Undecided about what to do? Initiate conversations.
I’ve spent a good bit of time in airports and on planes recently. I’m a cocoon traveler. I bury myself in a good read or put headphones on signaling I’m not interested in striking up a conversation. (How much more introverted can I be?) However, there’s always a person who breaks through the barrier and we generally have an interesting conversation. This year it was a business executive heading to Denver. When asked, I said I was a career-launch coach; he told me about his son a history major and graduating senior. He then asked the inevitable question, “What does a history major do for a career?”
Yes, I help college students figure out what to do with their majors but that doesn’t mean I can offer career guidance to students I don’t know. When near-strangers ask that question this is what I tell them. Conduct informational interviews. When you are undecided about what you want to do, initiate conversations with professionals in areas of interest to you. Get them to share their experience, ideas, information and advice that can be helpful to you.
An informational interview is not a job interview, and the purpose is not to discuss a possible job.You are talking with people to learn something, to takeaway information and if can build a rapport with that person, to find other people you can talk with and learn from. An informational interview can help direct your job search activities because your questions are answered and you gain perspective to help you in your decision-making process. If you haven’t been landing job interviews in the career field or companies you’re interested in, an informational interview helps you gain insights into an industry, its entry-level position titles and job descriptions, companies in that field and the interviewing process. It can set up an opportunity for you to establish a relationship with professionals in your career field that could lead to a potential job offer down the road. And, informational interviews can help you feel better prepared and more confident in your job search and interviews. Informational interviews work.
Almost two years out of college, Miles is working in a highly specialized field that requires him to grasp technology quickly, takes full advantage of his language and problem-solving skills and is challenging most of the time. He likes the work, fast-pace and the people, but the company is not where he wants to live and it’s a dead end job. Miles wants to use the talents he’s developed there but change careers. We did a lot of work together to identify career fields that interest Miles and where his talents will be valued. However, he knew very little about those fields, the leading companies he should look at, what positions he should be looking for and how he should begin to find a job in one of these career fields. Miles needed to gather information from professionals working in each of the career fields. Because he did, Miles was able to narrow down his career options, and create a targeted list of companies. He understands his value and knows the positions/job titles he wants to go after.
What did Miles do that people were willing to share information, give advice and help him make connections?
First, Miles changed his mindset about reaching out and talking with senior-level professionals. I tell clients, people want to help; they just need to know how. Although it may take time to schedule, it will happen. (It took another client 2 months to reach someone he wanted to talk with in his industry. It was worth it. The person connected him to his new boss.)
Miles then figured out how to approach busy senior-level professionals who do not know him. He did not send an email or leave a voicemail that said, “I want to network with you” or “I’m looking for a job, I hope you can help me.” This type of request rarely works. Instead, Miles started his requests by saying, “…(person’s name) recommended I talk with you because of your experience and expertise in xyz field…” or “Do you have 15 minutes to talk with an alum and share your experience working in xyz field?”
When you make a connection, you don’t want to waste that person’s time. Preparation is essential. Therefore, Miles had a script. Questions he would ask to get the other person talking. By having questions prepared, Miles get over feeling awkward talking with people about their work when he didn’t know them.
These are the 10 essential questions I recommend to get people talking about themselves regardless of the industry they are in.
- How did you get started and what do you think has made you successful in your career? This gets people talking about themselves and will provide you with insights about how you can get started and what you will need to do to be successful in that field.
- How have other people you know gotten started in this industry?You will learn how people get their start in the industry to help you create your job search plan. You might also pick up a few names to follow up on.
- What are the pros and cons of working in this field? You will begin to understand if the industry is a good fit for you.
- What skills or experiences do employers in this industry look for in candidates?
This will help you understand how you can position yourself to employers in the field, and provides a way to evaluate your resumé and other job marketing materials.
- If you were me, what would you do to try to break into this field? This will get the person to tell you what you could be doing to find a job in the field at this time. It’s possible that this person will provide you with other contacts in the field.
- How do you suggest I say on top of industry news? Are there publications, professional associations, or events I should check out?This will direct you to other valuable resources.
- Do you know anyone else I can speak to for advice about breaking into this field? This builds your network even further and may lead to additional insights.
- Can you take a quick glance at my resumé and give me your feedback? This is a way of reminding the person you want to find a job in the field, and you might get some ideas on how to improve your resumé. It’s also a great way to maintain contact with this person.
- If I have additional questions in the future, can I reach out to you again? This is networking! This keeps the door open for future advice.
- Is there anything I can do to help you? This is networking as well. Always look for ways to return the favor when someone has helped you.
And of course, after each conversation Miles asked, “May I connect with you on LinkedIn?”
Miles also prepared by knowing his personal brand statement. The person you’re meeting with is taking time to talk with you, they’ll be interested in knowing more about who you are and how they can help you. Miles knew how to talk about what he is interested in and why he was seeking more information.
Principles of Informational Interviewing
Your internship and post-college job search will be easier when you start informational interviewing early in your college career. I recommend using the summer before you start your junior year and the first semester to learn about career options for people with your interests and major. Once you decide this is a good first step for you, use the following principles to make good use of the other person’s time and yours.
- Setting up an informational interview can be as easy as contacting your school’s alumni relations department, searching on LinkedIn, asking friends and family for an introduction, or simply calling a person directly.(Practice your voicemail message.) Don’t be dissuaded if it takes more time and effort than you thought it would. But, don’t be a stalker.
- You are asking busy people for their time for your benefit, so be considerate and flexible. Realize how much time they might have to give you. Ask for 15-20 minutes for a phone call or an hour when meeting in person. Once talking, let the other person determine how long they want to give you, and be sure you have an effective close.
- Prepare for each informational interview. Research the person’s company and learn a bit about his/her background before you talk.
- Know your goal— what is your ask of the other person. The goal of the informational interview is not to get a job so never ask for one, although it’s not unheard of for an informational interview to end with an interview, internship or job offer. How lucky are you?
- Prepare and practice your script and personal brand statement. Be sure to state up front how much you appreciate their time and want to be respectful of their schedule.
- Find something you might be able to offer in return. Don’t make the interview one-sided if you can help it. For example, you might forward an industry article that would be an interesting read. Make it worth their time to have met you and leave a good lasting impression.
- Follow up. Send a thank you email within 24 hours. In addition, let the person know where you’ve landed.
- Use the information you gathered. Ask yourself: do I now know my career options, do I have additional unanswered questions that need to be addressed, can I build a list of companies to target in my job search, does my personal brand resonate, do I need to revise my resumé, what’s important to me in finding my best-fit employer?
Remember, you get out of an informational interview what you put into it, so don’t expect any handouts, but do expect that if you put the work in, to reap the rewards