Tips for Conducting Informational Interviews

My last entry explained why I’ve become a fan of doing informational interviews, and why I think they are invaluable to finding a new job.  On a recent trip to my hair dresser, I mentioned that I was looking for a job and primarily relying on informational interviews to network.  She politely listened to me and then let me know that what I call informational interviewing is how the Hispanic culture routinely establishes connections to a wide variety services and opportunities.  I realized that for me, approaching someone for a networking opportunity feels like I am imposing on their time.  Yet, for people with strong cultural ties, networking is natural and part of belonging to an interdependent and giving community.

Statistically, only 20-30% of jobs are filled on the open market.  That means the remaining unpublished job openings won’t be found on public list services.  In an article on Hcareers.com, Dumas states that “approximately 80% of all jobs filled are done so in what is known as the ‘hidden’ or ‘unpublished’ job market.”  This means the majority of jobs are filled by word-of-mouth and network referrals.  Unfortunately, when hearing the word “network,” many people visibly pale and imagine themselves going up to a perfect stranger, smiling shakily and saying something like, “Isn’t the rain/sunshine/fog/lightening/cumulus cloud we’re having today, amazing?”  Please God, never let me talk about the weather again!

So how does one go about conducting informational interviews?

You start by telling everyone you know that you are looking for a new opportunity—even your hairdresser!  Ask if they know someone who works in your industry or area of interest, and if they would kindly arrange an introduction.  For myself, introductions have mostly been via email; however, several friends have actually arranged face-to-face meetings for me.  Try to always schedule face-to-face interviews.  In contrast to email, telephone or Skype exchanges, talking face-to-face gives both parties a chance to experience each other’s personality through rich conversation.

When you actually meet with the person, be prepared to share a little about yourself—5 to 10 minutes.  Give the person a brief synopsis of your work experience, the type of work you’re looking for, and something personal about yourself, such as family, hobbies, or volunteer work.  People are more willing to share contacts and recommend you to their friends if they believe they can trust you.  One gentleman spent the first half-hour asking me questions about myself before he was willing to be interviewed.  I happily obliged and it turned out to be one of my most valuable interviews.

  • Dress professionally.  Like it or not, it is human nature to judge others by their appearance.  So make certain your grooming and dress reflect someone who is intelligent and lives by personal values that evoke trust.  Now is not the time to wear your favorite, low-cut t-shirt and jeans.
  • Arrive on time.  Or better yet, 10 minutes early (this probably goes without saying).  Arriving early allows you to breath deeply and clear your mind.
  • Be prepared for the interview with a set of questions you developed in advance.  The questions should reflect that you’ve done your homework.  Find out everything you can about the person and their industry or line of work, and from there, formulate your questions.
  • Tip:  It is better to ask questions that invite a thoughtful response, rather than a yes or no answer.
  • Tip:  Make the first question about them.  “How did you become the _____?”  Or, “What do you like about working at _______?”  Not only is this an effective ice breaker, it provides you with valuable information about what it takes to become successful.  Nothing wrong with emulating successful people.
    • Ask if it is OK for you to take notes.  Most will readily agree and even be pleasantly surprised.  On the other hand, some may find it distracting; so be polite and verify first.
    • Keep track of time and be ready to end the interview on time.  If the person indicates they are interested in going on with the interview, that’s great.  However, out of respect for their time, allow the person you are interviewing to initiate extending the conversation beyond the stated time limit.
    • Before you close the interview, ask if they know of any openings that would fit your search criteria, and find out if they know anyone else who might be of assistance.  Ask for contact information or ask them to introduce you via email.
    • Keep track of everything you learn and use it to move you forward in your search.
    • Contact your new referrals and request a short 30-minute interview at a time and place that is mutually convenient for you.  Some will be available to meet for coffee or lunch, and others will prefer to meet in their office.
    • Follow-up with a thank you note.  While some recommend sending a handwritten thank you note, I have decided to send a typed letter, or email instead.  First of all, my handwriting style is not the best, and secondly, a typed email is much more professional.  A typed email or letter also lets me demonstrate that I can form an articulate sentence.

Some suggest handing out resumes to the people you meet with.  However, others strongly suggest that handing out resumes destroys your credibility.  Presumably, you didn’t set up the interview by saying you were there to ask them for a job, or they may have declined the interview and told you to forward your resume to HR, instead.  I never bring a resume with me to the interview.  When asked to, I forward my resume electronically, and I am always willing to drop it by another time.

Life can be a merry-go-round and I would rather laugh than cry!

I encourage you to try informational interviewing.  Approach this part of the job hunt with a positive attitude and treat the experience like a treasure hunt.  When I told a former colleague that I was going to begin conducting informational interviews, she told me that every position she ever held came from having used the very same technique.  She had never responded to an ad for employment.

I am consistently overwhelmed by how gracious and generous people are with their time.  Not only do most of them voluntarily extend the amount of time we spend together, they also willingly arrange for me to meet their friends and colleagues.  I believe the people I’ve interviewed sincerely wish me success.  Although I do submit applications in response to ads and public listserve websites each week, I am convinced that my next tribe will show up because I have developed these valuable relationships through informational interviews.  Someone in my network is going to know someone, who knows of a position, for which I would be just right.

Michelle Dumas, http://www.hcareers.com/us/resourcecenter/tabid/306/articleid/600/default.aspx

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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.

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