Why I get people to write their own letters of reference

If you’ve subscribed or followed my blogs, you know by now about my concept of antimimeticisomorphism – Doing out-of-the-ordinary things to create extra-ordinary results with the least amount of effort and lowest cost.

Early in my career, a mentor got me to write my own letter of reference. He explained that as the requestor and benefactor, it was up to me to do the “heavy lifting”. I was quite taken aback, but what he said next made a lot of sense. Since he hired and worked with a lot of people, if he acquiesced to all the people who made the request, he would spend dozens and maybe even hundreds of hours a year… Doing people “a favour”.

Instead, he cut back the letters to +/- half and spent that time saved to edit and personalise the ones that were submitted to him to a much greater level of detail and relevance.

I have followed this wise approach in my 30+ year-long career realising that there are other benefits. First, I too have found half of the people won’t come back with a letter to be edited. Second, their self-perception of what they think they did can be quite shockingly distorted or pleasantly insightful and revealing. In the former instance, it can be quite awkward (but necessary) to make the edits and in the former I can further highlight those elements that I would otherwise not have considered.

Letters of reference are not worth much since we all know we get them from people who like and appreciate what we did for or with them. There is some credence to accumulating them in large numbers since the volume of positive references is, by itself testimony to excellence and consistency. Someone who can convince 10, 20 or 30 people to provide a letter of reference has to be better than one who cannot or has not had the initiative or forethought to do so.

Of course, when the first draft comes to you, it’s your responsibility to edit it, re-write and edit it in your own voice and style – ensuring it is both accurate and representative of the person you are attaching to your name and reputation.

Yes, sometimes I have refused to write a letter – even for someone who did an “OK” job because for me, “OK” is not good enough for me to associate myself with that person.

One last comment worthy to note – some people will take offence to this approach. You need to “own this approach” to overcome that response. My view is anyone who takes offence has made that choice and as such doesn’t understand what I have explained above. Explaining why is absolutely necessary.

What is also necessary is to no accept the guilt trip many people will try to bestow on you. The most common comments include:

  • “But I worked for you for X years and it’s the least you could do.”
  • “It will only take you 10 minutes…”
  • “Everyone else I asked did it for me, why won’t you?”
  • “I wouldn’t know where to start and I am not comfortable blowing my one trumpet.”
  • “You know me better than I know myself and you’re written more references letters than I have.”
Admittedly, sticking to this “principle” is not easy – but I believe it’s necessary if you want to elevate your relationships to a higher level of character and integrity – especially in this superficial world of false friendships and the proliferation of fake “testimonials and reviews”.
Of course I match the person’s contribution with my own. I once had someone submit a one-liner, which I edited and sent back as a one-liner…!
As a referrer, you’re either part of the problem (perpetuating it with a quick, worthless letter) or part of the solution with a well-developed and meaningful assessment that transcends the standard letter of reference. Something the reader will acknowledge is “different”.
But please let be known, I am biased. I have seen the differences in my 30+ year career. The longest letters I created were for people who are still friends or acquaintances and anecdotally they’ve been considerably more ‘successful’ in their careers. Part of it might be their flexibility to adapt to new situations and circumstances, like this one.

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