“Collecting” exceptional references is a key part of managing your career. Ideally – and depending on level/position – you should secure references in writing from your immediate manager/supervisor, a customer/client or two, and possibly a peer and your manager’s boss for *each* position you’ve held.These are best obtained as soon as possible after your announced departure (presuming you are leaving on great terms with an adequate period of notice).
In a number of instances, it makes sense to offer to provide talking points to each person you ask for a reference – bullets that speak to the salient points you’d like that particular person to address. It’s not unusual for a person to ask you to write your own reference letter – for their review/signature.
Letters of commendation and reference are useful not only for the obvious purpose (as leave-behinds in an interview – or when asked up front to provide “three letters of recommendation”). They can provide exceptional fodder for your cover letters used as part of your job search. I call the process “pull-quoting” – where you extract a key line or two from your top three letters of reference and place them at the midway point in a cover letter. You can introduce this section with a simple line: “You may find the following extracts from letters of recommendation useful in evaluating my candidacy.”
Even letters of reference written some time ago (and even many years ago) can provide value in a job search, particularly if you have collected a number over the years and a consistent theme is echoed throughout. In other cases, where you may have lost contact with some earlier managers in your career and have been unsuccessful in reestablishing a relationship or finding an individual using Google and LinkedIn, a copy of the original letter of recommendation can serve a valuable role as a reference on your behalf.
Maintain a binder of these letters – don’t give away originals (unless someone provides you with multiple copies on original letterhead that are signed); instead, provide photocopies of the originals. Collected over the lifespan of a career, these testimonials paint a vivid picture of the value you have delivered. It’s a useful strategy to re-read these documents as you enter each new job search – rarely will you have in one place such a powerful boost to your self-esteem!