The Generic VC / PE Reference Questions For An Executive Hire

I’m on the receiving end of a lot of reference calls. I try to be thoughtful and direct in my responses, but I’m increasingly annoyed by the generic nature of the questions. Over time, I’ve developed an approach to doing reference checks, and my approach actively avoids asking any of the following questions.

  • How did you get to know Person X?
  • What is your relationship to Person X?
  • What were Person X’s different roles?
  • How does Person X rank concerning leadership ability?
  • How does Person X rank concerning analytical ability?
  • What about Person X’s vision and ability to communicate it to others?
  • Was Person X well respected by the people he managed?
  • What are Person X’s strengths?
  • What are Person X’s weaknesses or areas for development?
  • Would you hire Person X again? If so, what size company?
  • What other questions should I have asked?
  • Are there any things you would want to know if you were me?

I don’t know which VC or Private Equity firm first came up with this list of questions, but like many elements of a term sheet, they seem to have been passed down from generation to generation.

My answer to the last question is “Do you ever get tired of doing reference checks this way?”

Also published on Medium.

  • I’ll bite. What kinds of questions would be better?

    • That’s probably another blog post on how I do I reference checks …

  • edzschau

    Brad, I agree with your general theme that generic reference questions lead to less insightful discovery about a candidate. However, the ‘how do you know the person?’ context question is necessary to establish how well the reference really knows the individual. I always follow that question ‘what did this person do/accomplish in the role?’ Those two questions usually tease out how credible/valuable the reference call is going to be. The rest of the reference call should focus on 2 or 3 specific topics (concerns about candidate, clarification about role, context of situation, etc). I will conduct the reference checks with similar questions (specific to that candidate) to a set of references because I’m looking for consistencies (or inconsistencies) in what I’ve learned about the candidate during the interviews and from what the all the references are saying.

    • I’ve explored giving super shallow answers to the “How Do You Know Person X” question and get away with it every time. So, even though this is a valuable question, it’s not necessarily one that generates a relevant answer.

      Asking more precise contextual questions to get at how the person knows the other person is a better approach in my opinion. I have a cascading chain that starts high level (1. Tell me the most recent role in which you worked together?) that can go very deep (N. Were you both defendants in the lawsuit about Y?” These questions vary based on circumstance, which is part of the difference between a generic reference check and a specific one.

  • Intrigued to hear your better questions. Sometimes “generic” = “popular” = “best practices” — and exist for a reason: They’re helpful. It’s always exciting to discover areas where there might be mass delusion on the effectiveness of a popular approach! 🙂

    • I’m really glad I didn’t use the phrase “best practices” in the post. In my experience, “best practices” often become a rationalization for “I didn’t think about how to do this, I just follow the best practices that someone told me about.”

      That’s a dangerous approach if you believe in the value of critical thinking, which is a fundamental tenant of how I approach things.

      I don’t ignore the best practices or “conventional wisdom”, but I don’t simply inherit it. I think about it. I challenge it. I dig into why it exists.

      For reference checks, this most definitely is not a best practice at this point. Yet it is used broadly.

      So, I’ll let this live in the “mass delusion on the effectiveness of a popular approach.”

      • “Best practices” has become for me a hated phrase. Same as

        Hate is a strong term but I find people that don’t get their way love to fall back on squishy terms to demean people.

        Tell me why you don’t like what I am doing. Saying that is not “best practice” is absolute bullshit.

        • What about “world class”? That’s another fun one.

          • Agree, but that one in general: we are “world class” or “the leader” is promotional but not demeaning.

            I have seen that is “not best practice” used by really small minded people. Ok, explain to me why??? Ummm.

            Or wearing shorts is “unprofessional” Ok, explain to me why??? Ummm.

  • So simple.

    Tell me the top time you gave an ass kicking

    Tell me the top time you got your ass kicked

    I want details. Minute details. Down to where you were, where you stayed, who did it, how, why, names, details, details.

  • Thomas Luk

    I give it a shot, here is one of my favorite questions:
    “Six months from now, what will I learn about this person, which surprises me?”

    • This is a provocative one I’ve never used. I have a version that goes as follows:

      “A year from now, what will this person have fucked up?”

      • Thomas Luk

        I do hope that there are also some good things, which might surprise even you 😉 I use this question to allow them to bring up everything which they think might be relevant.

  • I prefer negative reference calls. Much more interesting and useful 😉

    • That’s a really interesting take. I see my comment was really about interviewing versus references. But it’s a good point, which is nobody’s life is perfect.

    • That’s part of how I approach it. I might have taken that from you …

  • Haha, appreciated that post!

    Although clearly a link to this Feld post can be sent anytime someone asks: “What other questions should I have asked?”

    • Yeah – I’ll write that post at some point.

  • William Reid

    The overly energetic question “Were they a Rock Star/Ninja/Wizard/etc?” I usually try to answer the question literally saying “I don’t know if they played an instrument in a band. We didn’t have that kind of relationship.”