How to make the most of informational interviews | Ladders

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How to make the most of informational interviews

You’ve pinpointed a new industry, company, or role. You’re excited to transition, but you’re not sure how. What would help you succeed? Information from someone who has gone before you.

If you were a mountain climber, as other climbers come down the mountain, what would you want to ask them? Maybe: “What’s the best path to the top?” “What challenges did you encounter?” “What do we need to reach the peak?”

These kinds of insights are invaluable to a successful and efficient ascent — and for a job transition.

Why ask for an informational interview?

Talking with someone who is in (or recently left) an industry, company, or role that you want to pursue will offer you valuable information and important referrals.

To land an interview and get the job, you will need skills, experience, credentials, relationships, a strong reputation, and an understanding of the inner workings of the industry, company, or role. Before you begin the interview process, you will want to know how well your skills and background translate to what they’re looking for.

Which credentials are essential, and which are assumed to be necessary, but really aren’t? How can you build and improve your relationships and reputation? You will need to know who succeeds, who fails, who are the thought leaders to follow; what’s changed recently that changed everything, who are the decision makers, and what’s important to them. Only insiders can give you the answers.

How do you offer an incentive for your connection to act as a champion for you? Bring value to her.

Let’s say you attended a leading annual trade conference and have handouts from a best practices workshop. Because she was probably too busy to go, those handouts are valuable to her! By providing them, you’re not just someone asking for information, you’re a resource. When an opportunity crosses her screen in a week that’s a fit for you, there is a better chance she will forward it to you. If you keep providing items of value and stay in touch, she may refer (and even recommend) you for professional opportunities.

When an opportunity crosses her screen that’s a fit for you, there is a better chance she will forward it to you. If you keep providing items of value and stay in touch, she may refer — and even recommend — you for professional opportunities.

What makes an informational interview different than a job interview?

The primary difference between an informational interview and a job interview are the goals. The goals of a job interview are to investigate your fit and land the offer. The goals of an informational interview are to gain information and/or referrals. There is no position available.

A secondary difference is how you can bring value to the other person. With an informational connection, anything of value to them is an option. I had a client who noticed on the connection’s LinkedIn profile that he was a Cub Scout Den Leader. My client was also and offered ideas for Den activities. The connection loved it, and it kept them in touch.

However, for a job interview, any value you offer has to relate to the decision maker and the opportunity available. It would be pretty strange to offer an interviewer Cub Scout activities.

What’s the best way to conduct an informational interview?

Many people do not get value out of an informational interview because they do not think about goals for the meeting. I suggest two, which create the agenda:

  • Ask for her story (how did she do what you’re trying to do – get into the industry, company, or role?)
  • Ask for her advice, given your background?

This two-step agenda simplifies informational interviewing. You start the meeting by asking, “How did you get into alternative dispute resolution?” The question engages the connection and gives you the information you wouldn’t have known to ask for — what you don’t know you don’t know. And there will be nuggets valuable to your transition.

Next, you explain your story to give her context, and then ask, “If you were me, how would you get into alternative dispute resolution?” This is stronger than just asking for advice; you are asking her to look at the problem from your perspective. That’s why telling your story is so important – it provides the building blocks for her to work from.

What now?

Reach out to someone for an informational interview following two criteria:

  • She or he can be helpful to you in some way.
  • There is a high probability she or he will agree to meet.

As you start, the second criterion is far more important. Just meet with someone and practice asking for his or her story, telling your story, and asking what she or he would do in your shoes. Extra credit for bringing your connection value (hint: check LinkedIn profiles, company bios, blog posts, interviews, etc.).

Then ask whom else you should meet with. You’ll be on your way!

Tad Mayer is a career coach, trainer, speaker,  executive coach, and co-author of the forthcoming book, Own the Job Hunt.