I read with great interest a LinkedIn post by Lou Adler, the self-proclaimed “Original Headhunter” about how to how to avoid hiring mistakes. As a long-time executive search consultant and former hiring manager, avoiding mistakes is paramount for me and my CEO clients.

Lou made some excellent points about cultural fit, not over or under hiring, assigning appropriate tasks once the new hire is on board, etc. However, he failed to mention a common hiring practice: the misuse of references. It just so happened that this practice was the subject of a lunch conversation I had with a CEO a few days after reading Lou’s post.

The CEO was not having success in hiring a senior finance person. Rather than using references early in the process to gain an objective, outside view of a candidate, she made the mistake of using the references after she made up her mind about who to hire. The reference merely validated her decision. When used correctly, references are a very valuable tool to uncover the truth about candidates before making a hiring decision.

When and How to Check References?

This business is a bit tricky. Say you are learning how to hire a CFO and are courting a new candidate to your company, a woman currently the CFO of a public company. You can hardly start calling official or backdoor references prior to a serious intent to hire.  Let’s lower the bar: say you are courting a CFO who is currently in between assignments…when is it ok to start the reference checking process?

A Two-Edged Sword to Swing Carefully

In the somewhat small halls of Sand Hill Road, everyone’s references are quietly checked all the time.

In hiring a CFO, the reference process is a delicate and infinitely important one. There isn’t a hard and fast rule for when and how to check references. It needs to be considered on a case by case basis. But one thing I will recommend: don’t make the mistake of waiting to check references until the very end of your hiring process. You’ll just validate your view of the candidate, or waste a lot of your time and that of your executive team.

For those interested in understanding how to hire a CFO, I also recommend hiring a third party to execute on finding the truth about anyone you’re thinking about adding to your team. This will take the emotion out of the equation. If you have comments or want to share your thoughts on how to hire a CFO, please email me, Dave Arnold, at dave@arnoldpartners.com or call 408-205-7373.

Now that you’ve learned how to avoid these common pitfalls, are you ready to dive into the complicated issue of industry experience? Read more on my post “Industry Experience: Key in CFO Search?