Why Make Informational Interviews Part of the Job Hunt?

I am back in the job hunt after 24 years, and what I notice is that the experience is like entering the dreaded dating game after you suddenly find yourself single again.  The idea of forwarding my professional-looking resume and carefully worded cover letter to potential employers, who, if I’m lucky, will only give it a cursory glance, can feel downright depressing.  Just like dating, it feels like a desperate attempt to get someone to notice me.  How does one stand out in the crowd, if you’re not tall, dark and handsome, or a pretty, slender blond?

When I found I would soon be out of work, someone loaned me a small book titled, “Want a New Better Fantastic Job?” by Pam Gross and Peter Paskill (2001).  My friend suggested I read the section on informational interviews.  I’d heard of informational interviews before, but knew very little about it in practice.  When I read the section she referenced, the vision of me taking charge of the interview process to find a new career immediately felt liberating.

In contrast, the way most of us learned to conduct a job search by filling out an application and submitting a resume on line feels passive and anonymous.  We all know that employers are flooded with hundreds of resumes for every position they advertise.  Culling through all those applications to find the group of 3-5 best candidates boils down to checking education status and seeing whether the stated prior experience matches what the employer is looking for.  Today many organizations use computer systems to perform a key-word search on the applications they receive to make the initial cut.  The goal is to unearth that small, elite, group of people blessed with:

  • The appropriate college degree (Hmmm.  You say you have a Russian history degree?);
  • Unique job skills (paralegal who can read and write Mandarin); and,
  • A record of employment stability with a history of varied, yet somewhat dissimilar and progressively more responsible positions (I ask you, is all of that experience absolutely necessary?).

While HR recruiting efforts are certainly important to having an open and fair process; from the perspective of a new job hunter it feels like a massive wall between me (a well-adjusted, creative, smart, and service-oriented professional) and my potentially fantastic workplace.  As I learned more about conducting informational interviews, I knew I would have a better chance at being seriously considered for a position I wanted and have fun at the same time.

I understand that for many the idea of approaching someone and asking them to spend some of their valuable time with you may seem presumptuous, even arrogant.  However, I have three main reasons why I believe it is one of the best tools for finding a new job.

  1. I would much rather be the person asking the questions.  Next time you watch a TV show or movie, pay attention to who has the power in the conversation.  An ardent Closer fan, I’ve noticed that when Brenda Leigh Johnson begins interrogating her suspect everyone immediately recognizes who’s in charge.  Regardless of how big and bad the criminal sitting across from her may be, because she is asking the questions, Brenda has the power.

Informational interviews should never resemble harsh interrogations.  However, I certainly feel more at ease being the person driving the conversation.  I get to ask the questions, listen to their answers and take notes about anything I may want to research further.

  1. It’s impossible to know for sure if a potential employee will “fit in” with the organization just by reading a resume.  Employers want to hire someone who is intelligent, creative, adaptable, a system-thinker, disciplined, committed, dependable, and emotionally mature (and that’s not all…).  The only problem is that few of these character attributes are found on a resume.  It is only through personal interaction that one can observe the soft-skills of a potential employee.  Do they present themselves well?  Is the person well-groomed, attentive, polite and self-aware?  Can the person listen and respond intelligently?  The blessing of doing informational interviews is that the other person can observe and get to know you without you going through the stress of being in front of a hiring panel.

Success in nearly every situation requires “soft-skills,” and these behaviors can be learned.  If you don’t feel confident about your ability to smoothly interact with people, work to improve yourself.  The more you grow as a person, the greater your self-esteem and self-confidence.  The internet is filled with valuable information, and many great books and audio programs are available on the subject.  A book I really appreciated is, Emotional Intelligence:  Why it can matter more than IQ, (Goleman, D., 1995).  The book explains why having a high IQ and quality education is no guarantee for success.  Instead, employees who possess emotional maturity cost the company less to manage and usually raise productivity, too.  Another book I recommend is Social Intelligence (Albrecht, K., 2006).  Someone with strong social skills will find their careers moving forward with minimal effort.

  1. Many jobs are filled without ever being advertised.  Instead, someone knows someone else, who knows the perfect person for the job.  And voila, the position, that was never advertised in the first place, has been filled.  The more people who find out that you are looking for work, the better your chances to be the person someone else knows is perfect for the job.

The people you meet while doing informational interviews will likely become part of your expanding network—important professionals who can support and mentor you along your career path.  In nearly every instance, the people I’ve interviewed have asked that I let them know where I end up when I reach the end of my journey.  I believe the reason they make this request is because they are now a part of my future success.  Their desire to see me do well is far more encouraging than waiting for the Dear John automated email after submitting my resume in response to an ad on Monster.

It’s Time to Reinvent My Life

Today, I’m at a crossroads.  I’m not talking about the everyday small choices and decisions we rarely think about.  I mean a real, honest-to-God, CROSSROADS!  The kind of shift that happens when you suddenly have a radical, new perspective, your life is forever altered from this point forward, and “the earth …moves …under your feet.”

A Brief History

Twenty-four years ago, I took an administrative assistant position with a public port.  I was the single mother of 8-year old twins, and the port was the most exciting place I had ever worked.  I was part of something the world depends on—international trade.  Within a few years, I moved to a new role administering construction contracts.  Again, it felt like I was part of something larger than myself, watching the transformation of two-dimensional blueprints into roads, shipping terminals, or huge, mechanical cranes that lift and move containers from ships two to three times bigger than a football field.

Eventually, I began training others to administer construction contracts and service agreements.  I liked what I did every day.  As others became confident in my abilities, I was asked to lead the Contracts and Purchasing Department and given a whopping raise.  Oh, and along with the added compensation, the organization paid for me to go back to school and complete my college degree.  How great is that!!!

Slowly, like the frog heating up on the stove without realizing he is being cooked, I became incredibly busy.  I lived for the weekends when I could relax and think about something else beside the office.  However, on many Friday nights, I would slog home with the solemn intention to complete armloads of work, and a deepening sense of guilt that I was not meeting the expectations of others.  Even better, were the Saturday mornings I would get up to drive to the office.  I was a veritable hamster churning on the wheel of industry.

Something had to change.  My solution—work until 5 o’clock going to meetings, answering emails, responding to the questions of others, providing support to employees in the department—then from 5 o’clock on, I would work on my projects.  After that, I would go home.  No more weekends—mostly.  This was an improvement???

Dawning Awareness – The Longing Within

To be fair, I don’t believe that working 12-hour days is wrong, so long as one feels absorbed and joyful in the experience.  There are those lucky few who find themselves compelled to work for hours and hours because they can’t tear themselves away from an absorbing project.  Such an experience could be energizing.  Matthew Fox, former Catholic Priest and author of “The Reinvention of Work,” distinguishes one’s “work” from a “job” by suggesting that work is a vocational calling.  He explains that work has a connection to the Universe, the unfolding of creation.  I imagine work in this context would be fulfilling and life expanding.  You might enjoy reading an interview with Matthew Fox where he explains the role of work as it relates to the health and well-being of the individual and society (http://www.personaltransformation.com/Fox.html).

Throughout my life, I have experienced the wonder, fascination, and longing to feel connected to the spiritual.  As my career progressed and my personal circumstances changed, I began to feel this compelling desire within me to do something meaningful.  I dreamed of touching people in a way that left them happier, stronger and free from fear.  I wanted to share with them a life of adventure and joy.  (Oops!  Physician, heal thyself, before attempting heal anyone else.)

Sending God the SOS

Last winter I let the Universe know I’m ready for change.  I prayed, “When I retire God, I’d like my next, wonderful career, where I am helping others, earning a great living, and able to work into my triple-digit years, to be ready and waiting for me to enjoy.  In the meantime, I’ll step toward whatever miracles you’re going to brew up on my behalf by reading, researching and networking with others to figure out what that wonderful life looks like.”

The funny part, is that I believed I needed to wait to experience this joy—the adventure of a wonderful life.  I wasn’t going to retire for another eight to ten years.  So there was plenty of time for God’s spirit-magic to unfold.

God’s Belly-Laugh

I’ve heard the saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”  Hmmm, is that thunder you hear?

Remember the great opportunity to lead a department, the wonderful compensation, the overly-busy life?  Guess what!  I discovered this past spring, I was losing my job.  The circumstances felt particularly painful—with people talking behind my back, but refusing to talk to me when they saw me; writing everything they disliked about me and then sharing it via email; and having it progress so far that there was no way to heal the damage.  I was suddenly, after 24 years, persona-non-gratis.  It was time to leave. 

As painful as the experience was, there were bountiful lessons.  I was a partner in the situation.  To say otherwise, is to suggest I was a victim.  All of us contributed one way or another to the outcome.  Furthermore, I can honestly say that everyone involved (including me) is a good person.  Finally, I know I am only responsible for me—for how I respond—for what I learn.

Hold Onto the Wings of Change.

Grieving is, by it’s nature, to be in the midst of change.  Losing a partner, moving to a new city, recovery from an illness, or losing a job, are examples of having to let go of something.  Even good changes require that we leave something behind.  The irony is that the harder we try to cling to what we had before, the more difficult it is to move to a place of peace.  Those wonderful individuals, who exhibit outward calm and grace, are not unlike the rest of us.  They, too, have experienced loss and change.  Yet, they have the ability to go within, mourn a loss, let go of the past, and adapt to change.

Many of us stay in jobs that we hate, getting up every morning wishing we were doing something else.  While I didn’t hate my job, I’d had a deep longing for something new.  I felt as though I had spent a lifetime (24 years qualifies, I think) in the same place.  I was stagnating.  So although, I miss the place that was my tribe for 24 years, it is time to go within, mourn, let go, and adapt.

Being at a crossroads means it is time to figure out who I am and what I want to do with my life.  What a magnificent gift!  Hold onto the wings of change—it’s time to create a new story.  It’s time to reinvent my life.

Embracing Change

10,000 Hours to Be Me is about embracing change; about moving toward the larger life many of us secretly long for.  Sounds good…even exhilarating!  Then there are the changes we didn’t anticipate or maybe even wish for:  such as the loss of a job or loved one; an injury or change in our health; even new responsibilities, like caring for an elderly family member.  One might feel overwhelmed, scared or even angry.

Some changes we expect; however, the reality of the experience is far more, or far different from what we expected, like moving to anew city, having a new baby or losing weight.  When this happens, change goes beyond the experience.  While we may have expected that a new home, having a new baby, or losing weight would be the change we experienced—in reality it was just the beginning.  The bigger change is the internal makeover that will continue to manifest slowly within us.

For example, living in anew city will demand that we find our way in unfamiliar territory and start over creating a home.  It is a fresh start in the truest sense.  Having a new baby will, day by day, encourage us to develop patience, force us to reorder our priorities, and increase our capacity to love.  Losing weight can change how we view ourselves and help us lose unhealthy inhibitions that keep our inner light hidden behind a false self.  Although these experiences are shifting our very world on the outside and visible to everyone around us, the bigger change is taking place on the inside.

When I had young teenagers, I often repeated the phrase, “Nothing stays the same, except for change.”  You will have new classmates in the fall, friends may move away, your body will seem unrecognizable, you’ll gain new responsibilities and greater independence.  I wanted them to understand that while the world is constantly shifting around them, change is a normal, human experience.  It is the dance of life.

It’s normal to resist change—regardless of whether we judge the circumstances to be desirable or not.  We long to feel comfortable in familiar terrain again.  The reality is change is continually occurring and how we respond will determine the quality of our lives.  We have the choice to suffer in frustration and bitterness; or we can see our personal evolution with a heart of gratitude.  The former keeps one locked in the past with no desirable future to look forward to.  While gratitude keeps us moving forward, open to the new opportunities and miracles that manifest before us.

We may have loved the way the old brand of shoes fit our feet, and wish we could find them again.  However, when we are ready to open our hearts to change—voila, will wonders never cease—those new shoes waiting for you just around the corner are lighter, come in more colors, and look great with your new clothes.

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