Informational interviews are a lot like skateboarding: Both look easy, but when you step on, watch out! An informational interview is usually a short meeting, half an hour or less, between you and someone who works at a company you're interested in, or someone on your desired career path.
This is not a job interview. The goals, and the rules, are different. If you go in with the wrong mindset, you're bound for disappointment. Many inexperienced informational interviewees flounder when they aren't immediately offered a job. That's because they haven't thought about how to approach it.
Before you perform well at an informational interview, you have to land one (or more), and that starts with good networking. I'm not going to cover networking basics here - hopefully you've read primers on networking in this column. Suffice it to say that the informational interview - especially if it's with an employee at a company where you want to work - is the endgame of professional networking. In this issue's column, I'll focus on how to win that endgame by succeeding at the informational interview.
The Real Goal of Networking
By definition, networking is about information exchange - putting information out there about yourself, and collecting information about other professionals, professional opportunities, and so on. In this sense, the informational interview is very much a networking tool, perhaps the ultimate networking tool. While it's true that putting yourself out there will improve your chances of landing a job offer, during an informational interview the focus isn't on employment but on information gathering. Your real goal is to illuminate the path ahead of you, and not to focus on job openings. The illumination you seek will come from those who have already trod the same path.
While I was writing this column, I spoke with Brooke Allen, head of the Quantitative Trading Group for Maple Securities, to swap networking stories. Brooke, a self-described "advocate of promiscuous networking," recently gave a presentation at a trade show in February in which he got his audience to step outside their comfort zones and practice networking "promiscuously."
My approach to networking has always been to culture a list of professional contacts, people I know and whom I can call upon (and who can call on me), while Brooke's aggressive networking strategy has placed far more emphasis on the kindness of strangers. It seems to have paid off for him. "I may not know a person at all, but if they ask me to forward a request to a half-dozen of my LinkedIn contacts to help them arrange informational interviews, I have no problem forwarding on that request," he told me, showing a bit of the openness that he claims makes the Internet such a fertile ground for information gathering.
And he's got a point: We have all used the Internet to locate people who share our interests, whether it is to advance your skills in a hobby or to connect with professionals a few years ahead of you on the same career path. Cold contacts that begin via the Internet can warm up with a couple of email exchanges, providing needed momentum to your research project.
On the Internet or off, that is precisely the right approach for setting up informational interviews. You are on a research project. You need help from people who are "in the know," whether it is to inquire about what the transition would be like to Regulatory Affairs or what the culture is like at a hot startup company. And some of those contacts are likely to be people you don't know yet.
Sure, everyone knows you're looking for a job, but that doesn't mean you have to bring it up. Don't pull that card out of your sleeve until you are asked.
Before you begin converting your networking contacts into a round of informational interviews, think about the reasons that person would be open to have coffee or sit down with you in his or her office for 15-30 minutes. Here are a few thoughts to help you understand why a possibly senior-level person, someone who may not know you, would make herself available:
- Most people believe that there is intrinsic value in having connections, and facilitating connections. It's a cheap, relatively easy way to make the world a better place, and they consider their actions "paying it forward." They know that new opportunities can be created - all by giving up a few minutes of their time.
- Many employers recommend that their managers conduct a certain number of informational interviews every month. This is standard practice in many fine companies, as it sets the tone for good PR in the community and says something about the company's culture.
- "Opportunity hires" occur even in a company in a hiring freeze, or in one that has downsized recently. This happens when no specific opening exists and yet good people surface via informational interviews. So it makes good sense for both parties; for you, having a personal connection means you'll be in better shape for a job interview invitation, and for them the possibility exists that you may be considered a great "find."
Practice, then Plan Your Approach
Everyone you know has the potential to provide you with new knowledge of one kind or another, so any kind of informational interviewing can be a great learning experience.
Brooke and I discussed how similar this process is to an interview a reporter would conduct: an interview with an agenda. "You can practice these anywhere," Brooke said. "Ask your spouse (or work mate), 'I would like to interview you about how I might improve our relationship.' Don't simply have a conversation - actually interview that person."
When you feel ready to go, make your real-world, professional approaches. Most people do this by email, or LinkedIn, or another business or social networking site. More adventurous networkers will pick up the phone right away. Either way, here's a tip: If you don't hear back after three attempts, you are being ignored. Don't take it personally, but take that person off your list of prospective interviewers. Harassment is a bad idea in the midst of a job search.
Informational interviewing puts you squarely in the major leagues of networking. Aim high: You can reach out and conduct an informational interview with a VP of Research, if you approach the situation diligently and honestly. You're not seeking a job right now, but if you make a good impression . . .
You're In Charge
As I've written, the informational interview is not like an employment interview, where you'll be asked 60 questions. Instead, you need to be in charge, and that means you need to be comfortable--and why not? You requested the meeting, so lead it. If you show the slightest, open-jawed "Why am I here?" gaze, the interview will end uncomfortably for both of you. So one very important key to a successful informational interview is to have a good list of questions prepared. You're in charge, so have something to say. I'll leave those specifics to your discretion, but good questions could include how that person's career has progressed, what the company's culture is like, or, broadly, what it's like to work there. And your questions may depend upon the location of your meeting. Questions about company culture may be answered more candidly off site than in an office cubicle.
I've written that the informational interview is not a job interview, and it's not. But it could become one quickly, especially if you're interviewing with someone who makes hires, at the company and not the coffee shop. So, though you shouldn't approach the informational interview as a job interview, you should be prepared for the nature of the interview to change. You need to be ready for the "interviewee" and "interviewer" roles to flip-flop, when suddenly you find the usual job-interview questions coming back at you from across the table.
Finally, don't become frustrated when your first attempts at informational interviewing do not go smoothly. Just like my skateboarding experience, you may fall off and get bruised a time or two. But what an accomplishment it is to find a job or make a new friend simply because you had the courage to try.