Apr 16, 2018

10 Reference Check Questions for Executives

In the hiring process, most individuals that are interviewing for a leadership opportunity, such as the role of a Chief Operating Officer, are accustomed to the references screening process. On the candidate’s side, having quality references can help you stand apart from the competition and can be a key reason one moves forward in the process. On the hiring manager's side, checking references is equally as important in finding the right candidate, especially for those looking to fill an executive position at a company.

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Sometimes it’s hard to tell executive-level candidates apart by only looking at their resumes, especially when you might have a lot of qualified and outstanding applicants for your open position. It’s much more helpful and insightful to call references and get to know the candidates outside of their resume. And what’s better than hearing from your candidate’s previous employers first-hand? If conducted correctly, you should learn a lot about the candidate from the reference call, both the candidate’s strengths, as well as their weaknesses. 

During a reference call for a leadership opportunity within your organization, you might not know what questions to ask to get the most valuable information about your candidate. Since most of your candidates are probably very qualified for the job, you will want to ask the references questions that will help you differentiate them and get a deeper insight into each one.

In this article, we did the work for you and compiled a list of questions that will help you do just that. These questions are very useful for employers but are also good to keep in mind when you are the candidate. Read until the end of the article to get some extra tips on how to effectively ask these questions in your executive level reference check.

10 Reference Check Questions for Leaders

  1. How long have you known [candidate name]?

  2. What was your professional relationship with [candidate name]

  3. What was [candidate name] like to work with? What would his/her direct reports say if asked this same question

  4. Have you worked with other [job title of position] in the past? How does [candidate name] compare to those individuals?

  5. What kind of [supervisor title, i.e., CEO, COO, etc.] work style do you think would be a good fit with [candidate name]? Why?

  6. Have you seen [candidate name] develop talent? Did you witness any of [candidate name] direct reports receive a promotion under his leadership?

  7. What was [candidate name] greatest accomplishment that you witnessed?

  8. Can you describe a time when [candidate name] faced adversity in his role? How did [candidate name] overcome this?

  9. [Describe the role you are hiring for] Would this be a good fit for [candidate name]? Why or why not?

  10. What should I have asked you about [candidate name] that I did not?

1. How long have you known [candidate name]? 

Though this question might seem pointless, it actually makes a big difference. If the reference has known the candidate for more time than he worked with the candidate, then the references answer might be a bit biased. When you know someone before you have worked together, you probably have a different relationship than just a colleague to colleague relationship. If you already saw this person as a friend before he/she started working, you are less likely to give an honest answer. This is why it is important to know how long the reference has known the candidate, to rule out the friendship bias, or perhaps consider it through the rest of the call.

2. What was your professional relationship with [candidate name]?

Asking the candidates reference their professional relationship to your potential COO or executive-level hire is also important. The answer to this question can tell you a lot about your candidate.

If the candidate gave you a reference that is or was at the same level or at a lower position than him/her, then your questions to follow will have a different tone. Getting to know the candidate, from the perspective of a direct report is equally important when you consider your next COO or executive-level hire. 

However, the more responsibility the reference has or had at the time they worked with the candidate, the more relevant information you can gather about the potential new hire. It could also be a good idea to know what position the reference now holds, as this will tell you if the individual has been promoted since working with the candidate. The candidate may have even been a factor in this promotion, learn more about it by asking!  

3. What was [candidate name] like to work with? What would his/her direct reports say if asked this same question?

This question is probably the reason you are calling, to better understand your final candidate(s) work ethic and capabilities. You cannot expect the reference to simply tell you what you want to hear, you must be straightforward to get the answers you want. Try to make the reference feel comfortable so that you get better and honest answers. Don’t just ask the reference what he/ she thinks as you want to get the most reliable information about the candidate, which is where the direct report part of this question comes into play.

The reason behind asking if the candidates direct report would feel the same way is to get a sense of how the candidate was viewed as a leader from a third-party perspective. Additionally, this is not typically a question that most references prepare for, so this question puts them in a position to provide uncandid feedback. The mission with this question is to get an objective viewpoint on the candidate’s leadership style.

4. Have you worked with other [job title of position] in the past? How does [candidate name] compare to those individuals?

On occasion, a candidate might give provide a reference that only speaks highly of him/ her. When assessing the validity of the feedback, be sure to ask the reference a little bit about their experience to understand how long they have been in a leadership role. What they have to say is still very important, but hearing something good about your candidate from someone who has been in charge for ten years is different than hearing it from someone who is new to their title.

It’s also important to ask them to compare the potential new hire to the other individuals so that you can get a sense of how the reference perceives other people. If they are the type of person that never thinks bad about anyone, this question will let you know. Some people are just a little too optimistic and will refrain from giving constructive criticism about anyone.

Just make sure you analyze the reference’s perspective and bias before you believe everything they tell you about the candidate. 

5. What kind of [supervisor title, i.e., CEO, COO, etc.] work style do you think would be a good fit with [candidate name]? Why?

Now that you understand the job title and the reference’s past experiences, you know how well the reference can answer this question.

Someone who has been in a high position for a long time is probably good at seeing what type of work your candidate will prosper in. This is not to say someone who is newer to the job can’t answer this question just as well. Sometimes those who have been doing the same job for a long time lose sight of how great change is because they are so focused on their set ways. 

The second part of this question is just as important, if not more than the first part. When you ask the reference the reason for her answer, you can get a very thoughtful response that can benefit both you and your candidate. Asking for an explanation of the reference’s answer allows you to understand how the reference thinks and thus how the reference views this candidate. This question is great because it values the candidate for the qualities he might have. It’s important not to always focus on the negative side of people. 

6. Have you seen [candidate name] develop talent? Did you witness any of [candidate name] direct reports receive a promotion under his leadership?

Having a candidate who is willing to learn is crucial to your company. Many times companies focus too much on a candidate's experience. But you have to remember that just because someone has a lot of experience doesn’t mean they are the best candidate for the position you are offering, especially for an executive-level position that requires tenacity, flexibility, and adaptability. This question is very important no matter how much experience the candidate has. If the candidate grew while at the company, then this means both parties benefited from this job. If you hire someone who isn’t willing to grow, then their experience is useless. Things change everyday in the workplace and in our environment, whether that change has to do with technology, a person’s personal life, or politics - you have to know that your candidate is able to grow with that change. 

If the candidate received a promotion while at a company, this is even more proof of the candidate’s competence. Receiving a promotion means that the person did so well and surpassed whatever employees the company already had in place. If this is the case, then ask what they were promoted to. This question tells you how this candidate will flourish in your company.  

7. What was [candidate name] greatest accomplishment that you witnessed?

Though this question could be subjective to each reference, it’s actually a really good question. This question reflects on both the candidate and the reference. Hopefully, the candidate has accomplished plenty of great things in his last job. But the interesting part of this question is that, even if the reference doesn’t realize it, this question will reveal true feelings about the candidate. Most times people will answer this question with the accomplishment that surprised them the most. Out of all the accomplishments, the one that would stand out the most would be the one the reference didn’t expect the candidate to complete. 

What do you think your reference would answer to this? Are you proud of this accomplishment?

8. Can you describe a time when [candidate name] faced adversity in his role? How did [candidate name] overcome this?

This question tends to be asked a lot in interviews. The reason this question is so popular is that it can give you a different perspective on the candidate. If this question was asked in the interview, then you can compare the answers and see how different or alike they are. If your candidate is good at facing adversity, he would most likely fit into any kind of environment. 

The second part of this question is also extremely valuable. If the candidate was able to overcome his adversity in a peaceful manner, then you know he is probably good in a crisis. It’s always good to have someone by your side that will know how to react when something bad goes down. 

9. [Describe the role you are hiring for] Would this be a good fit for [candidate name]? Why or why not?

Though this question is similar to question five, it is different. Even if there is an ideal role for a person, many times they have to climb or try different roles to grow into the best person for that role. We would recommend you ask question five before you ask this question so that you can compare the answer the person gives. If you ask this question first, then the reference might mold the answer to question five to fit into this specific job description. They might realize they answered a very different answer to question five and try to compensate while answering this question. Once again, asking why or why not makes a huge difference, especially if they are trying to match their answer to question five. If their answer is honest, they shouldn't have to think too hard about the reason behind it. 

10. What should I have asked you about [candidate name] that I did not?

This is the perfect question to end your call with. It’s like when you go into an interview and are asked if you have any final questions. The reference is slightly caught off guard but it also shows you how much attention and time he has been giving to your questions. If the reference answered everything quickly, then you know the candidate wasn’t too important to this reference. This is also the perfect place for the reference to get personal. You can see how well they knew the candidate and thus evaluate their answers accordingly. 

How to Conduct an Executive-Level Reference Check

These 10 questions are a good guide to have with you when you are making a call. You can use these exact questions or expand from them and make your own additions. Remember it’s always better to be prepared when you make the call. Don’t just call and try to come up with the questions because this will end terribly.  See how the reference treats you and how personal or impersonal they are. It’s not always just about their answer but also about how they answer. Is their tone friendly? Do they seem to not care at all? Really try to take everything into consideration.

If you have any extra tips or questions you think should be asked when making a reference check call for an executive position, please let us know in the comments section below.  

Kaplan Executive Search is a retained executive search firm specializing in recruiting Chief Operating Officers for the cannabis industry, EOS® companies, and other entrepreneurial businesses. If you are ready to hire a COO or another leadership position, contact Kaplan Executive Search. If you are interested in a leadership opportunity for a dynamic and growing organization, please send us your information.

Next Step:

Check out our Abridged Guide to Hiring a Chief Operating Officer, containing top considerations for CEOs and Business Owners when hiring a COO.

The Abridged Guide to Hiring a COO


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