The Ultimate Guide to Informational Interviews
The Key to Securing the Job of Your Dreams
by Shawn Livingston of the Career Change Blog
The information contained in this guide is for informational purposes only.
I am not a counselor. Any career advice that I give is my opinion based on my own experience and research. You should always seek the advice of a professional before acting on something that I have published or recommended.
No part of this publication shall be reproduced, transmitted, or sold in whole or in part in any form, without the prior written consent of the author. All trademarks and registered trademarks appearing in this guide are the property of their respective owners.
Users of this guide are advised to do their own due diligence when it comes to making career decisions and all information, products, services that have been provided should be independently verified by your own qualified professionals. By reading this guide, you agree that myself and my company is not responsible for the success or failure of your career decisions relating to any information presented in this guide.
©2015 Shawn Livingston — www.careerchangeblog.co
About the Author
You might be interested to know a little bit about me. I am in my late 20s and have been interested in writing for a long time. I was brought up by two great parents, both of which made a point to help people. As such, this has always been a natural inclination of mine, to help people. I have never had the confidence that anything I could write would actually help people, but I have decided that I have gotten to the age where I need to try. This eBook is my first attempt at writing an extended piece of literature that is meant to actually help people. I am super excited about it.
I was born and raised in Maryland in an upper middle-class family. My mom was a teacher my dad worked for the government in DC. My parents raised me with a ton of opportunity, my mother wanted to make sure I was “cultured.” I grew up going to music and drama performances, playing instruments, singing in choirs and playing sports. I received my B.A. in Intercultural Studies in 2009 and obtained my Masters of Theological Studies in 2013. I love to write, play soccer, watch movies, discuss God and the meaning of life and spend time with friends and family. My favorite color is Orange. Finally I have a beautiful wife named Rachel and it is only because of her support that I am able to release this eBook.
This is the first version of this free eBook. If you see anything that needs to be changed, please email me at email@example.com. I want to provide the best content possible and I need your help.
As you are reading, if you see something you like and want to share, please do! I encourage you to share this content if you find it helpful. Thank you in advance for anything you do share. I really appreciate it. You can find me at www.careerchangeblog.co and on twitter @shawnlives
Chapter 1 — The Importance of Informational Interviews
The landscape of employee acquisition has been changing as quickly as technology over the past few decades. Twenty years ago, the most likely place you were to find out about a job was by reading the newspaper. A few years later the internet entered our households and sites like monster.com and caeerbuilder.com became the new frontier for job hunters. A few more years later and these sites have lost their shine, suddenly your social footprint has become an equally or more valuable resource for potential employers.
Employers now have several avenues to recruit future employees, but they have limited resources. There is no way to be sure that the company or industry you want to work with/in uses the recruiting method you prefer putting your time towards. It may seem overwhelming, where do you put your time? There is one avenue of recruitment that companies have always used and even in this digital era prefer to use when searching for new employees. Whether you are sure it is time to make a career switch or you are just beginning the deliberation process, networking is extremely important.
According to Richard N. Bolles, author of What Color is Your Parachute 2015, in the US, at any given time, there are over eight-million job vacancies available. But even with so many jobs available, the common voice of job hunters is that they can’t find any openings in their field. As a job hunter you need to continue using all avenues available to you, however you CANNOT solely rely on job board sites anymore. Employers are spending their money less on these types of sites every year and investing more into internal development and recruitment. Most studies document that less than 20% of employee acquisition is from online listings. Using Bolles’ estimates, (which are based on official data from the US federal government), then this means, that every month there are over 6,400,000 job openings that cannot be obtained via the internet. This is huge! There are a ton of potential job openings out there, not visible to online searches. If we could figure out how to tap into and access these unlisted jobs, we would no longer feel like there are no jobs, in fact we may even be able to pick which employer we want to work for out of many that show interest. I submit that this pandora’s box of job hunting, this hypothetical job-search gold-rush, is tied to networking — that is, to who you know.
We can probably all identify people in our lives we know have their jobs, because of those they know (or are related to). Personally four of the seven jobs I have had since I was 16 were because of connections I had. I don’t like to rely on just my experience, so I decided to see if I could find any facts that back up my experience. Unsurprisingly, the difference between this anecdote and others is that this trend (that we have probably all noticed) has been studied and can be empirically verified. It really does help to know someone when interviewing with a potential employer. In fact, if you know the right people, your education and experience may not even have to be in a related field. Let’s break down the numbers from one reliable study.
CareerXroads, the site of two well known consultants and leaders in the career development space — Gerry and Mark — release an annual report that explicates where companies find new employees. Their most recent study — released in September 2014 — reveals some interesting trends. The study was conducted by sending surveys to 250 companies, 50 of which responded. A quarter of these companies employed 10,000–25,000 employees and cumulatively, these 50 companies filled more than 507,000 positions in 2013. This is a sample size plenty large enough to give an accurate picture of what the hiring trends are in the US and I would argue in the developed world at large.
The report entitled “Source of Hire 2014,” is full of interesting data, but I will focus on the chart that enumerates the percentages of each source of acquisition. If you follow the above link to the report, you can view a nice organized chart of the data. Based on the returned surveys, CareerXroads found that the numbers could be broken down in descending order as follows:
Referrals: 19.2% (down from 24.5%)
Carer Site: 19.10% (down from 23.4%)
Job Boards: 15.4% (down from 18.1%)
Direct Hire: 12.1% (up from 6.8%)
College: 7.5% (up from 5.5%)
3rd Party: 5.9% (up from 3.1%)
Temp to Hire: 4.4% (up from 1.5%)
‘Pipelines’ (Employer sponsored career paths): 3.9% (Never recorded before)
Rehires: 3.9% (up from 3.3%)
Career Fairs: 1.4% (up from 1.2%)
Print: .9% (down from 2.3%)
Walk-ins: .7% (up from .3%)
Taking this data at face-value can be misleading. While the point I am making is shown in these numbers (since “Referrals is the largest percentage), it’s not by much AND the year over year percentage decrease of “Referrals” is MORE than the year over year percentage decrease of “Job Boards.” In order to have a clear picture, we must take into account from where all referral opportunities come from.
Referrals can be either programs set up by employers or simply hires that were recommended by someone already employed by the company. A few years back, I was working for a well known company when a good friend began looking for a job. I used an employee (incentive based) referral program to recommend my friend for an interview. After a few interviews, he was hired. If my friend had not been referred by me, his chances of being hired simply by submitting a resume would have decreased significantly. The CareerXroads survey found that a person is four times more likely to be hired if referred and mentioned that some studies have shown an increase of 14 times.
Referral hires is a preferred hiring mechanism for many companies and is beneficial since it means the company does not need to use capital for other avenues of recruitment. It also increases morale and helps ensure what kind of person is being hired. If a great employee recommends a friend, the company can be fairly confident that his/her referral is good. As a job seeker, being referred is ideal since you will be able to apply before the job is posted publicly, guaranteeing less competition. Because referrals enable job-seekers to apply for jobs before they are posted through other avenues, they are able to apply for jobs that may never be posted online. Looking at the list above again with this in mind, we can see better how many potential jobs are actually available. If we subtract “Pipelines” and “Rehires,” from the above list we get the number 93.2%. In other words, 93.2% of the 8,000,000+ jobs available EVERY month (in the US alone) could potentially be filled through a referral.
This is all great information, but the obvious question is how do we actually get these jobs? As job seekers, how do we get these prized referrals? We need to network with people employed in the sector we are interested in working. I do not use the word “network” just in it’s traditional sense, which is passing business cards out or promising an exchange of services at a conference. I mean actually meeting and having a meaningful conversation over coffee or dinner. This type of networking is intimidating, especially for an introvert, but absolutely necessary for those interested in having the best chance at finding and obtaining the job which they dream. To have access to the vast majority of job opportunities in the market, a job seeker must conduct “informational interviews.”
Informational interviews are conversations a job seeker has with someone already working in the field or company they want to work, simply to obtain information about their job and company. If you are able to set up this conversation or meeting, the interview itself is easy. People love talking about themselves, their experiences and what they do. The conversation is easy, it’s setting up these interviews that takes courage. For others it may seem too good to be true, too simple of a life-hack to actually produce results, but I assure you this is all it takes. By conducting interviews and having conversations with people in the sector you want to work, you will dramatically increase your chances of getting hired in your desired field. At quintcareers.com, it is written that “one out of every 200 resumes (some studies put the number as high as 1,500 resumes) results in a job offer. One out of every 12 informational interviews, however, results in a job offer.” Depending on who you are, this could be the best news you have read all day, or if you aren’t big on talking to people you don’t know, this could be the most terrifying news you have read all day. In either case, we can all agree that these numbers are telling. If informational interviews are so much more effective at producing results, then they are a more effective way to pursue a job.
Whether a company gets 10 or 1000 resumes for a job posting, the company is never able to determine what an applicants personality is simply from the resume. The words on resumes are all relatively similar, just rearranged in a different manner. Larger companies will use software to filter through resumes and eliminate applicants before a human ever looks and most companies will eliminate candidates simply because a word is spelled wrong or the punctuation is inconsistent. These and other candidate narrowing processes don’t actually enable the company to get-to-know who the applicant actually is. On the other hand, during an informational interview, the company can see the potential hire for who he/she really is. By conducting an informational interview, the person being interviewed and the person conducting the informational interview are able to talk about shared experiences, desires, and interests. These conversations will inevitably create meaningful connections. Even though informational interviews are not intended to procure jobs, because of the human connection created during the interviews, receiving job offers is an added bonus.
Informational interviews are so much more effective than resumes, because companies are actually able to make meaningful connections and understand who the applicants are. Since this is not done in a traditional interview format, it is much less stressful, no one is proving themselves and no one critiquing or imagining how someone might fit in a particular job. For example, if a person is really interested in paleontology and dreamed about working at a museum one day, they might set up an informational interview with someone at a renowned museum of natural history. During the informational interview, the person conducting said interview may ask what the person who works at the museums favorite part of the job is. This interviewee may respond by mentioning how fascinating the carbon dating process is and the exhilaration of knowing you are holding a bone that is literally millions of years old. The person conducting the informational interview may also share this interest in carbon dating and can share their own stories about experiences they had in college. This was an exciting and memorable conversation for both people involved. While this conversation may not result in a job, the person conducting the interview will automatically be more valued than someone who just submits a resume in the future and the person who works at the museum may even be able to suggest another person to interview. Another point worth noting is that the person conducting the interview, while they may have a passion about the same topic as the interviewee, they may not have education or formal work experience in the field. On a resume these are imperative, however in an informational interview, the person being interviewed can see the value the interviewer could hold for the company, plus he/she sees how passionate the person is. Even though this potential applicant doesn’t have the “resume” for the job, they still have what the company wants.
I mentioned that networking is important whether you are looking for a job or not. Chances are you always have another job opportunity in mind or can imagine where you want to be in 20 years, there is no reason to wait until you are desperate to begin conducting these informational interviews. By facilitating informational interviews you are building meaningful relationships — friendships — with people that will both educate you in the field you are interested and that can connect you with future job openings. While informational interviews will be scary to set up, they are by far the most effective and efficient way to secure a new job. If you want to continue moving up in your field and have a sense of job security or fall-back, then conducting informational interviews is a must.
Chapter 2 — Facing Your Fears
Informational interviews are extremely important for the job hunt. They are the most effective way to obtain the type of job you desire. By contacting those who work at companies in the industry you want to work, you will be able to build meaningful relationships. The people you meet will give you advice that pertains specifically to who you are and your job hunt, giving you a jump start on the process. Additionally, while there is one hire for every 200–1500 resumes submitted for a job, on average it only takes 12 informational interviews to be offered a job. Yet we are still too afraid to take action.
This information is both good news and scary. It’s good news, because suddenly the job hunt seems much less bleak. There is hope for your job hunt, in fact, while on average it only takes 12 interactions it could be even less. Not only is there hope, but if you work hard you could probably set up 12 interviews within the next few weeks (this doesn’t have to take a long time!). On the other hand it’s scary news. Conducting these strange reverse interviews with potential employers is frightening. This doesn’t seem like the status quo and what if this type of behavior turns these potential employers off to hiring you at all? You may be thinking, “what is an informational interview anyway, do you want me to take a manager of some random store out to dinner, get to know them and then give him/her my resume?” Of course not. There is a lot to informational interviews and I will admit, they can seem daunting. But I promise if you stick through this and give it a try, you won’t regret it.
Okay, you are right, conducting informational interviews is not the status quo. I predict that this strategy will become much more common in the future, however as of today, this is not the norm. Perhaps a job hunter hears of this strategy, but assumes it can’t work and goes on with the expected cover letter/resume (usually unproductive) duo. This is not the normal path a job hunter takes, probably because it is scary, but we need to get past this fear, because as I mentioned above, it is so much more productive. But if this isn’t the status quo, why does it work?
I alluded to this above, but the primary reason this strategy works so well, is because the job hunter is developing meaningful relationships with the people he/she is interviewing. After spending an hour or two with someone, sharing stories and learning about the pros and cons of a job, a personal connection is formed. Naturally the persons involved in this conversation feel a sense of loyalty and want to help in anyway they can. Even if the person you interview doesn’t know the jobs available in his/her company or there literally just aren’t jobs available in the company, if you stay in touch, this person is going to do everything he/she can to assist you if he/she hears of any job openings. The reason informational interviews are so effective is because of the interpersonal connections that are formed through them. This sets them far and wide apart from simply submitting a resume or cover letter to an employer. A cover letter that invariably at best sounds ignorant of the company’s goals or at worst reads just as disingenuous as every other cover letter. And the resume — how many different ways can a person explain that they are a “natural team leader” and “self-starter” anyway?
This last bit probably makes sense. We are building relationships with people and we are much more likely to help a friend out than a stranger. But how do we have these so-called informational interviews without it seeming like we are desperate for a job or are just really obnoxious in our job seeking tactics? I will go into more detail in the next chapters about who/how to contact for informational interviews and how to actually conduct the interviews, but for now I will just say, it’s about being yourself and genuinely seeking information. This seems counter-intuitive, but informational interviews will only result in job offers if obtaining a job is NOT the intention of the interview.
The entire point of informational interviews is to obtain information about a company, job, position, work environment, etc.. Getting a job offer after getting to know someone who works at a company you want to work at is a bonus. If you approach these interviews with the expectation that you WILL get hired, just like you imagine, it WILL be awkward and it will not be productive. With this in mind, these interviews don’t have to be stressful, because you aren’t trying to get anything more than information. You won’t seem obnoxious or desperate and you won’t seem any more weird than you already naturally are. These interviews are named aptly, they are solely to obtain information. Because of this you don’t have to be afraid. The hardest part about informational interviews is setting them up. Once you are meeting, the conversation will flow easily because you don’t have expectations and people love talking about themselves.
On a side note, I have seen some career advisors suggest you have your resume with you and ready, just in case you get offered a job during an informational interview. I advise against this. The point of these interviews is really to build a relationship. If you succeed at this, then you can shoot your resume in an email or if necessary drop it off at a later date. Having your resume there will inhibit your ability to genuinely seek out information and reveal that you may have had ulterior motives. Even if you get offered a job on the spot during a coffee date, you still don’t have the job yet. It’s important that it doesn’t look like you were expecting the offer. Either way, you will need to build a solid relationship and exchange information so you can provide a resume if needed in the future. Hopefully I have successfully addressed many of the excuses you could make to yourself about why you don’t want to use this method for your job search.
Chapter 3 — Making Initial Contact
When setting up an initial interview, you need to figure out who you are going to interview and how you are going to introduce yourself to them. You can literally do an informational interview with ANYONE in your desired career-field or company. They will be a great resource for you, no matter what they do in the industry. Here are seven of the top resources you have to set up informational interviews (in no particular order). Some say that one or the other of these sources is better, but it really depends on who you are and who they are. It is different for everyone and I think that each can work just as well as the rest. When it comes down to it, which source you use will actually be more related to who knows someone in your desired career-field anyway. Similarly there are differences of opinion about whether it is better for these sources to connect the two of you or if you should just get the prospective interviewee’s information and contact them yourself. I see pros and cons of both, but I would suggest a combination of the two. Have the source alert the potential interviewee that you will be contacting them, but do the actual contacting yourself. If they don’t get back to you in a timely manner, then have your source follow up with them. The sources:
Family will probably be your first go-to. If you have any family members that work in the career-field you are interested in or who know someone that does, this will be the easiest way set up informational interviews.
Friends are another easy resource and you could also consider putting a Facebook status or tweet up asking if anyone works in that career-field or knows someone who does.
If you recently graduated or are in college, professors are a fantastic resource. Their job is to prepare you for your future and they usually have a pretty large network of professionals in their related career-field.
4. Job Supervisors
If you have a good relationship with any of your bosses, then they may also be a good resource. This is an especially good resource if you are interested in moving around or up in the company. They don’t even have to be privy to exactly why you want the interview. You are simply exploring what moving around or up in the company would be like and finding out if this is something you would like to pursue.
Another great resource is your alma mater. Just like your professors, the college you went to has a vested interest in seeing you succeed. If you contact the college they will be able to connect you with other alumni in the career-field you desire. This also gives you an automatic connection with the person whom you are interviewing.
6. Cold Emailing
You can even research companies you are interested in working at on LinkedIn and send emails to people who work for the company to ask for an interview. This one can be a little nerve-racking, but has proven to be successful for many.
This one is a little different since it presupposes you already have an interview set. But if you find that you are still interested in a company or career after interviewing one person in the company, have them set you up with another interview with someone else. Interviewees can be a powerful resource.
How Do You Do It?
As I mentioned above, informational interviews ONLY produce results and job offers if they are conducted purely for research and NOT to obtain a job. So the first step to setting up these interviews is simply to get in the right mind set. You are conducting these interviews for research. If you get a job in the process, that’s great, but it should not be something you expect. You are doing research and you simply need the above resources to connect you with someone who can give you information. This is your intention, to obtain information. To set up informational interviews then, is just explaining this to one of the above resources and asking them if they can pass some contact information to you. As I mentioned above, have them warn the person that you will be contacting next.
That’s it, pretty simple when you break it down. Determine what connection you have that knows someone in your desired career-field or email someone on LinkedIn and simply ask to get together so you can learn about the career. On a side note, I have read varying opinions on whether you should meet in person or over Skype or even on the phone. Those opposed to meeting in person say it is too much of a time-suck, so people won’t be willing to do it or if they are, it will be a bad first impression. I tend to disagree, meeting in person will be gobs more effective at building a meaningful relationship. So what if a few people aren’t willing to put the time in, if you can find a few, it will pay off.
Chapter 4 — Ace the Interview
You managed to overcome your fear and get in touch with someone at a company in your desired career-field. The days are going by quickly, your interview is coming up quick. You are beginning to get a little nervous and you want to make sure you are fully prepared for the interview. What’s next?
You are on the right track, while it is possible to go into your first informational interview without preparation, it is not recommended. As you are getting ready it is important to remember that there are two primary purposes for this interview. You are trying to learn about a profession and you are trying to build a meaningful relationship. With these in mind you want to make sure you are prepared to adequately communicate your questions and concerns and relate to the interviewee. Here are a few tips for getting prepared for and conducting the interview.
1. Research the company
Since this is the career-field you are interested, you probably already know a little about the company and what they do. However, you most likely have little knowledge about the company’s mission statement, values, current projects or future pipeline. It is good to read up on this stuff, not so you can impress the interviewee with how much you know, but simply so you will know topics related to the company you can talk about. It is also good to do some research on the trends of the industry for the same reason. Most people find their identity in what they do, so if you are aware of some things they are at least marginally involved with, they will feel like they can relate to you.
2. Research the person
It is a good idea to know a little bit about the person you are interviewing. Google the person’s name and look them up on LinkedIn, see if there are any common interests between you or if there are past career accomplishments you can ask about during the interview. If you are able to research what it is like to work for them you will also know better how to relate to them. Keep in mind while you are doing this research that you are obtaining this information so that you can relate to them. If you feel like you are going to find information about this person that will make it more difficult to relate to the person, it might be better to stop researching.
3. Dress appropriately
The outfit you pick out for the interview should match the style of what you anticipate the interviewee to be wearing. This is a subtle way you can relate to the interviewee. There is not one-style-fits all for informational interviews. You are going to want to dress differently depending on if you are meeting with an executive of a skateboarding company versus a government official. See if you can find pictures of the way people at the company dress and dress accordingly. I would argue that this is currently the best practice for regular interviews as well.
Throughout this process, before you even start reaching out to potential interviewees, you need to be checking your mindset. You are doing this to obtain information and build a relationship. This will color the the tone of all your conversations leading up to and during the interview. As you are preparing for the interview, it will be easy to get syked out because this person already works for the company or in the industry you want to work. But the reality is, as far as they are concerned, they are just like you. They aren’t interviewing you, they are just helping someone out. Someone that was once where they were in their career pursuits. The truth is, you are peers. You want to approach this interview the same way you would treat any conversation with your friends. Informational conversations may be an even more apt name for what you are doing. Just as you wouldn’t be nervous getting to know one of your friend’s friends, you shouldn’t be nervous during an informational interview. It’s all about learning about the person and seeing if you share any meaningful connections. In this way you will decide — perhaps subconsciously — whether or not you are going to continue the relationship. Informational interviews serve predominantly this same purpose for both parties involved. So relax, if it doesn’t work out between you, there are always more fish in the sea…
5. Make a Plan
To reiterate, informational interviews serve two primary purposes. In informational interviews you are looking to obtain information about a company or industry and you are looking to build a relationship with the interviewee. While obtaining information first hand from another person is valuable, the reality is, if you did some research online, you could probably get a pretty good idea of the atmosphere of a company or industry, especially with resources like Glassdoor. However, the internet is not going to provide the answers to every question you have and there may be little nuggets brought out in a conversation that would never come out in an anonymous review online. But, the truth is, the information you are getting is just a bonus to what really counts in these conversations. The relationship.
The conversation about the company or industry is useful, but the stuff that really counts — the secret sauce — is the relationship you are building. The request for information is more like a tool for the relationship you are building. With this in mind you need to make a plan for what kind of information you are requesting. There needs to be a balance of information related to the interviewee’s company in general and the interviewee’s personal experience. You need to make sure you are asking questions that will allow you to throw in your own feedback and experience. Don’t ask dead-end yes or no questions and don’t ask questions with answers that are so out of your league they will inhibit you from adding value to the conversation. Your research on the current initiatives of the company or industry will come into play here.
6. Countenance and Physical Positioning
As you might expect by now, the way you present your self is all about being able to relate to the person you are interviewing (but take notes for regular interviews too). Dressing in like fashion to interviewee is a good step, but if you start interviewing and keep you arms crossed or forget to sit up straight, it will probably be more difficult to make a meaningful connection. When you see the person you are interviewing you need to immediately take their affect into account. Does he/she stand up straight, take the lead, smile, seem commanding or nervous, rushed or stressed? Whatever the case, you need to be aware of these social clues and respond accordingly. Try to match their posture, eye contact, assertiveness and confidence.
The most important word to remember here is intentionality. The person you are interviewing knows you are going to ask questions and that you are looking to glean information. But they are not expecting a person they could actually be friends with to walk through the door of the coffee shop. You need to hold yourself very intentionally, ask questions and explain why you are asking these questions, then make laser focused eye contact as they answer the questions. Don’t nod or say “mhmm,” just for the heck of it, but be sure to acknowledge when he/she says something that resonates with you. After each question, repeat back what you heard the interviewee say so he/she knows that you are listening and that you actually care about the details. Only look away to take notes, keep these notes brief so you can stay present.
7. The Actual Conversation
You are sitting across from your interviewee, you are aware of their level of comfortability and are doing everything you can to match their mental and physical presence. Now what? Obviously you can’t just start by asking questions about their company, it’s best to start with a BIG thank you, then with general get-to-know-you questions. What they do, why they do it, if you have mutual friends or interests etc. After about 5–10 minutes of small talk, you can move into some more serious questions. Let the conversation flow as organically as you can, if the person you are interviewing makes a connection with you and decides they need to talk to you about how their dog died that week, just let it flow. You can get together again if you need to. As stated above, ask questions and explain why you are interested. Once they have answered, recap what you heard. 9 times out of 10 they will have something to add to what you restated. In this way and with the open ended question you already prepared in mind, the conversation will flow organically, the interviewee will feel heard and you will hear about even more minute details.
Be sure to thank this person for getting together with you multiple times during the conversation and with one final thank you at the end. Make sure you ask them who else you should connect with based on what they learned about your through your conversation. Don’t leave it up to them to make this happen, they are probably busy. If they will give it to you, get the information of the suggested interviewees before you part ways. Later that day or week, after you send an email to the person they suggested, shoot them an email letting them know who you have contacted and ask them to also send an email. This is also another opportunity to thank him/her. Finally, come prepared with a thank you card that has a $5 gift card for Starbucks. A little coffee goes a long way and this again shows your intentionality.
Here are some additional little things to keep in mind as you engage in informational interviews. I could probably write a bunch more about each of these (and maybe I will one day), but here they are in sum.
Get Your Interviewee’s Number
When setting up these interviews on the phone or through email, it is easy to forget to get their cell number. However, it is important to get this in case something changes, they are running late or are having trouble finding you. You can also avoid an awkward meet-up by texting them your exact location and a unique identifier (i.e. I am standing out front, in a blue shirt).
Don’t look at your phone AT ALL during the interview. Whatever it is, it can wait for 30 minutes. If the person you are interviewing wants to show you something online, they can show you on their phone. Another option is to have an iPad. However in order to be as attentive as you can be, you should take notes with a traditional notepad and paper. I suggest getting a binder that can hold your iPad on one side and a notepad on the other.
Relax and be Honest
RELAX and be yourself. Ultimately you want the interviewee to like you enough to give your career guidance. If you are putting on a facade, the interviewee will notice and it will be impossible to make a meaningful connection. Be honest about why you are there. You ARE interested in the company or industry and you ARE trying to learn more about it and are trying to make some meaningful connections so you can understand it better. Don’t try to impress. The interviewee will be more impressed by your ability to connect with him/her than your credentials. Don’t go out of your way to share your accomplishments, just let them come out naturally during the conversation.
Too Much Planning Can be Too Much Planning
Too much planning can stifle the natural progression of the conversation and make you nervous. Prepare just enough to get an idea of the general topics and let the conversation flow.
Follow-up Thank You Card
You have already thanked the interviewee during the interview multiple times, given him/her a note with a gift card and emailed a thank you after the interview. Sending another card in the mail may be a bit of an overkill, or it may just be the extra nudge for the person to contact you and tell you about job openings. You will have to feel this one out as you go. It just depends.
In conclusion, it really is all about being yourself. As you get to know the person you are interviewing you may find a bunch of stuff to connect about or you may not connect at all. Either way, it will be clear that you care about the job search and are exceedingly intentional. When the interview is over, if a meaningful connection was made, the future benefits could be huge. This person will be interested in the rest of your career change, can be a great resource for you and may be able to set you up with others who will be even more beneficial to your career aspirations.
Here are two other links for informational interviewing you may find useful as you prepare.
Chapter 5 — The Perfect Questions
The last major piece of the informational interview puzzle is designing questions for the conversation. Hopefully you have learned some great information as you have ready through this eBook, but you may be eagerly awaiting and hoping that you are going to learn what to actually say during the interview. How do you design the perfect question for an informational interview? As I have said before, the questions you ask during an informational interview are a tool to build relationships. I think approaching informational interviews from this perspective makes developing a list of standard questions a little bit more complicated. Sure, you can go into an informational interview with a strict business only mentality and a list of questions that can be answered concisely, but at the end of the interview if the interviewee does not feel any sort of connection with you, then the interview was more-or-less useless. You could have gotten your questions answered using Google. In order for informational interviews to work, the conversation has to flow organically. To prevent interviewers from sounding robotic, I have seen one writer urge her readers to treat the interview like a first date. I think this is good advice. Yes, you want to learn about a specific industry or company, but more importantly, you want to build a relationship.
So what questions should you ask then? The reality is, there is no way for me or any other writer out there to know exactly what questions are going to work for you. There are countless factors that determine what makes a good informational interview question, for example, who you are, what your industry is and who your interviewee is. Therefore you ultimately have to come up with the questions yourself. Don’t worry I will still provide my top 10 list below, but before I do, I want to show you my Informational Interview Question Questions Checklist that YOU can use to ask about each potential question and determine if it is a good one to use.
Here are some questions you need to personally ask about all your potential interview questions:
Informational Interview Question Questions Checklist
Is this question relevant and specific enough?
While you are trying to build a relationship, it is important not top get too into the weeds. You want to get the know the interviewee, but you need to make sure it is in the context of the industry or company you are talking about. If you make the question too broad you will get a broad answer. It’s not that broad answers are bad, but it may prevent the interviewee from talking about themselves. If they can answer the question generally, then depending on their personality they will. If they have to be specific in their answer, then they will have to talk about their personal experiences.
Is this question too technical?
While you may be interested in the process this company went through to determine that batch processing was the best way to be competitive, if the interviewee gets caught answering a technical question, there are two potential problems. First, this takes time and this is something of which you don’t have much. Second, This allows the interviewee to talk about someTHING instead of themselves, resulting in a weaker relationship at the end of the conversation.
Is this question open-ended enough?
Asking a few specific questions about the industry or job is great, but you have to be careful not to spend all your time with questions that have one-line answers. It is good to know how many hours the managers work in any given week, but asking yes or no questions is something to avoid. The reason you want to avoid one word answer questions is because they will interrupt the natural flow of the conversation. You need to make sure the expected answer will lead into other questions.
Will I be able to intelligently respond to this question?
This is really important. It’s not about sounding smart, it’s about relating to the interviewee. If you are interviewing a politician and ask a question about delegates, but know nothing about the electoral system, then when the politician responds you will be forced to nod your head, say okay and move to another question. However if you have had some experience with the electoral system, maybe through a family member or internship, then you will be able to share personal experiences and ideas to keep the conversation going.
Does this question have a good balance of personal and business?
In the beginning of the interview you are going to be focusing on more personal get-to-know-you questions, this is good, just be careful not to make them too personal. It’s okay to ask where their office is located in the city. It’s not okay to ask them what street they live. It’s okay to ask if the staff ever gets lunch or dinner together, it’s not okay to ask if them if their spouse packs their lunch.
Is this question too boring?
This one is similar to “is this question too technical.” But it’s not just about whether or not you can continue the conversation, this one is literally about whether or not the topic is fun to talk about. The manufacturing process of the product the company sells, simply isn’t as exciting as how people are using the product. Try to gauge what excites your interviewee from LinkedIn or in the moment, then ask questions that he/she is excited to answer.
Will the interviewee feel comfortable answering this question?
This is both at the personal and business level. Don’t ask questions about his/her personal life that would be awkward to answer — like what the interviewee does on the weekends. It is also a good idea to avoid questions that will require them to speak negatively about their company. Unless they are openly sharing what disgusts them about their employer, do not instigate a conversation that would get them fired if their boss heard it. This will not make you look good in retrospect.
Do these questions follow a logical order and flow into each other?
Yes, you came to this interview with some questions prepared, but you want it to be more like a get-to-know-you conversation than an interview. Therefore the conversation must flow likewise. Don’t stop the conversation and say, “okay next question” then read it off the paper. Try to figure out how your interviewee’s response relates to another one of your questions, say something like, “that actually relates to something else I was wondering, [insert question here].” Make sure the questions you come prepared to ask can all relate to each other in a way that will enable this.
With these questions in your tool belt, you will be much better equipped to come up with questions on your own instead of simply copying and pasting some questions you find online. Certainly you can Google some questions for ideas, but make sure you ask the above questions so you can alter the questions found accordingly.
Okay, (drum roll please) here are my top 10 informational interview questions.
Top 10 Informational Interview Questions
1. How long have you been doing what you do? What did you do before? Why did you make the transition? What did you think you would be doing?
(I cheated a little bit) You need to start the interview off with some general get-to-know-you questions. These questions assume you have already said hello, formally introduced yourself, sat down, thanked the interviewee and explained your intentions. There is a chance the interviewee has never done anything like this before, they may not know exactly why you are there and may assume you are trying to get a job. Make sure you explain right from the beginning that you are interested in the field/company and are trying to learn about it and get some advice on what to do next. The interviewee will appreciate this, and after hearing your intentions for what they are, they will be able to be open with you. After explaining there answers, the interviewer may ask the same question back, so be ready to respond to any question you ask.
2. If I were to work in your field/company, I would be interested in doing “X,” have you ever had to do this kind of work?
After about 10 minutes of small talk tell the interviewee you came prepared with some questions you wanted to make sure you got answered. Start with something like this. In this question you are asking about a specific job, but making it personal for the interviewee. If they haven’t done whatever job you asked about, they will begin to tell you what they personally know about the people who work in those jobs. Keep in mind that he/she can probably connect you with someone that does this job for your next interview.
3. What kind of office culture is there in the company/industry, both in regard to the way people talk to each other and in the hours expected to work?
You should be able to tell pretty well if the person enjoys the people he/she works with and likes the hours expected. You should be looking to hear how peers and superiors treat each other. Is there mutual respect between everyone? This question should flow into the next.
4. What kind of hours does the boss work and how does he/she treat employees?
News flash: Whether the employees or boss realize it or not, the pace the boss works at will be the pace the employees are expected to work at and respect exemplified by the boss will be copied by employees. This is just another way to learn about the overall culture of the company.
5. What are some values you love about this company/industry.
You are looking to hear about what gets them up in the morning. Why do they love this job or the cause their company is striving after?
6. What does a career path look like here? Have you or anyone you know moved up the ladder?
One of the biggest reasons people hate their jobs is because they feel like they are stuck. You need to make sure there is opportunity within the company.
7. Does the company invest in it’s employees? CEUs, master degree reimbursement, conferences, bonuses, etc..
You want to know if the people are the company or in the industry feel valued. Do they feel like the company wants the best for them, even if it means giving them experience and education that can look good to other companies. If the employees don’t feel valued, they will probably not be happy.
8. Does the company/industry do any humanitarian work?
This one is less about how the employees feel and more about understanding the heart of the company. Companies are designed and expected to make money, so when they go out of their way to spend money on humanitarian projects, it may exemplify some higher values of the company. It does not always indicate this, but chances are better that this company desires to make the world a better place. This will be reflected in the culture of the company.
9. What is the general level of communication between employees and superiors?
There are few things more frustrating than lack of communication and thus miscommunicated expectations. If what is expected is not being communicated well, then your boss and coworkers will be disappointed when you don’t perform and you will be frustrated that you made a mistake, because you never knew. A lack of communication also exemplifies a lack of respect. If someone’s boss is making decisions and setting goals/expectations without communicating or getting his/her employee’s opinion, there will invariably be problems. Communication is key to the overall happiness of a business.
10a. What kind of value do you feel like you are able to contribute to the company/industry? Are your opinions valued?
Does your interviewee have a voice in the company? When this person makes suggestions does he/she feel like his/her voice is heard? A good boss knows that employees have good ideas and will keep communication open. By giving employees a stake in the company, they feel like they are working toward something greater. This will increase their satisfaction level and result in a happier company.
10b. What do you suggest I do to prepare for this industry/company?
(I’m cheating again). This one is pretty self-explanatory. But, this is a good time to ask if they will stay in touch with you via email as you take their advice. They will most likely say yes and you will have a reason to contact them and update them on your progress. This will help them remember who you are.
10c. Can you think of anyone else who would be good for me to interview?
Again, this is self-explanatory, but could be the most valuable question you ask during the whole interview. No matter how many questions you ask, you NEED to ask this question at the end, no exceptions. Make sure you get the next contact’s information during the interview and ask them to let the future contact know you will be emailing them.
There you have it. My top 10 list of informational interview questions. I made these fairly general so you can cater them to who you are and your specific interview. Make sure you think about each question you intend to ask by using my Informational Interview Question Questions Checklist above. Don’t just rely on these questions, there are plenty of great sites out there with more ideas.
Chapter 6 — Next Steps
It is debatable about whether or not this should be called a chapter. I really do not have that much to say here. If you just read this eBook, then you know what you need to do, you just need to do it. Your next steps are to get out there and start conducting informational interviews. Whether you are in the midst of a career change or just think you may switch one day, either way, you need to be building relationships by conducting informational interviews. Now get to it!
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