Career tip: What is an informational interview?

By | September 26, 2016

Of the many things I learned in MBA, the “informational interview” is one of those gems that remains relevant a decade later. Information interviews. They are simply low-expectation, business meetings with (relative) strangers to find out more about an industry, company, or opportunity. It is a win-win:

  • The interviewee has the opportunity to be generous – with their time, knowledge, and advice. If they are in the job you would love to have – dude – they are a great resource.
  • The interviewer gains insight and potentially a job lead.
  • Done well – you develop a business contact and a broader business network.

Do not ask for a job. This is the only rule. More explanation later, but this is critical, so I put it first. Everything else in this blog post is advice. This however is a rule.

If you ask for the job, or ask for a recommendation to the hiring manager – you are an immature, selfish, short-sighted, amateur, jobless punk. It is rude, awkward, and inappropriate for you to ask a stranger out for a simple cup of coffee and then hit them up unexpectedly for a job or a recommendation.  It will not work, and is stupid:

  • They don’t know you – so cannot attest to your skills or professionalism
  • It’s disrespectful to invite someone to meeting, then change the agenda
  • It’s immature to think that a relationship is formed over 1 meeting
  • It’s aggressive – in the wrong way; it shows that you are risky with relationships
  • You are probably burning a bridge; who would meet with a jerk twice?
  • If this tactic works, it was an actual interview, not an informational one

consultantsmind-informational-interview

Potential goals of the meeting? If you are not asking for the job, or a recommendation to the hiring manager, what in the world are you getting? Some things come to mind:

  • Goodwill from someone in the company you want to work from or industry veteran
  • More contacts or referrals to other people for informational interviews
  • Knowledge on that specific role, department, or company culture
  • Opinion on whether someone with your qualifications / experience might be a fit
  • Different resources to get smart on the industry (if you are a career switcher)
  • Confirmation that the job posting is really alive (some have internal rules which require posting a job for 7 days “”externally” before they can be filled internally)
  • Lots of other good karma you get from meeting other successful business people

Before the meeting:

  • Reach out through referrals (best case). Find the connection friends, neighbors, school / alumni networks, or some link. Cold introductions are possible, but rough.
  • When writing an email, be brief. Long-winded exposition = not good.
  • Cover the basics in your email – who you are, how you know them, why you would like to meet them, or speak on the phone. All the basic points.
  • Be clear in your objective; don’t obfuscate with generalities like “broaden my network” blah blah. If you are looking at a role at company ABC, say so.  If you are looking to change careers into a new industry that they know, say so. Be clear enough that they can help you or direct you to someone else.
  • Show some manners. Show deference, flexibility in scheduling, and be appreciative.
  • Don’t be upset or surprised if there is no response. Life is about priorities, and helping super-random strangers is usually low on that list.

During the meeting:

  • Even though you are not asking for a job, it is an interview. Show professionalism, character, emotional intelligence, rapport-building, with a hint of ambition.
  • Come prepared. Do your research on the industry, company, and person you are meeting. Do not ask basic questions that any high school freshman could ask.
  • Build rapport. If you don’t know how, practice, learn.
  • Be respectful of time. Don’t go over. Provide opportunities for them to leave if they look/feel antsy. If they look at their watch, start winding it up.
  • Ask smart, open-ended questions. Get advice. Oddly, people love giving advice.
  • Look for ways to HELP THEM. Networking is about being useful to other people.

After the meeting:

  • Follow up on anything you said you would do.
  • Obviously, send a thank you note/email.
  • Find ways to help them, repay the favor, honor their time.

Email sample: Here is an example from my past. It is not poetry and my style is somewhat direct. Do not copy/paste, but use as an example if you like.

Consultants mind - Informational Interview Email

Net / net. This is a great, low-cost way to get smart about a role you would like to have in the future. Curious about a company culture? Talk with someone who works there. I have done 30+ informational interviews during the last 10 years. Probably 20 when I was preparing for my consulting interviews, then another 10 during job transitions. You would be surprised how generous people are with their time, advice, and contacts.

Question to readers: You have all asked for informational interviews and given them. Any major points that I have missed?

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