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Most people think of references as a list of three people you hand over to a prospective employer after the company has decided it wants to hire you. But a proactive and strategic reference can help you long before you receive an offer, especially if you might need help getting in the door for an interview.

The power reference (PR) is someone who can make a difference. In rare cases, it will be a star, like a well-known general counsel or, for example, a U.S. Senator. Fame is not a prerequisite, however. The essential ingredient to a power reference is the relationship between the PR and the hiring decision-maker who receives the PR’s call. The relationship between you and the PR does not need to be nearly as strong or in-depth as you think.

In fact, all you need the PR to say is this: “I don’t know Meredith well, but based on my (fill in the blank) experience with her, she seems like a solid person, and I encourage you to give her a shot.” I realize the PR cannot be a total stranger, but even the slightest nexus, plus the guts to ask the PR for help, is all it takes.

To find a PR, research the employment history and charitable service of the CEO or general counsel who holds the keys to the position you want. Identify those organizations, and see if you know someone who your future boss might recognize. If you are reconnecting two people who have a positive history with each other, they will both appreciate the effort on your part and enjoy the phone call or email.

Regardless of the medium, once your PR and your future boss catch up on old times, I can predict the next communication. It will be a call or email from the recruiter (internal or external), inviting you to come in for an interview.

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