The Art of the Informational Interview

So… you’ve been networking, getting names of people at companies you’re interested in pursuing in your job search, and you were able to arrange an informational interview with some of them. That’s great news!

Now you start thinking… NOW WHAT? What do I actually do at these things? I want a job! But I set up the meetings on the premise I only want to learn more about the company.

Job seekers often hear that they should be striving to get informational interviews in their search. However, few people ever talk about what those are supposed to look like and how to do them well.

Here are some considerations and ideas…

It’s your responsibility to lead! Often, job seekers set up a meeting, and then expect the networking contact to drive the agenda. The contact is generally unprepared. So the conversation begins awkwardly, and often never improves. The opportunity to make an assertive, positive impression is lost and the chances of the meeting turning into further referrals or job leads.

When you set a meeting, it’s your responsibility to lead the agenda. Have a purpose for the meeting, prepare several questions, and prepare some discussion points. When you show that you have things you are trying to accomplish rather than simply taking their time to chat aimlessly, you create an impression and give them the confidence to refer you on to others. They will know you will be professional and considerate to the person they refer you to and will have less hesitation to do so.

Preparation is key! In order to carry an effective conversation and convey a purpose, you have to prepare. Know something about the person you are meeting, check their LinkedIn profile and ask questions of others that may know them. Look for things you may have in common, such as having gone to the same college, worked for the same company or industry in the past, having some connections in common on LinkedIn, or anything else you can find. Look at the companies they’ve worked at in the past and perhaps consider asking them for leads or contacts at those organizations as well, if those companies are also targets for you. They are likely to still know people that work there. Learn some things about their company. Read their website, Google the company for news or other venues where they appear. Ask questions of others that may know. Have an idea of the type of appropriate jobs the company may have. Search for others on LinkedIn that work at the company and scan the titles and responsibilities they have. Based on the information you find in advance, you can create a great number of topics to discuss and questions to ask.

Balance the talking and the listening! While it’s important to give them a sense of your strengths, abilities, and types of positions you are seeking… it’s critical to ask questions and listen carefully. Often, job seekers are so focused on telling about themselves, and show little or no sincere interest in their contact or the company. The old adage of “People don’t care what you know until they know you care” is true. Beyond courtesy and striving for more contacts though, it behooves you to better understand how they have been successful, the culture and direction of the company, and how they recommend you to proceed.

So what kinds of questions should you prepare to ask? It will vary based on individual circumstances, however, you could ask questions like:

  • How did you get your position at XYZ Corporation?
  • How has your career progressed, and what made you successful?
  • How would you describe the culture?
  • What kind of personality tends to be most successful here?
  • What do you appreciate most about the organization and your role here?
  • Based on what you know of my background, what are some additional areas of the organization you might recommend I explore?
  • Who else in the organization could you recommend I connect to as well?
  • Is there any way I could be of help to you somehow?

Respect their time! If you originally asked for 15 minutes of their time, or however long… be sure to be conscious of it and be prepared to wrap things up as the time approaches. They will feel respected, and more likely to refer you on to others when they see that you don’t let things drag on endlessly. As the time approaches, say something like… “You graciously agreed to meet for 15 minutes, and I want to respect your schedule, I appreciate the time you’ve given me, is there some way I could be of help to you at all?” They may say they can stay and chat longer, however, give them the option of making that call rather than just continuing to talk. It will make a very positive impression.

Informational interviews can be a great way to build relationships, gain some exposure at companies you are targeting, and potentially gain additional key contacts. However, be prepared to handle them well so that you are seen as a professional, and not simply wasting time.

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