A common question from the audience when I speak to groups about career development is, “How do I sell myself without bragging?” Here is my best answer: get the right people to brag for you.
A referral and/or testimonial from the right person is your most powerful marketing asset, whether you are a job-seeker, a satisfied employee, or an entrepreneur. In short, if the right person says you are great, a decision-maker will often assume you are as well. As a result, endorsements can increase your chances of getting “face time” with influential people, and they can also make the sales process easier because you start off on a higher ground than someone without a third-party endorsement.
However, all referrals and testimonials are not created equal. Here are 5 little-known secrets for using referrals and testimonials to advance your career:
- Get recommended by people who love you. Sounds obvious, right? Well, I haven’t always done this, and you probably haven’t either. When I was in high school, my family learned from one of the colleges that rejected me that one of my letters of recommendation had been a factor in my rejection. (Don’t ask me how my Dad figured this out!) Apparently, my history teacher wrote a paltry, 3-sentence letter on my behalf. We were surprised at his actions, but I should have known better. I had asked him for a letter because I thought he was a brilliant writer; he had not been one of my biggest advocates. Big mistake.
- Get recommended by people who are reliable. I once asked a former boss to serve as a reference. This guy was a big fan of mine, so I figured he’d be perfect. However, the reference letter he wrote for me had several typos and did not even include a standard header. It looked terrible. Luckily, I saw the letter before it went out. I should not have been surprised. He was a great guy, but one of the most disorganized people I knew. Make sure your references have their act together. If they aren’t normally reliable and thorough, they won’t suddenly become reliable and thorough when communicating with people on your behalf. If your references look bad, you will look bad. The opposite is also true.
- Get recommended by people who will look impressive to the people you want to impress. For example, if you are a student applying for a financial services job where you would report to a Director of Finance, it would be much more impressive to have a recommendation from your Corporate Finance professor than your History professor. This is not always possible, so do what you can.
- Tell your references how to endorse you. This might sound sneaky or manipulative, but most people have no idea what to write or say in a testimonial or letter of recommendation. As a result, most testimonials are the worthless, generic kind, like “Pete is a great guy. I highly recommend him.” Here’s a confession for you. A number of my best testimonials are endorsements I have written myself and gotten permission to attribute to another person. Many people actually thank me for making it easier for them to endorse me. Use your judgment on this one. Some people will be more comfortable with this than others, and you can’t ask for this unless someone has seen the quality of your work and the two of you have a very strong relationship.
- Tell your references what to say if asked about your weaknesses. In 2010, one of my former colleagues asked me to serve as a reference for him. Given the work that I do, and being very thorough, I thought about how to respond if a hiring person asked me what my friend’s greatest weakness was. Can you guess the first question I was asked when his future boss called me? Luckily, I had a well-constructed comeback planned, which I conveniently sandwiched between a discussion of the person’s strengths. The chances of your references thinking about this in advance are close to zero. It’s your responsibility to prep them on what to say if asked about your deficiencies. If you don’t, they might step on a landmine for you.
Pete Leibman is the Founder and Keynote Speaker for Dream Job Academy, and his career advice has been featured on Fox, CBS, and CNN. His new book, “I Got My Dream Job and So Can You,” features lessons from young professionals who recently landed their dream job in a variety of fields.