The Informational Interview
In the five-plus years since the first edition of Working World was published, I have remained convinced that networking is done best when it's unforced and we stay open to unanticipated connections. But I've also come to appreciate that proactivity in networking is essential. And, in my view, the most effective way to network proactively is through informational interviews.
When I was in college and wondering what to do with myself, I wish somebody had told me about informational interviews. I wish that professor had skipped the business card lecture and instead told us to set up interviews. As I approach midcareer territory, I frequently field requests from younger professionals who want to learn more about the work we do at the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange (see chapter 6 for more information). The Alliance has a small staff, so it's unlikely we'll have a position opening or that an informational interview with me will lead to a job with us. We do have, however, a large membership of international exchange organizations, so I can answer questions about these organizations and introduce people to useful contacts.
Informational interviews can seem slow and frustrating, especially when you need a job, like, right now. But this is the most effective way for getting a personal, inside view of organizations and positions you might like to have. It also helps you "make your friends before you need them." There may not be a position open at a particular organization when you meet with someone there. But you've now established a relationship with that person, and when a position does become open—weeks or months down the road—you have that relationship to tap for assistance.
Just as networking is an art, so is effectively requesting and conducting informational interviews. Key points to remember include:
1. Informational interviews are best pursued through already established connections (i.e., asking someone you already know to make an introduction), but it's absolutely appropriate to approach someone you've never met, provided . . .
2. . . . you are respectful of their time. I believe that the majority of professionals in these fields are willing to help. However, you must, from the start, show respect for their time, always keeping in mind that . . .
3. . . . it's a process. Informational interviews are not about getting a job; they're about laying the groundwork that will enable you to move forward and eventually get a job.
REQUESTING THE INTERVIEW
Identify professionals doing interesting jobs at organizations you admire and where you might like to work. Don't choose the president or CEO; rather, target someone at a level closer to the positions you're seeking. These people are more likely to have time to meet with you; you'll also learn information more relevant to your own job search.
Once you've identified your targets, determine how to approach them. If you have a friend or contact in common, ask that person to introduce you.
Also consider asking your contacts to suggest other good prospects that were not on your original shortlist.
If you don't have a personal connection, then send a short e-mail (or LinkedIn message) to the target, briefly introducing yourself and explaining why you're reaching out. For example, note that you are a current student of international affairs and interested in pursuing a career in international education. Request a fifteen- to twenty-minute informational interview. Note that you'd like to hear about the target's work and organization, and ask a few career-related questions. Make this initial communication simple. It should require only a brief response. Follow up a week or two later, if necessary. No response does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest—it often means that the interview target is busy and your e-mail has slipped down in her inbox. A short and respectful follow-up is useful, as it bumps your request to the top of the pile.
Do your interviews in person, if possible; if not, then by phone. While e-mail is typically the best way to make your initial outreach, meeting in person for the actual interview is preferable for two reasons. First, it allows for a more personal connection. Second, it's easier for the person being interviewed. A fifteen-minute conversation doesn't require much prep. Writing nuanced insights in an e-mail, on the other hand, can take far longer—and can be far less appealing to someone who spends much of the day composing e-mails already. I recall receiving an e-mail from an informational interview seeker I didn't know. After a brief introduction, this person let loose with fifteen detailed career questions. He asked me to respond "within two weeks." I was incredulous and irked. I hit delete.
Be cognizant of time during your interview. If you promised you'd keep it to fifteen minutes, do your best to adhere to that limit. Also, be prepared. Come armed with a few questions you'd like to ask and one or two simple requests (i.e., "Can you suggest colleagues at two or three other organizations I should meet?"). I remember a recent informational interview where the job seeker had nothing prepared and seemingly nothing to talk about. I was left wondering why I'd bothered to interrupt my day. Make your informational interviews worthwhile for everyone involved.
REMEMBER, IT'S A PROCESS
I'll reiterate that an informational interview is not, in and of itself, about getting a job. It's about laying a foundation. It's about gathering information, making contacts, and widening your circle. A grad student once approached me for an informational interview and handled it all wrong. He focused the entire conversation on internship and job openings at the Alliance. Even after I told him that we had no openings and, because we're a small shop, were unlikely to have any soon, he continued in that vein. He was not interested in me, but only in what I might do for him. It was awkward and ineffective.
Informational interviewing is a process. When done patiently and strategically (with a requisite flexibility that allows unexpected connections to flourish), it is the best tactic for proactive networking.