Most of us have been there on one side or the other, or maybe on both—asking a former boss for a letter of recommendation and to act as a reference.
By Anthony Rock
As we progress as leaders, colleagues or former subordinates often ask for a letter of recommendation, referral, or reference. I am, and I’m sure you are, more than happy to assist our best and brightest. In fact, I’m always honored (and simultaneously humbled) that someone gained enough from our time together that they’d even seek my support. I ask only one thing in exchange—keep me informed about how things go and the result of your efforts. Let’s not make this “one and done” but, rather, a continuation and expansion of our relationship. You see, once I support you in this, I’m invested in you and your journey. Don’t be surprised that I care…I did then, and I still do.
Setting these conditions sends a powerful message to your colleague: This relationship is not transactional but, rather, I’m offering support in sincere recognition of both your past performance and future potential. The best bosses I’ve had weren’t “involved” with the mission and people, they were “invested,” and it showed. As a recipient and beneficiary of support, you owe it to the leader to circle back and update them on the effect they created and where you’ve landed. Good leaders continuously fight for feedback and the validation is satisfying, motivating them to do more for others in the future. The beneficiary creates a collateral and cascading effect for other teammates who may ask the same in the future, and that’s satisfying too!
Too often, I’ve written a letter of recommendation never hearing back how the person did, and shame on me for not reaching out to ask them—I’ve changed that. When asked, I’m excited to help while setting the conditions. It starts by offering support with the caveat, “This can’t be one and done. You’ve reached out, we’re connected, I’m happy to help, I want to continue that connection, and I expect to hear back from you.” Seems like a small price to pay, and if you thought enough of the leader to ask for support you should be excited about continuing (and maybe even deepening) the relationship. Our best leaders care deeply. Trust me, you aren’t bothering me when you update me—in fact, you’re disappointing me if you don’t!
||Anthony J. Rock is an SMA Executive Advisor and Subject Matter Expert, and a retired US Air Force Lieutenant General with an exceptional 35-year military career.
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