Last week a former colleague of mine from the Seattle Times interviewed me for a piece she is working on specifically on informational interviews.
They can be a valuable networking tool, and even help someone determine if a career path they are considering is right for them. But if you are going to pursue this course of action it is important to know what an informational interview is, and more importantly what it is *not*.
Believe it or not, "Informational Interview" is a very descriptive name for the process. This is where someone that is exploring career opportunities has a short (15-30 minute) conversation with someone in either the role they are contemplating or someone that hires those professionals. In either case the goal of the meeting or phone call is to get *information* about what the job entails, and what characteristics hiring managers look for when they are looking for people. Sometimes informational sessions come in the form of structured panels, sometimes they are 1:1 meetings.
A while ago I was on a recruiting panel for Seattle Pacific University. They had a new Master’s program and several recruiters representing different facets of the industry were invited to speak to the students on working with different recruiters when they came out of school. I represented the corporate recruiting side, although I’ve done agency as well. Part of the questions entailed how we got into recruiting. One student asked how I like corporate HR, and my answer actually clarified some ideas for her. I pointed out that although recruiting as a career is part of the human resources process, it is different from most other functions in that it deals heavily with people and communication. Most of the other facets of Human Resources, such as HR Generalist, only deal with people via employee relations, which is solving issues or and occasionally dealing with transitions like promotions or terminations (layoffs, exit interviews, etc). The role of HR in any company is to safeguard the organization via policies and procedures that keep the human capital in line with legal and corporate mandates. Compensation, payroll, benefits all deal with facts and figures, not people. Training obviously deals with people, but less on a 1:1 than on a 1:many basis. She had not realized the differences and, like many young adults graduating with an HR concentration hadn’t had the opportunity to explore the different disciplines within the Human Resources industry.
Many companies have a process whereby an internal candidate starts a job search with an informational interview. S/he will contact a potential hiring manager to find out more about the group and what the manager is looking for in a candidate. It also might include asking about management style, team dynamics, and expectations. It is vital to note that the employee is *not* trying to sell themselves. They are gathering information to see if they are interested in formally applying for the position. The manager may ask questions to see if it might be a good match based on the employee’s side as well. There may or may not have been a resume forwarded.
For external candidates, the number one thing to remember is that it is considered bad etiquette to try and turn an informational interview into a job seeking session. When someone gives you their time, it’s imperative to be respectful of it and not misuse or misrepresent yourself or your intentions. Since part of the object of an informational is to network, keep in mind that you can gain an unwelcome reputation in the business world by not "playing by the rules" as it were. Also something to keep in mind, many busy professionals may not have the time to leave their jobs and meet you somewhere, so keep in mind that a phone call, while not as effective for *your* needs, may be better for theirs and as such, accept it in the spirit for which it is offered, and keep on target and conversation salient. Don’t go off on tangents and try to win over your contact. I’ll be honest, the biggest problem I have when people contact me for an informational meeting is that even though we schedule thirty minutes, all too often it goes on…and on…and on. So usually I try and schedule a phone call.
If you are exploring a specific job or industry from a career planning perspective, it is very helpful to have questions ready to ask. You will want to ask about things like "a day in the life", skills or training that are most valuable, other professions that you could expect to come in contact with, career path options, state of the industry (growth/competition, new innovations) for the next 5-10 years, if there are any industry associations to join or web portals to access for industry information. If you are still in school, perhaps what classes might be more valuable than others (have a list of a few choices). Ask if they know if there are internships available in their industry (some industries don’t traditionally offer internships.) At the end of your conversation, thank them, and ask if it would be alright to send them a LinkedIn invitation. There is a bonus to having an informational interview with someone and making a good impression: you may have the beginnings of a mentoring relationship if you handle the meeting/call well.
Being a current industry job seeker is a bit different, because the temptation is so great to try and turn every contact into an immediate opportunity. But the point of the informational interview is to better hone your job hunt, to find out what is needed in the industry, and to expand your targeted industry network. You want to seek out professionals with experience hiring (including being on interview loops if they are not a manager) in your field, whether current or past. LinkedIn is going to be your most valuable tool, along with attending professional networking events. Make sure you know the title/s you are looking at (be open to different opportunities), but also be able to talk in skill sets. Make sure the skills you are honing in are functional skills by industry, not soft attributes. An example would be sales and business development knowledge and tools for a manufacturer (Salesforce.com, cold-calling vs. warm) versus ‘strong communication skills’. Concentrate on actual experience and training needed. Present your questions succinctly. "John, I’ve got five years in bookkeeping and business accounting such as payable and receivables under my belt in a small company, and I’m wondering if you can suggest what else I should concentrate on to improve my skills, or if there is any particular industry you know of that might be hiring my skill set right now?"
Fight the urge to say, "so do you have any suggestions how I can get into healthcare right now?" That is not an appropriate use of the interviewer’s time. I cannot tell you how many requests I get weekly from people saying, "so, I’m trying to get into XYZ industry right now; what should I do?" It is your responsibility to do the research needed to get into said industry, and if you don’t know how to do so, find resources like your state Unemployment Office, school career counseling center, or even a career coach to help you do so. If you are using this particular informational interview as part of that research, you need to have identified several specific jobs or career paths that you are interested in, and have specific questions in mind to ask the interviewer. You need to be able to align your skills and history to what you are looking at, keeping in mind that you may need to get some more general experience before you can jump into a new industry.
As an example, several years ago, I was taken with the idea of being a production (tv, movie) location scout. I had been to Toronto, where a favorite TV show of mine was set and went on a Location Tour. I was really blown away by how the cinematography had transformed spaces from reality to how they looked on camera. It took a lot of imagination and understanding of the camera to be able to see potential. I found a local location scout and had coffee with him. He told me the ins and outs of the business, and in the end, I decided that the uncertainty of the paycheck wasn’t something I could commit to at that time. But it sure was fascinating and I think it would definitely be a fun business at another point in my life.
If used appropriately, Informational Interviews can be a great resource for the job seeker both for learning and networking.