The Power of Informational Interviews

 Informational InterviewsAfter graduate school, I found myself working at a bank. A year into it I just wasn't feeling the role and wondered what commercial real estate roles were out there that might suit me. I didn't know any one in the field and there was no Internet, so I had to rely on business magazines and my weak, post-graduate network to figure out the appropriate individuals in the leading commercial real estate firms.

Over the course of six months, I cold-called a number of real estate executives explaining my interest in the field; I was successful in arranging five meetings with professionals in various real estate functions -- development, leasing, property management, etc. I wasn't ready to ask for a job; I needed to learn what might be best for me.

One of the people I met with came back to me after a few months to talk about a role, which I landed after about nine interviews and another six months. That was the beginning of a 10-year commercial real estate career with LaSalle Partners (now known as Jones Lang LaSalle) and Prudential Real Estate Investors.

A Powerful Strategy

Rather unwittingly I had stumbled onto one of the most powerful career management strategies ever -- the informational interview. I used the strategy again 10 years later when I decided to become an executive recruiter. Again, it took about six months from the first meeting to land the job, but it was worth it since it was at one of the top executive search firms in the world, Spencer Stuart.

Over the next 12 years, I urged executives, employed and unemployed, to learn how to ask for and conduct informational interviews. I also gave my share of them to prospective candidates to stay current about rising stars.

Here are a few ways the informational interview can arise:

  1. A representative of a company or a recruiter reaches out to get to know you for future consideration at a known or unknown company.
  2. You can compel a recruiter or company representative to meet you even though they don't have an open position in that company.
  3. You request an informational meeting with an industry expert/influencer, who is not necessarily with a targeted company, to gain career insights.

If you are in active job search mode, your primary goal is to get the interview with the hope of being the one to land the job. The problem is that many of the companies that you would like to work for won't have openings that you qualify for, or are interested in. Don't let that stop you from engaging in productive discussions that could lead to a dream job. Learning the art of informational interviewing lets you get in front of key decision makers and influencers regardless of whether there is an open opportunity.

Meeting on Your Terms

The vibe is different with an informational interview than with a traditional, job-opening interview. In fact, you are as much the interviewer as you are the interviewee in this arrangement. This means that you don't have to be as nervous or antsy as you would otherwise be, but you do have to be prepared with clear objectives for learning specific things from the other person. You must also convey your key value propositions in the event that they consider you for an opportunity

If you are employed, but ambitious and curious about your next role, you too would be well served by learning this strategy. You don't have to worry about discretion as much as if you were interviewing for a job. Satisfy yourself that you are not being disloyal to your current employer by thinking of it not as an interview, but as "strategic networking." You aren't asking for consideration for a job; you are learning about different organizations, roles and what it takes to earn them. You get in front of influencers and subject matter experts who can impart knowledge and urge hiring managers to pay attention to you. You get to present yourself and your qualifications on your terms, without the pressure of competing against a slate of other candidates, as with a typical interview. You might even identify business development or sales opportunities for the job you are in.

  1. Approach the informational interview with an inquiring mind: You are forming impressions, not making hard and fast decisions.
  2. Prepare thoughtful questions and don't waste the other person's time; you are in full-out info-gathering mode.
  3. Even if they sought you out, you are making an impression and establishing a reputation -- good or bad. Be on good behavior -- poised, on-time, respectful.
  4. Ask about other people whom you might want to get to know. You are building a network and the best way to do that is by referral.

As with my situation, hires can result from informational interviews. You might be contacted when an opening occurs or, better yet, you might be so compelling that the organization creates a role for you. Companies are getting better at "opportunistic" hiring, especially as the economy improves and organizations have more leeway to hire for anticipated needs. In these situations, be careful to create a clear, written job description, complete with reporting relationships and a timeline for transition if the role is temporary. Seek a senior-level sponsor who can give you air cover until you are well established in the company. I've seen well-intentioned employers leave people hanging in roles ill-suited for them because things changed from when they were hired. Don't get caught in that trick bag.

Informational interviews provide people at every stage of their career the chance to gain useful information, build a stronger professional network, and even create job and business opportunities. Learn the art of asking for them and for that matter, giving them.

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