The Power of Informational Interviewing

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A few weeks ago I submitted a post on interesting job search strategies, and it led to a stream of emails asking me to clarify what I meant by “Informational Interviewing”.  Here’s a more in depth look at what I believe to be the best job search process out there today!

The Value of a Long Term Strategy

First off, I’m not here to say don’t use the want ads!  I’ve used them often when I’m looking for work and so should you.  However, I start having a problem with that strategy when it becomes THE main focus of a job search.

If you’re using want ads and/or online postings to find opportunities, you’re competing with a very large group of people, and you’re doing so without any competitive advantage.  You’re responding blindly to an advertisement and positioning yourself as one of many in a vast pool of candidates.  I suggest using this approach as a complement to something bigger. I view the want ads (and I’m including Monster and CareerBuilder in this category) as a short-term strategy that may or may not give you a good understanding of your market.

In my mind, the real pay dirt lies in a well thought out long-term strategy where you research your interests, map out your goals and build yourself a strong network that can lead you in any number of areas professionally. It’s a process you should be following even when you’re not actively looking for employment.

For me, the absolute best strategy for accomplishing this is Informational Interviewing.  I say this because it has opened numerous doors during my career and I’ve seen it help others tremendously.

Here are the nuts and bolts of this process that many of you have asked me about.

The Informational Interviewing Process

Informational Interviewing involves contacting leaders within your industry and asking them if you can meet to learn more about the work they do.  The idea is to build a knowledge base that will help you decide where you would like to focus your career development efforts and to understand what skills and competencies are essential if you’re to be successful.  It’s a great way to grow professionally while building a strong network at the same time.

Step 1: Identify a Group of Individuals and Organizations in Your Field to Contact

Research areas of interest you may have and find out who is doing that kind of work nearby.  Be creative and really think about those areas you’ve always found interesting but never thought were realistic.

I worked with one mental health professional who was interested in leadership and work climate issues but she never figured there would be opportunities for her based on her psychology background and mental health experience.  However, when she researched this area she found some interesting professionals in human resources and management consulting with backgrounds similar to hers.  She scheduled some meetings and was able to talk with and learn from many of these people.  She uncovered a whole new area where her counseling skills were being used and she learned what path she needed to take in order to be considered for some of these opportunities.

Step 2: Develop a Short Commercial About Why You Are Calling

Once you have a list of some interesting people you’d like to call, work on a brief commercial about why you are calling.  It should go something like this:

“Hello, my name is Joe Smith, I’m a vocational counselor with Organization Y.  I’m interested in the addiction field, and I heard you give a talk on the recovery group process for adolescents a few months ago.  I was wondering if I could meet with you briefly to learn more about the work you do so I could begin taking steps to enter the addiction treatment field.”

One key point to make here is that you do not want to ask for a job when you are initially contacting people.  Be clear that you’re doing research to determine where you want to go in your career.  Your goal when you call is to simply get an appointment to meet and not to earn a job interview.

Step 3: Ask Good Questions

Being prepared and showing you value the other persons time is an excellent way to make an impression.  You’d be surprised how rarely this takes place!

Let’s say you have an informational interview coming up with a clinician who has done a fair amount of research on addictions treatment.  Which question do you think would make a bigger impression?

“Thanks for meeting with me.  I know you’re well known for your work pertaining to victimization and PTSD in substance abusers.  I have a lot of interest in that area and was wondering if you could tell me what led you in that direction in terms of your career?”

“Thanks for meeting with me, I was hoping you could tell me what it is you do and how you got to this point?”

Have several good questions you can ask that show you have put a lot of thought into this process.  The quality of your questions will be a distinguishing factor for you.

Step 4: Have Your Resume in Tip-Top Shape

Bring your resume with you because you never know when you might need it.  The people you meet will be assessing you and forming their own impressions.  They will be thinking… “Where might this person fit now or down the road in my organization?”

Step 5: Make a Positive Impression.

Okay, I know this sounds painfully obvious but it needs to be emphasized.  Take advantage of the time someone has been willing to give you!  Remember, while you’re not directly asking for a job, you are being interviewed!  Be prepared to make a positive impression as people will be assessing you, and it may lead to a job today, tomorrow, or down the road!

I know several people who went into an informational interview and came out that day with a new job!  The person you are meeting might think of someone they know who is hiring, and they may choose to refer you to them.  In other instances, they may be compelled to offer you an opportunity within their department or on their team.

The lists of possibilities are endless, and it all starts with getting your foot in the door so you can build your network.

Step 6: Always Leave with Something Before You Go!

Step six adopts a classic best practice sales principle.  Be sure you ask the person you are meeting if they can recommend other people in the field to talk with or if they know of any professional development community events.  The idea is to walk away with ever expanding opportunities you can explore.

I am a huge proponent of the Informational Interviewing process!  If you decide to give it a try let me know how it works for you!


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