the rest of the responses you get.) This is also a question that typically gets employers talking freely because it commands a very subjective and fairly safe response.

Analyzing the Response

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. Let's assume you get an answer that sounds fairly noncommittal:

''Peggy can be an autocrat when she needs to achieve a definitive goal in a short amount of time, but she also encourages her subordinates to chip in when the situation calls for it.''

Well, the fact that this past supervisor points out Peggy's flexibility is a good sign that her management style isn't too autocratic or too laissez-faire.

To encourage more specific feedback, however, focus the employer on the number of meetings the candidate holds on a regular basis. In general, senior managers who hold few if any meetings with their direct or extended reports tend to govern a little bit more unilaterally than most. After all, if participative input isn't called for, there will be little opportunity to benefit from others suggestions.

In contrast, senior managers who strive to orchestrate the combined activities of direct reports by holding lots of meetings, cross-training their teams, or job-swapping lower-level staff members so that workers more clearly understand their internal clients needs obviously depend more on consensus building and buy-in at the grassroots level. Again, there s no right or wrong answer here. It s simply a matter of encouraging the respondent to be more descriptive in interpreting your question.

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