The Lost Art of the Informational Interview – Part 2

In my last blog post, The Lost Art of the Informational Interview – Part 1, I talked about the importance of conducting informational interviews, how to get started, and how to frame the conversation.  This week, I’m getting down and dirty with specifics about how to handle the conversation / interview itself.  I had an informational interview of my own not too long ago, with a healthcare executive at a large, local hospital here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I used some of the very tactics I’m discussing here.  These work at all levels of an org chart, and I teach them to my private clients exactly as they’re written in this post.  In nice orderly fashion, here are 7 questions you should ask peers and coworkers during an informational interview, and 7 more if you’re interviewing someone higher up the chain of command.

Questions for Peers and Coworkers

  1. I’m really interested in the work you do here at XYZ corporation.  How did you get hired here?
  2. What do you think about the company as a whole?  Do you like it?  What’s the best thing about working here?
  3. Is there anything that drives you crazy?  If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?
  4. How is the leadership here?  Who do you look up to?
  5. What’s the compensation like, relative to other companies in the industry?  Are there any intangibles that shift the equation in one direction or another (work-life balance, etc.)?
  6. What’s one thing about your job that you think would surprise someone from the outside?  Is there anything that you do or anything about the company that you think flies under the radar?
  7. What is it like working for _______ (insert the boss’ name here)?

In addition to these questions, read the questions below.  They’re designed for hiring managers, but you can use some of them with your peers, and vice versa.

Questions for Hiring Managers and Executives

  1. If you could boil down everything that your team does and put it into just a few core activities, how would you describe your work?
  2. How do you define success?  How do you know when your team got the job done right?
  3. What does it take to do that work well?
  4. When you have to go out and recruit new people to join the team, what are you looking for?  How can you tell the difference between a top performer and an average one?
  5. Why do people come to work here instead of going down the road and working for _______ (insert competitor’s name here)?
  6. Let’s imagine, hypothetically, that I decided I wanted to work here, or I knew someone else who might be interested.  What does it take to get an interview, rather than just ending up as another resume in the pile?
  7. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.  I know you’re a busy person, and I won’t take up any more of your time today.  If I have a question or two later on though, would it be okay to shoot you a quick email?  What’s the best way to reach you?

During the interview, aside from asking a bunch of questions, I’m also looking for ways I can add value to my colleague’s life.  If something he or she says reminds me of a book or article I read, I’ll mention that, and promise to email them the full details later.  If I think they’d benefit from meeting someone in my professional network, I pitch the idea to them, and offer to make an introduction.  As noted above, I always like to end by confirming whether I have the best contact information to reach this person in the future.  (If they give me a cell phone, a different email address, etc., I pay very close attention to this, since it’s a strong signal about how the meeting went, for better or worse.)  After getting the best contact information for my new colleague, I often send them a brief email thanking them for their time, and I always deliver on anything I promised to do.  In addition to extending the conversation, it builds trust, and that’s always a good thing.

Final Thoughts

One item from Part 1 of this series bears repeating.  This type of interview is NOT designed to get you a job … yet.  It’s designed to get you the sort of information you need to be in a competitive position to land the job later.  As such, I recommend that you leave your resume at home.  It isn’t unusual for the other party to pick up the vibe that you’re looking for work, and suggest that you give them your resume.  They may offer to keep it on hand, and give you a call if something comes up.  Don’t do it.  If you already told them you’re not looking for work at this point, and that you’re selective about which opportunities you pursue, you have to align your actions with your words!  Why bring a resume with you if you’re not looking for work.  Leave it at home, then say something like this:

“I appreciate the offer, and I think it could be really interesting to work here.  I just wouldn’t want you to feel an obligation to keep a resume laying around ‘just in case.’  Let’s just agree to keep in touch instead.  If you come across something that might fit my skill set, I’d love to hear about.  We can talk about it then, and I’ll shoot you the most current copy of my resume when the time comes.”

In addition, your colleague may make a comment that “If you really want to get hired here, you should _____ .”  I always take the opportunity to say, “I don’t know if I do want the job, but I’ll keep that in mind.  I think it could be really exciting to work here, but I’m really just looking at options right now.  We’ll take it one step at a time and see where it goes, right?”  

It may sound extreme, and some may worry that they’ll miss an opportunity by taking these steps, but in reality that just isn’t often the case.  I’ve found (and my clients have too) that there’s value in keeping a calm, thoughtful demeanor.  Play the role of someone who has plenty of professional options, and time to choose from among them, because sooner or later you may find that your role-playing has turned into reality.