How to Ask Your Network For Recommendations

Written by Dave Bailey

People whisper recommendations

Asking your network for recommendations might not be the solution you hoped, for your hiring decisions. Learn how to avoid bias by taking an algorithmic approach to recruitment.

They say you find the best recruits, service providers, and investors by asking for recommendations. So I decided to test the theory.

I listed all my service providers and partners over the last three years, along with how I found them. Surprisingly, third-parties that came via a recommendation were less likely to succeed than those that came from other sources.

In fact, some of the worst people I’ve worked with came via my network.

What’s going on here?

Not all recommendations are created equal

Why do some recommendations work out, while others fail? Looking at the data, I discovered that one of the following was true for all recommendations that turned out badly:

  1. The referrer hadn’t worked directly with the recommendation for a long time — or not at all. For example, they knew them from the gym, or were the partner of their best friend.
  2. The referrer didn’t have credibility in the area of the recommendation — for example, someone with little-to-no marketing experience recommending a marketer with whom they worked for a day.
  3. The referrer was someone I didn’t know well or fully trust. For example, I knew them from an online community, or I wouldn’t have wanted to work with them personally.

On the other hand, the fantastic recommendations came from people who matched this description:

Someone I think is awesome that recommends someone they think is awesome after working closely together.

That’s why, when I ask my network for a recommendation, I seek answers to these questions:

  • What’s your experience in this area?
  • How long have you worked closely with this person/company?
  • Did you work together directly?
  • Are you working together now? If not, why not?

I then ask myself if the referrer is exceptional at what they do. If they aren’t, even if the questions check out, I proceed with extreme caution.

Don’t trust people, trust algorithms

But I still needed to understand why third-parties who weren’t recommended did so well.

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel laureate who knows a lot about making decisions, and he offers some insightful advice when it comes to making them:

When there’s the possibility of using an algorithm, people should use it. We have the idea that it is very complicated to design an algorithm. An algorithm is a rule. You can just construct rules.’

This is why structured interviews beat gut-feel ones — the process of asking the same questions to each candidate and rating them on pre-selected criteria helps override the biases of intuition.

It also helps explain why the people I found via a careful process outperformed the recommendations. The social proof associated with the recommendations was too powerful to override and I trusted gut-feeling too much.

Ultimately, recommendations aren’t a silver bullet — and they may even be a blindspot. They need to be carefully assessed, and if you want great results, you should run a structured process too.

Continue reading about recruitment: 

Originally published Nov 25, 2019, last updated Aug 19, 2021

hiring seed-stage

About Dave Bailey

Hi, I’m Dave Bailey and I coach tech CEOs from Series A to pre-IPO. Join 20,000 entrepreneurs who receive my new essay every week. 

I will never sell your information, for any reason.

Trending essays

How to Use Nonviolent Communication at Work

All my biggest regrets as a founder are around not having difficult conversations sooner...

How to Coach Your Team and Get The Result You Want

If you’ve found it difficult to get the results you want from other people, try this simple technique...

How to Drive a Culture of Ownership

Do you wish your team took more ownership? Here’s how to trust them to get the job done without you...

10 Communication Techniques Used by Great Leaders

Whether you’re leading a meeting, a team, or a company, your ability to communicate can set you apart...

How to Ask Your Team The Right Questions

To improve your ability to ask great questions, it helps to understand the types of questions you can ask...

A Guide to Running Exceptional One-on-Ones

How effective are your one-on-ones? Here's a practical guide for managers and their direct reports...

Serious about levelling up as a CEO?

The Clarity Program is an accelerated coaching program that helps startup and scale-up CEOs communicate their customer need, strategy, and vision.

Learn about Clarity

Previously, Dave co-founded Delivery Hero and other scale-ups, and he's coached hundreds of scale-up CEOs across the US, Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Dave studied at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Oxford University. His writing has been featured in many of the world's top business publications. He has a passion for communication and strategy.

Learn more about Dave

©2023 Founder Coaching Limited. All Rights Reserved.
FOUNDER COACH® is a registered trademark of Founder Coaching Limited.