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Informational Interviews – How to Prepare for and Conduct Them

With the economy in flux and unemployment high, many people are reconsidering their career choices. According to a recent report by LinkedIn, 74% of unemployed workers are open to shifting their job or industry in order to find their next opportunity. If you are looking for work, this is a good time to research other career paths and an informational interview is a great way to start. If you haven’t used this tool in the past, you probably have a lot of questions on how to proceed. Here are some tips on how to have valuable and successful informational interviews.

Why Are Informational Interviews Important?

Talking to others in the job or industry that interests you can help you refine your thoughts and actions. Even if you think you know what you want, it’s good to learn more about opportunity within that sector. And, of course, expand your network at the same time. In fact, upon hearing more about the job or type of business, you may decide it’s not for you.

To make a good move, you want to ensure that you have done your homework and know what to expect. You don’t want to go into something thinking that you know exactly what’s going to happen, but then find out it’s not at all what you thought it would be.

Informational interviews can also present an opportunity to open your mind to other possibilities. Many candidates will write off entire industries, because they have a preconceived notion, but really each company and department is unique.

You can explore a lot of different topics in informational interviews, too. Yes, you can learn about the job and industry, but also details about salary, flexibility (like working remotely), growth opportunities, educational requirements, technologies used and the types of projects that are being worked on.

How Do I Find Contacts to Speak With?

A common misconception is that asking “important” individuals for an informational interview is an intrusion and bother. The reality is usually the opposite. People like helping others and enjoy talking about their journeys. Everyone started somewhere. At some point in their own careers, they’ve probably had someone that recognized potential in them, and took a chance. The key is to set clear expectations for the informational interview, like what you are hoping to accomplish, how you would prefer to meet, and a specific time limit for the meeting. Don’t go into it expecting to get a job offer, either. That’s not the purpose of an informational interview.

You probably have more resources in your network than you realize. A good place to start is with friends and family members whose backgrounds or careers you admire. Pick their brains and ask if there is anyone else they would recommend you speak to.

If you are on LinkedIn, you’ve got a lot of resources at your fingertips. Search by industry, companies, alma maters and job titles. Once you have identified individuals, see if you have mutual connections. Even if you don’t have a first connection with the person, do they know someone who can connect you?

Who you approach can also depend on where you are in your career. If you are looking to make a big change, maybe it’s someone at your level but in another industry or at a different sized company. That said, if you get a connection to, let’s say, a VP, although they are at a different point in their career, they have a lot to share about how they got to where they are. They could also connect you with others who are closer to your level.

For recent college grads, start with your professors or career development office. Ask them about alumni and other connections. You’d be surprised by the network of contacts that you have.

How Should I Prepare for the Interview?

Like any other interview, preparation is key. That means doing research on the company and industry, as well as the individual to whom you wish to speak. This is a terrific opportunity to be exposed to someone who can help you and/or connect you to someone else who can. Making a good impression is essential.

When approaching the person, be clear on your expectations. Explain why you want to meet, what you are interested in, and why you wish to meet with this person. Define the length of the meeting, for instance, 15 minutes. Sometimes contacts can get a little bit nervous when approached for an informational interview. They might worry that you are asking for a job or a favor. If you are clear that it is just about having a conversation and just learning more, people generally want to help.

Make a plan for the conversation and stay on track. If you only have 15 to 20 minutes, and you don’t know what you’re going to be talking about, and the conversation goes off on a tangent, then you won’t get the answers that you need.

What Are Good Questions to Ask?

If you are clear on what you want to learn, almost any question is fair game. Consider these:

  • How did you get to where you are now? “I noticed that you had transitioned from X into the Y. What was it that brought you from that company to this one? Is there something you enjoy most about this department?”
  • What would you say were major turning points in your career?
  • If you could go back in time, what might you have done differently?
  • What do you like most about your job? What do you like least?
  • Do you have any advice for someone like me, just starting in this field/job/industry?
  • Questions around salary, work/life balance, organizational culture, companies to watch.

How to Conduct the Informational Interview

Remember, you are the one who requested this informational interview. So, it’s important that you “run” the meeting. This means having your questions ready, staying on point, sending a calendar invite with call or meeting instructions and sticking to the agreed time for the conversation.

As with any interview, it’s useful to spend a little time up front to build rapport. Simple icebreakers like sharing where you live or joking about working from home distractions (“Sorry if you hear the dog barking.”). If it’s someone you connected to on LinkedIn, you might ask about how they know a mutual connection. Any innocuous question or topic is fine, just to get the ball rolling.

With informational interviews, it’s also about building relationships and your network. So, for instance, it’s okay to ask at the end of the interview,

  • “Is it okay if I follow up with you in a couple of months, and I continue to check in? I really like what you’ve shared with me about your company and your position.”
  • “If I have any other questions, can I reach out to you?”
  • “Is there anybody else that you would recommend that I speak with?”
  • “Could I send you my resume? And if you have time, I’d appreciate any feedback you might have about it.”

Finally, after the informational interview, follow up with an email thanking them for their time, and mention specifically what you got out of the conversation. It shows that you were listening and valuing the advice the person offered.

Many candidates are nervous about approaching others for informational interviews. But these conversations can be a valuable source of information, networking and opportunities. Setting the right expectations – both to the interviewer and in your own mind – and preparing for the conversation will help you overcome this hesitation. And if you do end up getting a job interview at the company, because you took the time and effort to connect, it could be the difference between you being hired over someone else.

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