I only accept informational interview requests from warm referrals--people I know and trust. As you might imagine, I meet lots of people. People who want things from me. People who seek my "advice" but are looking for a job. People who read some article or blog (hah!) that told them to meet more people and expand their networks. And I have seen the good, bad and ugly versions of informational interviews.
I think "Informational Interviews" are just a fancy way of saying networking, right? Great value in meeting people in fields, companies, industries that interest you. You prepare for the "interview" like a real interview. Meaning you look like, sound like you are a serious candidate for employment. But isn't this life? I mean aren't we supposed to be constantly ready for opportunities? Don't we believe that opportunity knocks when we least expect it? "Interviewing" is what you do when you are alive! :) People are judging you from near and afar everyday. You have conversations and meet "potential" employers all of the time. No "interview" is always scheduled, scripted, and orderly. While an informational interview is often scheduled it requires preparation but agility and flexibility as well.
Yes, informational interviews are an underutilized way of finding leads and more important, finding yourself--more on that in a few. But just as in cooking with confidence, you start to vary the recipe to meet your own tastes. Otherwise every cookie from the cookie cutter tastes and looks the same. The greatest thing about you is you are different and unique. The moment you start following a formula step by step like a poorly trained monkey, you lose all of your differentiation--your YOU-ness. Comprende?
Yet every "informational interview" seems to start in the same way. Somebody told everybody to start by asking the same question: "So, tell me how you got your job (or chose this career) and about your career journey." There are several bad variations on this theme. Don't get me wrong, the essence of this query is important. Understanding WHY and how people got where they are is interesting and instructive. And yes, people, especially me :), like to talk about themselves. The theory is to warm up the conversation. The problem is when it feels robotic, like a line--a parroted phrase from a script. There is a cheesy insincerity that puts the interview into a tailspin if you read from a script.
Informational interviews are networking conversations with a focus. They are a chance for you to get insight into a different world and into yourself through someone who has generously agreed to spend some time with you. But it is a conversation. You should always have questions, but you always allow the exchange to take its course. It is a dance between your specific needs (assuming you can articulate them) and the information that they yield.
The biggest difference in the way I view informational interviews is the information seeker is the interviewer. Let me repeat this: The person who wants information leads the interview.
So the information seeker has to seek information:) They must interview me! They have to have great questions. They have researched and Googled me and my work? They are not there to wing it? (Is there ever a time when we wing it?) We have to prepared 24/7. The interviewer prepares a unique interview. I know this takes extra work, sorry about that. But each "interview" is different. Just like when you send in resumes and cover letters, but I digress.
So here are a few tips to guide your "informational interviewing":
- What do YOU want? Always the question that should keep you up at night, but the focus of any interview and career conversation. Whya re you here? Be clear on what you are seeking--not just a job--but the path you are pursuing or considering. Because understanding what your next job means to your trajectory is pretty damn important. Ultimately learning about who you are and what you want are the objectives.
- Google/Research/Prepare for the "interview". Seems so obvious, but do your homework! And then prepare questions that are driven by YOUR curiosity and your needs. Write them down in priority order and use them as your guide.
- Act as the interviewer. It is your inteview. Start off with why you are there and what you want. Be respectful. Listen. Let the conversation go where it naturally goes. Be curious!(all of the basic and essential rules of any conversation!) But get through as many as your questions without wearing out your welcome. Remember that if this conversation goes well you can ask more questions and get more feedback later.
- Seek advice and feedback. In the end you want to get counsel on your thoughts, your strategies, your resume, your goals. You want to get advice. I am reminded of the wisdom I was given about fundraising that applies here. If you want advice ask for money. If you want money ask for advice. The greatest outcome in an informational inteview is to get feedback on YOU.
- Enjoy the conversation. Meeting people, different people and learning new things is fun. Yes, a bit nerve racking, but no mind expanding experience isn't accompanied by a little fear. Even if the interview is disappointing to you, you will gsin something--an insight, an idea, and another chance to practice your interviewing. So appreciate that and appreciate the time and effort you were provided to reflect on YOU.
- Follow-up. Again, common courtesy that is infrequently practiced. You land a job and forget the people who helped you, even a little bit. Of course thank people for the interview, but remember to let them know when you succeed.
Interviewing, networking and mentoring is a lifestyle--it is what you do when you are breathing.
Lastly, let me just encourage any of you who get requests from warm sources to meet with you about your business and your job--to conduct an informational interview--to do it! YOU will always be the beneficiary of the session. Talking about yourself, why you do what you do, and what advice you have for others, always makes YOU better. That is the transformative and reciprocal power of networking!
Thanks for reading. John