The Lost Art of the Informational Interview – Part 1

One of the topics I frequently cover with new coaching clients, especially those who are not 100% clear about the specific role they’re targeting for their next job or promotion is the art of the informational interview.  Many clients make this more complicated than it needs to be, and coaches don’t often do much to make it easier.  Let’s boil it down to a few simple steps.

1.  Identify 5 people who could inform your job search in some way, and write their names on a list.  Generally, it’s best to keep this list very focused.  Think about people who are currently working the job you’d like to have.  Think about their coworkers, their bosses, and other people in their company.  If you get stuck, think about recruiters, competitors, and so on.  If you have trouble coming up with the list, keep thinking.  Jog your memory by looking through your list of Facebook friends or connections on LinkedIn.  Look at your holiday card list.  Scroll through the address book in your phone.  Ask your closest friends and family members who they think might be able to help.

2.  Dig up their contact information and call or email them.  It’s common to think that phone calling is preferred because it’s a bit more personal, but in reality emailing may get the job done best.  First, it’s easier to put off a phone call because it’s too early in the morning, too late at night, it might interrupt a mealtime, they’re probably busy, etc.  Email doesn’t interrupt people in the same way, so there’s no excuse for putting it off.  Second, it’s easier to follow up.  Rather than having to leave a second long voicemail while trying to follow up on a phone call, simply “reply all” to the previous email you sent, and you can have your original message attached with a short new comment.  For example, write “Hey, I’m just following up on this email.  I’d love to catch up with you sometime soon, and I’m happy to work around your schedule.  Do you have some time this week you could free up for a 15 minute phone call?”

3.  Set the right expectations.  Informational interviewing is NOT about getting a job.  It’s about getting the information you need to position yourself correctly so that your resume, cover letter, LinkedIn profile, and interview responses all present you as the single best candidate for your desired position.  I explain to my clients that job-seekers tend to fall into one of two categories in terms of the way they present themselves:  smooth professional, or desperate for work.  Those in the “desperate” category spend time talking about how they’d love to get hired at the company, are hoping someone can “hook them up” with the right contact person, and would “do anything” to get hired.  They carry a resume with them to every networking meeting and informational interview, just in case someone wants a copy.  More often than not, “someone” doesn’t want a copy, though they’ll often take one when offered, just to be nice.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll see any positive results when one of your connections takes a copy of your resume that you pushed off on them.

Since you’re not desperate, take the smooth professional approach instead.  Notice how the sample email below is short, friendly, and to-the point in a very casual way.  Even as a busy business owner, manager, and family man, I still agree to talk with people who send me emails like this.  Feel free to copy and paste this directly into your next email, and simply make a few changes to reflect your personal situation and style.

“Hi Jane, I think it’s been something like __ (months/years) since the last time we talked, so I wanted to shoot you a quick email.  Hopefully all is well with you and the family.  Your name actually popped into my mind the other day because I was thinking about folks I know who have worked at (XYZ Corp).  I’ve been spending some time thinking about the next steps in my career, and I’m really curious about the work going on over there.  I don’t know if it’s the right fit for me, but I’d love to get an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to work there.  Would you be willing to take 15 minutes on the phone with me to answer just a few questions I have?  That would allow us to catch up too, and I’d love to hear how everything’s going for you!  To be clear, I’m NOT looking for a specific job at this point, and I won’t be asking you to pull strings for me, so there’s no pressure.  If you’re willing, I’m happy to work with your busy schedule to find a convenient time.  Can we look at options for scheduling?”

Notice there are only two possible answers to this email:  yes or no.  Often, the answer is yes.

For more information, check out my follow-up post, where I describe exactly how to conduct yourself during the interview, and come away with a commitment to help you succeed in landing your dream job.

If you have questions you want to make sure I address, just post them below.