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Are Candidate References Really Valuable?

Are Candidate References Really Valuable?

This question is taken from AGB Search's monthly newsletter, "Securing Leadership," which features two questions—one frequently asked by search committee members and another often posed by candidates. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

A search committee member asks: Are the references that a candidate provides really valuable? Candidates only give us the names of people who will be positive about them.

It probably is true that candidates are savvy enough to select individuals who know them and are likely to speak very positively on their behalf. So, why does this practice continue and remain a valuable one for the search committee? Generally, a candidate’s references will comment clearly and candidly about the individual; that is useful and good to hear, and it strengthens the application. While their accounts might be a tad compromised by the positive relationship between the parties, know how to discount what is said appropriately and dig a little deeper.

One question leads to another. Comfort in the conversation is key to drawing out a reference's views—even beyond the inquiry. With the right questions, the committee can gain additional insight to another level of strength, accomplishment, or weakness in the candidate.

It is worth the effort to hear what a reference has to say about leadership traits, attributes, communication skills, successful projects, failed undertakings, recollections, and more. A practiced reference checker can tug at a tone or a tidbit of information that may reveal an issue deserving more attention. He or she also can gain ideas for persons to be called "off-list," should a candidate reach the next stage of the search process.

Starting a presidential search on your campus? Consider AGB's Presidential Search Toolkit, with four publications to assist your board with all elements of the search process.
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