A man is known by the company he keeps!
Firstly an apology for the gender bias in the title, those are not my own words; they are a 2500 year old pearl of wisdom. You may be familiar with this sentiment even if you can’t recall the particular Aesop’s Fable from which it derives (it’s The Ass and his Purchaser, if you are want to google/bing it).
The fable is as relevant today as it was when first penned, perhaps even more so in the joined up modern world where one advert can lead to a deluge of applications within minutes of an opportunity being posted on an internet jobs board. Just how is the recruiter or their client supposed to sift effectively when applications look the same, especially when they all sport similar credentials or operate in a field where so many formal qualifications have no direct relevance or date so rapidly that they are pointless?
Of course Aesop anticipated this and, in the absence of any better distinction, candidates should be weighed according to the company they keep. Nowadays this suggests that they may be known by the quality of the endorsements that their peers and clients have provided.
You may not know the individuals providing references personally and Linkedin is helpful in finding and discretely vetting candidates as it is designed to take advantage of the “Six Degrees of Separation” concept, or “Small Worlds Theory” as it is otherwise known, in order to maximise the chances that if you can’t find someone you know who knows the candidate, you can probably find someone you know who knows someone you know who does…
Linkedin profiles have a Recommendations feature which is equivalent to attaching references to a CV/Resume thus giving some indication of “quality” and this is supplemented with collections of simple endorsements that contacts are encouraged to provide for each other in order to provide a sort of superficial measure of who believes the claimed skills.
Of course the enormity of the Linkedin database means it is something of a blunt instrument. It’s very, very effective at identifying the links you need to follow and I myself have obtained three contract positions in recent years as a result of clients, otherwise unknown to me, navigating through their millions of connections with the right keywords. However the Recommendations and Endorsements are historic, they provide clues to the company a person has kept in the past, but they are not necessarily attuned to the current requirement. Moreover they are necessarily generic, often bland and do not expose the referee to any significant reputational risk of their own. They may fall far short of providing trustworthy guidance and, in my opinion, trust is an essential quality that separates great candidates from the merely competent.
Trust is a two way street and sadly many recruiters cynically harvest references in order to identify prospective customers rather than their intended purpose which is to help select real candidates for real vacancies. This practice is so widespread that many freelancers refuse to provide references at all prior to first interview. It’s not easy to predict how counterproductive this is because on the one hand it may mean that recruiters seeking genuine references may ignore some of the best candidates whilst, on the other, it discourages the unwanted cold calling that may otherwise occur. Don’t underestimate the negative impact on a business to business relationship when one party finds out via the market that they may have an upcoming vacancy of which they were previously unaware!
This brings us to the nub of the fable. The buyer observed that the donkey chose the “laziest and greediest beast in the stable” as his companion and rejected him accordingly, presumably without reference to the donkey’s outstanding professional qualifications and previous career history! In order to facilitate similar judgements and produce a shortlist of really quality, clients and recruiters also need to look beyond boilerplate endorsements and get the measure of the “someone you know who knows someone you know” themselves. In other words to find “someone you know and trust who knows someone they know and trust”. Oh, and don’t be surprised if the very best candidates are talking to people they trust to ensure that they are not about to be interviewed by the client from hell!
Wouldn’t it be great if there were even a few recruitment agencies that recognised this and were certain to introduce the very best resources to the very best clients? In their absence there’s a real responsibility on candidates to ensure that they prepare the path for prospective clients to establish trust and on the more diligent clients to use it! Perhaps it would be even simpler if the client started by asking someone they know and trust who they know and trust and anyone looking for planning and project controls expertise is welcome to begin the process by asking me (firstname.lastname@example.org)!