An informational interview is an indispensable tool for ambitious career builders. Not only for learning about potential job opportunities, doing due diligence on firms that interest you, and advancing your career, an informational interview is also an essential professional friendship building tool.
When you meet someone at a networking event, you need to have a next step in order to turn the chance meeting into a real relationship. There are countless possible next steps, but one that will almost always work for people senior to you is an informational interview. It’s when you sit them down (or get them on the phone) for 20 minutes, tell them a little about yourself, and then ask insightful questions about the company they work for and the work they do. If you do it right, you will not only gain valuable insider information, but you will impress your new contact and open the door for next steps.
Here is our 7-Step Process for conducting an Awesome Informational Interview.
- Get Introduced
You can skip this step if you already met them at a networking event. But if you are in an active job search, you may need to approach strangers and people you haven’t met yet. If that’s the case, ideally, you will use your network to get connected directly to people who work in the firms you are interested in. When you are introduced to someone, it makes it much more likely that they will agree to speak with you. Once someone has agreed to an informational interview, there are a few keys to remember to make the most out of your time.
- Respect Their Time
Everyone is busy. So keep it brief. Ask for 20 minutes to talk. Recognize you may have to conform to their schedule so propose a few specific times and ask them to give you some alternatives if your proposed times don’t work. The phone will work best for most people, so don’t propose coffee or a live meeting unless you are confident they have the bandwidth. Then make sure you are ready to get everything you need in those 20 minutes. If they want to extend the conversation, that is up to them.
- Do Your Research
Speaking directly with someone at a target firm is a rare opportunity for primary research. So don’t ask basic questions that you could find on the internet. Do your best to leverage publicly available information to ascertain things such as….
- Where the firm is located and whether it has offices in different geographies you are interested in.
- The nature of the position you would be interested in (e.g. entry level analyst, senior consultant, etc.)
- Any recent news coverage related to the company – earnings releases, mergers, changes in leadership. Etc.
- Know What They Have to Offer
Don’t just research the firm, research the individual to whom you will be speaking. Use LinkedIn and the company website to familiarize yourself with your interviewee’s basic information – title, tenure with the firm, career trajectory prior to this role, etc. This is critical to asking great questions. For example, if you think you will be interested in a position in the finance department of this particular company, and your interviewer is on the marketing team, she will likely not know much about the challenges a finance associate will face. That said, she will know plenty about corporate culture, firm success factors, and the interview process. Leverage the expertise of the person you are talking to and show respect for their time by asking them questions they can answer.
- Set the Context
Do not neglect this step. Before you jump in and begin firing off questions, let the person know who you are first. Introduce yourself briefly. This framework for introducing yourself is a good model to leverage here. Be brief, but let them know a little about your background, where you are in your career, and what you hope to get out of this conversation. People want to be useful to you, and you make it much easier for them to do that when you tell them what you want and need.
- Ask Great Questions
Everyone likes to talk about their experience and most people like to give advice. These are also the two topics that will make your informational interview most valuable. It might even be worth your time to create an interview guide for your conversation. You will get much more valuable information if you ask questions that are easy to answer and require robust answers. So instead of “What is your job like?” Consider asking something like: “Describe what your work life looks like in a typical week.”
Some topics to explore:
- How would you characterize the culture of the firm?
- How do people collaborate and work together here?
- What values are emphasized in teamwork?
- What kind of people have not been great fits at this company?
- What would you suggest I do to learn more about the firm’s culture?
The Work Itself
- What does a day in your life look like? What percent of your time do you spend in meetings, on email, on the phone, working on the computer, traveling, etc?
- What aspects of the job have you struggled with most? What aspects of the (position I am interested in) do people tend to struggle with most?
- What do you find most rewarding about your work?
- What problems have you been most passionate about solving?
- On what key dimensions are you evaluated in your work? What key dimensions is the (position I am interested in) evaluated on?
- What are the three core skills without which you could not have succeeded?
- What are the key development areas you are working on now?
- Do you have any advice for me on core skills or qualities to develop that would make me a better candidate for the position I am interested in?
This is not an exhaustive list. These are just a few ideas to get you thinking about what you want to know. But notice how most of these questions center on the interviewee’s own work and the “what” of the job. This enables the individual to expand on his or her own experiences rather than just giving opinions, which may or may not be relevant to your own job search.
- Give the Connection a Future
This is the important last step in any conversation. Create an opportunity for follow up. This is as simple as asking for something or offering something. For example…
An Ask: I would really appreciate if I could follow up with you in the next several months to see if you have any openings on your team, would that be alright? And if you do think of a position that would be a good fit for me, please let me know.
An Offer: I read an article last week that reminded me of the challenges you described in your job, I will send it to you when I get back to my office.
Then make sure you actually follow up as you promised!
Use this tool when you are researching new jobs, actively searching for your next role, or when you’d just like to get to know someone and their work better. It’s a great first step in developing professional friendships.