Contacts

By Sharon Naylor

May 7, 2010 6 min read

A stellar reference from a former employer or big-name expert in your field can land you the job of your dreams. R?sum?s may show potential employers what you've done, but reference letters show them who you are, and great notes of recommendation can catapult you above the others competing for the job you want.

If you're newly in job-hunting mode after years of employment, you might find that your existing recommendation letters are a few years old, and you may have lost touch with those who wrote them. Considering that interviewers do reach out to your referral providers, it's essential that you reconnect with your former bosses and colleagues, especially if you haven't kept in touch with them over the years. They're not lost causes. All it takes is a skillful strategy that refreshes those golden contacts and allows their glowing reviews to work for you once more.

"To reconnect with contacts you've -- let's face it -- neglected to keep in contact with," says Andrea Kay, career consultant and author of "Life's a Bitch and then You Change Careers," "call them, and admit that you've been remiss in keeping in contact with them. Express your desire to reconnect, and ask them whether you can set up a time to talk briefly with them." It won't do to apologize and then launch into what you'd like them to do for you. The key is to express a genuine concern that yours is a relationship you'd like to refresh. "It may be a meeting you arrange or a phone call, during which you can say, 'I'm at a point where I'm looking for a new position, and I feel strongly that you can speak on my behalf.' Tell them what you've been working on, any new direction your career has taken, and especially what your goals are. Don't assume that they remember you."

When a company calls your references, you want them to be able to speak highly of you, not say that they haven't worked with you or heard from you in years. A potential employer will lose faith in your integrity, wondering why you couldn't provide a current reference who would speak well of you.

"Choose references who know and respect you on a personal level, who can speak of your character, who can say, 'I worked with her on (project) and was impressed with her ability to handle difficult personalities, work well under tight deadlines, upgrade her skills, volunteer for additional projects' and so on," Kay says. "The ideal reference can attest to your greatness on a personal, as well as a professional, level."

In addition to former bosses and colleagues, Kay suggests that you collect names of additional character and professional references, such as people with whom you served on a board or in a charitable organization or in a professional organization in which you held a leadership or supporting role. Linda Zec, a current job hunter, says she finds her alumni organization to be a prime source of references because the organization has exposed her to people in many different types of industries, and her work on behalf of the alumni group has stood out and impressed the members.

The caliber of your references is quite important. An interviewer will be impressed more by those in positions of industry leadership than he or she will be by your spouse or your mother. Even those who have worked for you can write outstanding letters of recommendation attesting to your fairness, professionalism, organization and ingenuity as a boss.

How do you steer your references into saying the things you want them to say in recommendation letters? Kay advises: "When you meet with or talk to your connections, it's what you say to remind them of your strengths that will guide the referrals they write. Remind them about projects you worked on together. Explain 'here's where I am and what I'm thinking about my next move.'" People are busy; they're not thinking much about their past with you. So when you touch upon their memories of how fabulous it was to work with you, you implant concepts for the letters they'll write on your behalf.

In our era of social and business networking sites, such as LinkedIn, keep in mind that anything that's "out there" referring to your professional abilities likely will be viewed by those considering hiring you. So it's an excellent idea to request recommendations from your contacts on LinkedIn, reach out and connect with more colleagues and people in your industry who can speak of your talents and character, and have an impressive collection of raves on your profiles. "Anything you've put on the Internet should be updated and fresh and correct," Kay says, "because everything that's out there is an extension of your reputation, or your 'brand,' as people like to say."

And of course, when you receive a wonderful recommendation letter from a former colleague, boss, professor, mentor, committee member or employee, immediately send a handwritten thank-you note for the person's time and support. And express your wish to keep in touch in the future.

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