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One of the most powerful – and misunderstood – career tools is the informational interview.
It’s an easy way to build a relationship, get a referral, and above all, gather strategic information. If you are looking for a job – or thinking about changing careers – it’s one of your best resources.
When else do you get to ask about the guts of a profession, or how someone attained their achievements and accomplishments? All in a non-threatening environment for both parties.
If you use informational interviewing well, and consistently, you will never have to worry about your next job.
Unfortunately, many people do it wrong. And others don’t understand its value and dismiss this priceless gem.
Here are a few tips to getting it right:
Know what questions you want to ask. Even the most highly paid, busy executive will give you an informational interview if you can show you will use their time wisely. Do not ask questions you could find answered in a book or on the web. Instead, ask something like, “When you move up, what qualities and experiences would you look for in someone who would take your place?”
Carefully consider what you want to know, and focus on topics you need someone’s personal insight to learn. For example, “What is your favorite thing about your position?” “Does this company give you leadership training (and does it do so for most of its employees)?” “What is something about your company/department you wish you could change?” “What did you wish you’d known about this company/profession/position before you arrived here?”
These are the types of questions you may be able to get from a book or online, but truly need the personal insight of speaking to someone directly to find out the unvarnished answers.
Know what outcome you want. I would venture to say that you always want a new contact, and you always want a referral to your next informational interview.
But what else? Are you looking to get into the company of the person with whom you’re speaking? Curious about a particular industry or career path? Looking to connect with a mentor and/or sponsor? The possibilities are endless.
Prepare for every informational interview with as much time and care as you would prepare for a job interview. If you do it well, it can be just as valuable. Take it just as seriously.
Always remember you are selling you. Of course you want to gather information and let your subject talk, but don’t forget to reference your own achievements. Let the person know why you’re interested in him or her, what you’re looking for, and how this interview is important to you. People want to help you – they really do. Give them the opportunity to do so, once you’ve established a relationship.
Ask for a referral. Who do they know that could give you further information? Gently request an email introduction. If you’ve done your job, they will be happy to do so.
Show gratitude. Saying ‘thank you’ never goes out of style. People will remember the thoughtful card or email you send afterward.
Finally, make sure and follow up and keep the relationship. You’ve spent all this time and energy, make sure and cultivate this relationship. Not only how can this person help you, but how can you help them?
Keep notes of your discussion, and even better, prepare a spreadsheet or contact list that lets you know the last time you spoke with someone and the nature of your discussion.
Scheduling an informational interview a week, or a month, depending on where you are in your career, will build an invaluable network over time.
But above all, this is about people. Show you care and respect someone, and they’ll do the same.
Next: How to get an informational interview – even with the most prestigious of people…
Aurelia Flores is Senior Counsel at a Fortune 500 company and former Fulbright Fellow who graduated from Stanford Law School. Her website, PowerfulLatinas.com, offers stories of success, along with resources and programs focused on Latino empowerment.