A (Dirty) Little Secret About Reference Checks Part 1

May 1, 2024
4 Minutes
Made Not Found Text
In SaaS businesses, operating results are earned every single day; and good businesses are made, not found. Writing here about building organizations, learning from the experience, and appreciating the ride.
Subscribe today to receive updates


High-performing Leadership Teams may be the most critical element of successful B2B SaaS businesses. And in my experience, the alchemy that creates transformational team performance is something that is forged through great intent and shared experiences over time. Spoiler alert: this two-part post is not at all about that.

Rather, it is about what comes before that. Recruiting excellent leaders and setting them up for maximum success is one of our primary objectives. The way we do that is by conducting comprehensive reference checks after we’ve made a hiring decision.

Our strategy demands that we hire dynamic, up-and-coming leaders for our portfolio companies and support them in doing their best work. Reference checks are a surprisingly critical step to ensuring post-hiring success for everyone.

In this first part, I’ll share the Why and How, and in the follow-up, I’ll cover the What / What-else of driving real value and getting real insight from references. Note: we focus heavily on recruiting new CEOs, so that will be the lens; but the points also equally apply to other executive roles.

WHY…are reference checks even still useful?

Here’s a (dirty) little secret about reference checks: they rarely help small-scale SaaS businesses with high-stakes executive hiring decisions.

Rather, they more often help small-company boards (and / or hiring teams) increase their conviction about someone they’ve pretty-much decided to hire anyway. In this context, reference checks become perfunctory CYA exercises — tedious for everyone involved. Now…if that is true (and some may disagree), then why bother doing them at all?! Exactly

Framed differently, however, reference checks are extremely valuable. I’ve found they are less helpful in candidate selection, and far more useful in ensuring a smooth on-boarding and transition. They also give existing company stakeholders (specifically: board members and other Leadership Team members) a shared understanding of how best to work with their prospective new colleague/exec. That painstaking up-front work accelerates on-boarding and helps streamline necessary forming / storming / norming / performing / adjourning among the senior team. In short, it is totally worth it.

HOW…do I perform this type of reference checks?

On the surface, they’re only modestly different from traditional, standard-issue reference checks we’ve all experienced. There’s an important difference though, including:

  • Taking place over a video call: This is much better than audio-only, and sometimes requires a bit of insistence with busy references who may want to multi-task. This is for a CEO position after all.
  • Lasting for at least 45 minutes: This length can surprise people; but as noted above, we’re discussing a senior executive. That can’t be done in 15 minutes.
  • Requiring and checking with four key references:
    1. Someone the CEO candidate reported to for a meaningful period.
    2. Someone who reported to the candidate for a meaningful period.
    3. Someone who was a lateral peer with them for a meaningful period.
    4. A “wildcard” (someone who can provide additional insight into capabilities and leadership style). These can vary widely beyond work colleagues and have included best friends, pastors, and others.

The more substantive differences is how the meeting is framed (remember, it is a 45-minute video call). What does that look like?

  • It absolutely should NOT focus on: “Should we hire this person?”

Rather, it explicitly IS: “We plan to hire this person. How can we best set them up for success? What can we do / what should we know to ensure they are in the best possible position to crush the role that we plan to entrust to them?”

This slight re-framing completely changes the tenor of the conversation.

It ceases to be a formality where the candidate is framed in only the most flattering light. Instead, it evolves into an opportunity for them to share genuine insights about their former colleague to help them thrive in the most-important step of their career.

In the second part of this post, I’ll cover what specific questions to ask to achieve this and what else is crucial to know.


Are we speaking the same language? Let’s talk.

L8 icon
379 W. Broadway
New York, NY 10012

©2023 Lock 8 Partners 
Privacy Policy