The Informational Interview: What Not To Say and More
I have encountered job seekers who had taken part in informational interviews but seemed to find them fruitless. Admittedly, having helped many clients using a straightforward approach, I was skeptical about the winding path to a career that the informational-interview process seems to represent. Recent conversations have shown me that taking the right approach, though, can land positions in competitive fields even in a difficult economy. I'll share what I learned about what not to say, how to leverage social media, and more.
For starters, have a genuine respect for the subject of your interview and take the informational aspect seriously, meaning:
1) Do not ask superficial questions to elicit answers that could be found through a basic Internet search (the annual sales of a publicly-held company, for example);
2) Do not bait and switch, asking for an informational interview and then pushing to have your résumé circulated among hiring managers.
Just as background, an informational interview is a meeting that is initiated by someone who is gathering information. This approach was defined and popularized by Richard Bolles in his classic career book, "What Color Is Your Parachure?" His methods involve conducting interviews for the purpose of identifying and evaluating careers, organizations, position titles, etc. appropriate to one's skills, education, and interests.
And though I had considered the informational interview the domain of an active job-seeker, others advised me of its possible uses. Sophie Gonin of Sogo Photography said that she had effectively used this technique to secure an internship (which later led to a full-time job) and was now encouraging her younger brother to pursue such sessions to help define career goals and select college courses. Iris Salsman of I. Salsman PR advised me that this tool is also useful for those re-entering the workforce, (potential) career changers, and those who have recently relocated.
To learn about the mechanics of the informational interview, I had enlightening conversations with a couple of professionals who earned MBAs from public universities: Chris Perry, who recently graduated from the Mason School of Business at the College of William & Mary, snagged a job at Reckitt Benckiser (owner of Lysol, French's Mustard, and other household brands), and runs Career Rocketeer in his free time; and Grayson Leverenz, a graduate of Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who landed a position at a Fortune 50 consumer packaged goods company, and now provides coaching services through mbaintheusa.com.
They both followed front-door rules (following traditional job-search channels such as making contact with human resources and applying for open positions) but used the back-door approach of the informational interview to unlevel the playing field. Here are some details on methods that have led to interviews and helped to secure jobs:
Build your presence on LinkedIn.
Create your résumé by filling in your profile with information on your professional positions and duties, education, activities, etc. Chris emphasized résumé-building via LinkedIn as a crucial step so that you can avoid sending or asking to send your résumé to contacts, making you seem less pushy and requiring less of their time; if your contacts really want to know more, they can easily view your LinkedIn profile or request your résumé.
Then acquire connections and join networking groups.
Figure out what you hope to accomplish with the interview.
A successful interview should mean that you’ve moved forward in reaching career goals by acquiring new information or building a new relationship or, possibly, eliminated a certain position, company, or industry from your list of possibilities. The interview should help you to narrow your focus on a discipline, company, or industry.
Grayson, for example, knew she wanted to work in marketing but wasn’t sure whether she’d thrive in a large corporate environment or a smaller company; she explored topics such as how closely a company’s values were aligned with its initiatives as well as work-life balance. Chris started with uncovering where an entrepreneurially-oriented marketing whiz should direct his attention, and then began shaping his search strategy and focusing his attention on overcoming the “experienced only” obstacle to reaching his goal. Specifically, he decided to pursue a brand management position and identified the category of company he would pursue.
Find as much information about your targeted industry, discipline, or company as you can. You might identify companies that fit certain criteria or learn as much as possible about a specific company. Check out company websites, news reports, and trade publications. Use the research to prepare for interviews.
Identify and make contacts.
Start with readily accessible contacts such as alumni connections, especially those who have volunteered to help students in conducting a job search. Then expand your network through personal contacts, social media, and cold calling.
Both Chris and Grayson used LinkedIn to find and contact those willing to share information: Chris communicated with 2nd degree connections and those who were members of his groups; Grayson approached her 1st degree connections and asked for introductions.
Write and send a brief letter.
The letter should tell a bit about yourself, your common ground, and the information you are requesting. Ask for about 30 minutes of the interviewee’s time and suggest a timeframe or specific times (give a couple of options) to talk. See Chris's letter on his post about informational interviews.
Establishing commonality is essential but can be covered through a brief mention of a former employer, alma mater, or whatever the connection is. Grayson, who now coaches international MBAs through her company MBA in the USA told me that many of her clients who come from relationship-based cultures (where relationships are cultivated over a period of several years) rather than transaction-based cultures (where people expect that if you do something for me, I’ll do something for you) are skeptical but then see the power of identifying and connecting on seemingly insignificant things in common.
Arrange a time and place to talk.
The interviewee may agree to talk right away or you may need to send a couple of emails or make a phone call. Telephone interviews are much easier to schedule (and were the modes of operation for both Chris and Grayson) than face-to-face meetings in the office. A telephone conversation is quicker, doesn't require getting screened by security, and avoids office gossip about why the boss is conducting an interview.
Prepare your questions and a short spiel about yourself.
Grayson told me that the informational interview faux pas is to ask general questions about the company’s sales, for example, that could easily be found on its website. She also mentioned that some interviewers ask “tell me about your job,” a plain inquiry, and have no plans for follow-up conversation. Instead, she recommends posing deeper questions, such as “I noticed that your company has a sustainability initiative; can you tell me about a project you were involved in?” or delve into their career paths and thought processes, such as “what attracted you to the organization?”
At some point, the interviewee will likely ask you about yourself so be prepared to describe yourself briefly and possibly answer questions about your professional abilities and goals.
Close with a key question.
Ask: “Is there anyone else that you think I should talk to?” or “do you have any insights into _____ (fill in the blank with your particular problem, being careful not to expect someone else to solve your problem, such as) how I might overcome the experience requirement for these positions?"
Send a follow-up note thanking the interviewee for his or her time.
Trent of The Simple Dollar gives excellent advice on how to write a thank-you letter, including instructions on how to write a note following an interview.
Go through traditional channels of applying for a position with the company.
You can follow the company's protocol for applying for a position, such as submitting a résumé with cover letter for open positions. The informational-interview process should give you an advantage: 1) you have relationships within the company and will be more likely to be called for a job interview; 2) you’ll be able to respond to questions and converse more intelligently on topics relevant to the potential employer. For example, Chris's efforts garnered an exclusive invitation to an all-day candidate-evaluation event, where he demonstrated his marketing prowess and won a job offer.
David Yeghiaian of Unique Business Solutions validated the value of informational interviews and provided insights from the potential interviewees' perspective:
- Though many in large corporations in major cities understand what an information interview is, you may need to educate your targeted interviewees on what you are trying to accomplish.
- Many people who have valuable information may be inundated with requests right now, and may not have the time to accommodate as many interviews as they'd like.
For some job seekers, the ideal informational-interview scenario is that a hiring manager will agree to a meeting and then be wowed by the interviewer’s knowledge and capabilities, leading to an on-the-spot job offer. And, while such things can (and do) happen, the focus should be on gathering information with side benefits of cultivating relationships, finding a champion within your target company, and growing your network. It's a process that seems to require much effort over at least several months but one that can have a big payoff: a great job with the right organization.