We do a lot of referencing in our business. We certainly ask around about a team before investing in them. But we do even more referencing post investment when we help the founders and management of our portfolio companies build a team. Investors often have access to references that founders and management don't. So we can add a lot of value to the hiring process by reaching out to our network and asking about people.
The thing I have learned in 30-plus years of making reference calls is to pay attention to how things are said more than what is said. And pay particular attention to what is not said.
I have also learned to call people instead of sending emails. Most people don't want to put negative things in writing, but will do so on the phone, particularly with someone they trust.
It is also helpful to talk to people with knowledge of a situation but not handcuffed by it. For example, a CEO may not feel comfortable saying something negative about someone they transitioned out of their company, but a co-worker might be. Or a close friend of a co-worker might be.
I don't mean to suggest that references are all about finding out the negatives. You should also seek to hear what someone's strengths are. Most people are good at some things and not so good at other things. Getting a sense of strengths and weaknesses and making sure the person is a good fit for the role is what referencing a person is all about.
But I do believe strongly in hearing the negatives when hiring someone. If you can't find anything negative about someone, that is a red flag to me. Often negatives in one situation can be positives in another.
If someone says to me, "they were great when the company was small but got lost as the company scaled" that means that person is great at the very early stages of a company's development. And that is often the most valuable time in a company's life. Finding people who can operate in that environment is not easy. So I like hearing that about people. I know where to orient them.
I am not a fan of calling the references on someone's list unless I know those people well. What I do instead is figure out who I know well that knows the person or knows someone who does. And then I reach out and call them. It's more work but it yields much better results.
I am also a believer in having a group of people do the referencing. Getting multiple angles of attack on a situation is valuable and multiple people will have a much bigger network of close relationships to leverage.
I am not a fan of referencing by checklist questions. I have been on the other end of calls where the person is reading from a list of questions. That strikes me as an odd way to do a reference check. I think a conversation where you can dig into the meat of the issue in a natural way works a lot better. At least it does for me.
Finally, I think you should wait until you have a good sense of the person and are seriously considering them for the role before doing the references. The more information you have about the person and their potential fit for the role, the better your calls can be. But you don't want to wait too long. If there is a big red flag on a candidate, you want to know that before you spend too much of your time and their time on the hiring process.
Referencing is an art more than a science. Getting people on your team and around you (on your board, your advisors, your investor group) who are good at it can be super helpful. And don't forget to reach out and use them in your hiring process. It can make a huge difference.