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Referring someone for a position is an opportunity to assist not only them, but another member of our network who’s looking for a person with that specific set of skills, talents, and knowledge.

It goes without saying, however, that referring someone or a company when we have reservations about their ability to succeed can not only contribute to their failure, but can reflect poorly on the person who gave them a chance, and damage our credibility.  The good news is, when we’re called by a colleague and asked the proverbial, “Do we know anyone who is looking for a …”, if no one immediately comes to mind we can usually honestly say we don’t.

When we’re seeking a referral, we have a better chance of getting the one we want if we carefully define why we’re seeking the referral, what we have to offer, what company needs that product or service, and who in that company can make the decision.

For example, we read in our local business journal that Smith’s Engines just won the contract to design and manufacture engines as a sub-contractor on a multi-billion dollar defense contract.  Our company is in the business of providing aerospace design engineers and has had success augmenting the staff of several other defense contractors.  We believe the person who can either make or influence the decision is the Vice President of Engineering.

We could certainly figure out who that individual is and place a cold call … but so could every other engineering firm in our space.  Instead, we check through the simple database we keep of the more than 500 members of our network to determine who knows the Vice President of Engineering at Smith’s Engines and ask our colleague for his advice on the best way to get in front of him and for his referral.

Recently I was leading a consulting engagement and two members from another team became available.  Their project lead called me and asked if I could find a place for them for a few weeks while she worked on securing another opportunity.  She wanted to be certain the two of them would be available for additional work if she was successful.  We chatted for a few minutes about each of their capabilities and figured out how they could temporarily contribute to my engagement.

They turned out to be two powerhouses who came in and after ten minutes of introduction got right to work.  Because of those two capable people we were able to exceed my clients’ expectations.

That other project lead put her reputation on the line when she referred two members of her team.  Her willingness to do so; however, said it all.  In an industry where we’re all independent practitioners, referrals are risky because while one bad referral won’t end your career, it can cost you the good will of someone who would have brought you work down the line.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.