Thursday, May 22, 2014

Professional networking: How to ask for an informational interview

I've noticed a big change with my clients regarding what works and what doesn't in terms of finding an excellent new job. From the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008 until now, the clients who embark on a serious professional networking project fare much better than those who rely only on reading and responding to job postings.

During the recession, I noticed clients with excellent skills and experience, solid work ethic, modern resumes using the right keywords, and great interview preparation fare very poorly. Solid job applicants were submitting resume after resume after resume and getting no response, not even a rejection letter. Clients in a few professional areas did fine with resume submissions (for example, nursing); however the vast majority of professionals were failing to get interviews, were wondering what was wrong with them, and some of them gave up hope and lapsed into depression.

Now, the topic of professional networking is too big to cover in one blog posting. However, I thought I would describe how to ask for and conduct an informational interview, which is the networking tool that has yielded the best results for my clients.

An informational interview (sometimes called an exploratory interview) is a brief meeting that you use as part of a research project before you are ready to apply for a specific job or academic program. Let me describe the process in more detail, and the purpose of these meetings will become clearer.

Using email or phone, this is how you request an informational interview:
  1. Introduce yourself (name, professional title).
  2. Give two sentences that describe your work; focus on what you have in common with the person you are contacting.
  3. Express respect for the person's time; I recommend requesting 20 minutes, which is the time it takes to go on a coffee break.
  4. State your goal, what you'd like to get out of this meeting (more on this later).
  5. Offer to buy the person coffee or lunch; the person will be giving you information and time, and the least you can do is get the tab. Suggest a location most convenient for the other person. Online interviews work very well, too; phone interviewers are generally less successful.
  6. At the end of the interview, ask, "Given what we've just discussed, can you think of 1 or 2 other people that I could benefit from talking to? Could you introduce me?"
  7. After the interview, send an email (required) and a hand-written thank you note (optional, but very, very effective).
  8. After the interview, stay in touch (but not in a "stalking" way); check in after a few months, forward a professional article, invite the person to a networking event, or stay in touch using Linked In.
Here's a brief example:

Hi, my name is Gerry Fisher, and I work as a life & career coach. I specialize in emotion management and mindfulness techniques. 

I'm contacting you (an acupuncturist), because we may share a common clientele who are looking for non-western-medical ways to improve their health and lives. I'd like to learn about your practice and see if there are any opportunities for mutual referrals.

I know you're probably very busy, and I won't take much of your time. May I buy you coffee so we can chat about this for 20 minutes? Let me know if this is something that works for you.

Very best wishes in your practice, [signature]

It's really important to emphasize that this is a business-casual chat between colleagues over coffee. Don't make it feel like a disguised attempt to get your resume to the top of some hiring manager's pile, because that will feel too much like a bait and switch maneuver. On the one hand, consider not even attaching your resume to the introductory note; as an alternative, you can add a line to the email that says something such as, "If you think that skimming my resume before our meeting would be helpful, I'd be happy to forward a copy to you." Bring a few copies of your resume to the informational interview, place them visibly on the table, and wait to be asked for a copy. Bring a notebook so that you can record any good advice that you're given.

Here is a list of goals for an informational interview:
  • Learning more about the person's company or organization.
  • Wanting to follow in that person's professional path and asking for some mentoring about how to get started.
  • Expressing respect for the person's professional knowledge and a desire to get that person's opinion about the professional landscape: what's hot, what's not, who's hiring, which certification or skill is becoming important, and tips for advancing within this particular career. (For example, a publishing/editor client of mine was recently given the advice that publishing in Baltimore tends to involve more periodicals and less book publishing. This advice helped my client to adjust his job search and his expectations.)
  • General job-searching advice.

A great general question to ask would be: "If you were me, how would you recommend I proceed with my job search?" Or, "What skill or credential would I need to be a perfect candidate for your organization at some point in the future?"

Finally, don't let rejection get you down. It's common to get no responses to a handful of these requests; remember that this all gets easier once you've gotten one or two people who respond positively. Eventually, you'll encounter one great networker who gives you tons of guidance and a few great connections, and you don't know if you'll run into this person at the beginning of your search, in the middle, or after a few months. Hang in there! It's coming!

As one last word, here is an email request that I just got that is an example of a horrible request for an informational interview. I'm too busy to assist a person who can't show more respect for my time and who can't be clearer about what she wants from our meeting. Here's the "bad" example:

Hello my name is [removed],

I'm interested in becoming a life coach in Baltimore City, can you please contact me at [phone number removed] for more information.

Thank you, [no signature]

I've granted informational interviews to people who ask for what they want directly, indicate that they'll be brief, and make it easy for me to say yes. This request was so "tossed off" and vague so as to be not worth my time.

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