Informational Interviewing

Informational Interviewing by Lola L. Lucas, MA, MBA

What is an Informational Interview?

Isn't that just a sneaky way to get in for an interview?
Why would anyone agree to talk with me?
Wait a minute --- What if I'm uncomfortable making these contacts?
Who is the best person to talk with?
What type of questions would I ask?
What else should I look for during an Informational Interview?
Should I take a copy of my resume along?
What if even after doing a lot of research in the library and on the internet, I don't feel that I have enough to offer?
Should I do Informational Interviews in a company where I hope to eventually work?
How would I approach a company for an actual job?
Does this guarantee I'll get the job?
What can I do about feeling nervous in asking for an Informational Interview?
What about networking on the internet? Do I always have to show up in person?
Aside from the thank you note and sending useful information if I find it, do I have any other obligations?

What is an Informational Interview?
- - -It's the single best way to find a career you love and a job that you really want. It's an informal sharing of information as equals. Unlike the "sweaty palms" of interviewing for a job, it's a chance to discuss business trends in general and the company in particular without the pressure of being selected or rejected for a position.

Isn't that just a sneaky way to get in for an interview?
- - -No, not if done properly. You should make clear from the first contact that you are not, repeat, not asking for a job or expecting them to have an opening. The goal is to learn about the career field so that you can make intelligent choices. Like the rest of life, honesty pays so please be clear about what you want.

Why would anyone agree to talk with me?
- - -Human nature. Most people are extremely flattered to be asked for advice. It makes them feel important and worthwhile to talk about what they do for a living. Also, you show appreciation for the fact that they are busy yet willing to do you a favor by speaking with you for 15 or 20 minutes. (Keep to your time limit once you get there; if they ask you to stay longer, fine.) You're also a bit of novelty to break up the routine of their day. And who knows? You may end up being a valuable contact for them if you do enter the field. Some people will refuse to talk to you. They may have a deadline to meet. They may be reclusive and unfriendly. There truly is such a thing as "a bad time to talk." That's life. Chalk it up and call the next person on the list or try to meet with someone else in the organization. In general, over 80% of people will respond positively to your request: more in verbal, outgoing fields such as public relations, fewer in areas such as engineering.

Wait a minute --- What if I'm uncomfortable making these contacts?
- - -Then it might be worth your while to read Why Should Extroverts Make All the Money? Networking Made Easy for the Introvert by Frederica, Ph.D. Balzano and Marsha Boone Kelly. Introversion doesn't necessarily mean shyness or unwillingness to talk, but it can require a bit more effort to both reach out to others and to open up so that your most valuable qualities are visible.

Who is the best person to talk with?
- - -Someone who has a job very much like the one you think you'd be interested in having is ideal. But don't overlook a chance to speak with people at the very top of the company. Executives often have more time and may be of an age to feel like mentoring or helping younger people along. Talking to someone at any level of a target company can be an insight into its workings and a lead to others in a position to give you information.

What type of questions would I ask?
- - -If you've done research on the organization and the industry, you'll have lots of questions: what are the trends? Who are the key players? What is the impact of recent changes? How do people move up in this field, etc.
But some of the best questions are more personal: how did you decide to go into this field? What do you like about it? What don't you like? (This is great for clues for why you might want to run for the hills or, conversely, why your skills would be perfect for a job in this company or a similar one.)
Never leave an informational interview without asking "Who else would you recommend that I talk to? May I say that you referred me?" This builds your network of contacts rapidly. Get business cards whenever possible so you'll have the correct spelling of your contact's name and a title. Always send a thank you note for the person's time and input. Better still, send articles of interest as you see them in the press and trade magazines. This keeps you in mind and strengthens your position as someone who's "part of the solution," not part of the problem.

What else should I look for during an Informational Interview?
- - -Think of it as intelligence gathering or reconnaissance. Observe the environment, the work space, the way people dress---and the biggest factor, the expressions on their faces. Is the general tone of the organization one where you'd feel comfortable fitting in? You may need to explore several similar organizations because there can be a great deal of variance in style and tone. Do they seem to be pursuing goals and holding values which are compatible with yours?

Should I take a copy of my resume along?
- - -Yes. Your contact may want to see it and you are certainly entitled to ask for feedback on its appearance and content. Don't ask to be kept in mind for future openings or that it be sent to Personnel; ask that your contact keep it so you're address and phone number will be available if s/he has any further thoughts to share. Also ask if you can call to follow up if you have another question or two as well. Being sincerely interested and respectful of your contact's time makes you an ally, not a pest.

What if even after doing a lot of research in the library and on the internet, I don't feel that I have enough to offer?
- - -Good news! You don't need to be able to solve ALL the problems of an organization in order to be valuable. Some are small and obvious problems which you can tackle with skills you already have and make an impact quickly. More to the point, the problems can be simply what's bugging the person who has the power to hire you.

Should I do Informational Interviews in a company where I hope to eventually work?
- - -It's very helpful to discuss the industry with people in similar companies before you approach your main target. You'll sound better informed and more importantly, you'll have picked up more jargon so you'll seem like a member of the tribe when you talk to prospective colleagues. But keep informational interviewing separate from employment interviewing.

How would I approach a company for an actual job?
- - -It is perfectly legitimate to call or write saying, in essence, "I've done a lot of research. I've talked to you and the competition and found that I have something to contribute in order to solve these problems that I discovered. Of all the companies, I admired this one the most. I want to be part of it and work with you to accomplish these goals."

Does this guarantee I'll get the job?
- - -No. Of course not. But you've got a 50/50 chance---it's you or nobody instead of sending a resume to an ad for an open position where it's you or one of 300 other people. And even if you don't get hired on there immediately, you may be next in line when something does open, or you may get referred when your contact hears of something elsewhere.
Remember, you spent your time in the informational interview being neat, polite, cheerful, positive, well-informed---and you've given thoughtful ideas on how to resolve the company's problems. You've established rapport with your contact, you're a real live person instead of a piece of paper. Never underestimate just how fervently people hate to hire strangers. You've become a known quantity and your odds of employment have skyrocketed over those of an applicant in off the street. You've shown that you're thinking in terms of what you can do for them while much of your competition is saying "you should give me a job because I want a job."

What can I do about feeling nervous in asking for an Informational Interview?
- - -Remember the first is the hardest. You may have to make a cold call with a name from a newspaper blurb or a directory listing or from asking the receptionist, "who's in charge of such and such?" Maybe you can start the ball rolling by initially talking with a relative or someone you know. The name of your referral will open doors for you. You will more than likely find yourself enjoying discussions with new friends who have similar interests and passions. (If you don't, are you exploring the right field? If it's clearly wrong, you'll find out and can switch to a different area.) You'll expand your contact network which can be very valuable after you're in your new position.
One of the biggest payoffs for your time and energy is this: by the time you've done several informational interviews, you'll be used to talking with strangers at their worksites as equals. You'll be much more relaxed in a real interview, more tuned to sharing information, probing for problems and showing how your skills can help resolve them. Employers aren't real keen on sweaty palms either, so if you come across as alert, interested and comfortable, you'll be way ahead of the pack.

What about networking on the internet? Do I always have to show up in person?
- - -The Internet has opened up an opportunity to connect with people worldwide through listservs, usenet newsgroups, support groups and on-line professional forums. See Chicagojobs' excellent Netiquette: Or How to Develop an Internet Presence and Network Effectively for great hints and tips. Networking in cyberspace removes some of the pressure---a colleague across the continent may be willing to give you information that someone in your home town won't. Most of the rules stay the same: be clear and honest, show sincere gratitude, let them know how things turn out.

Aside from the thank you note and sending useful information if I find it, do I have any other obligations?
- - -In some cases, you may choose to meet your contact for coffee or lunch (although getting a look at the worksite is important). If you extend the invitation, you pay for both. Many people have found "lunching for success" to be a wise investment. After you're in your new position, let your contact know and again express thanks for all the help in making your career decision. Naturally, if you can return a favor directly, that's to the good. You can also be available for others and repay the debt indirectly by helping someone else to enter the field (that you are now part of!) as the informational interviewee.
Taking the time to write down your impressions after the interview is a good way to remember the conversation and your observations. Enjoy your informational interview!