It’s not networking – it’s an information interview

by K B , updated on April 18, 2010

There is so much fabulous advice out there about the value of networking to find a job. Miriam Salpeter of Keppie Careers is running a series of excellent posts on this.  This one’s on questions to ask people when you meet them for an “information interview” – which is where you arrange a coffee (or the like) with someone working in your chosen field and ask them questions about what they do. Kind of like a reverse job interview. Many jobs drop out of this process. While you are not asking your target directly for a job, you are letting them know you are interested.

Miriam’s questions to ask include:

  • What are your biggest challenges? (Or those impacting your field/company/organization?)
  • What is the best (and worst) part of your job?
  • What would you do differently (if anything) if you were starting over in your field?

I’d also add:

  • How did you break in? (good for if you’re considering changing careers)
  • What advice could you give someone like me? (You then get to mention a few things about yourself)

As far as I can see these are nice, simple, and I think easy to ask questions. Yet in my experience most people would rather have their teeth extracted (without anesthetic) than initiate an information interview.

Here are some of the best (or worst) excuses I’ve heard, and as I can’t help myself, I’ll counterpunch each one with why you should go ahead and just do it.

“I’ll sound desperate.”

Many people associate interviewing people about their job, when they are looking for a job as somehow sounding needy and desperate. They think that the other person will think they are looking for a job. I’ve made this sound as complicated as the thought process behind it, which is what happens when you over-analyse. The whole point of an information interview is that you are looking for a job, but you are doing it in a proactive, intelligent and sincere way. If you ask the questions we’ve suggested and genuinely listen to the answers, you will impress the person you are meeting. The question of what you are looking for will inevitably come up.

One thing to remember about these interviews is not to put the person on the spot and ask for a job, as that’s not the premise of the meeting. If you launch into a major spiel about your skills you will not get quality information back, and in fact you may ruin your credibility as you’ve been dishonest about the point of the meeting.

“Most people will not want to see me.”

Yes some people won’t. Some people will be too busy. Some people have a whole lot going on, that they don’t have time to help. Yet there are many people out there who are innately helpful, and/or who know the value of networking. I was surprised about how many senior managers and CEOs whom we interviewed for our book, What do employers really want?, actually welcomed direct contact from potential employees. At least 20 out of the 25 managers we interviewed said they were open to a cold approach.

For the employers who said they didn’t want contact, none of them took it as an insult that someone would want to find out about them, or want to work for them.

“I won’t know what to say.”

That’s where some research comes in. That’s what Google and websites are for. And that’s what these interview questions are for. Take typed questions, and points you’d like to discuss. Pull them out. You may never use them, but it will give you confidence knowing they are there.

“It sounds too hard.”

Information interviewing isn’t too hard, but it is hard to start, and it is easier if you start off by asking for someone you know for an introduction with your target or for them to pre-empt your contact. You can then also find out the best way to contact your target, by email or phone. Some people prefer one over the other, and if you do use a phone, try to sound polished.

“I don’t know where to start.”

Friends, family, friends on friends is a first easy point. After that, there’s I don’t look any further than this nowadays. It’s a bucket of resumes and business cards. The point is to make a start. People do know people, and people will refer nice people.

“It won’t work.”

Yes it will. I’ve spoken to many people who’ve changed their career this way, including some of my clients. One person, a middle manager in manufacturing, changed his career to become a financial planner through information interviewing. This was after he had been rejected about 10 times applying for this same role through recruitment agencies.

“It will take too long.”

True it takes time. But I actually think it’s a more intelligent way to find a job than going through a sometimes strange sales spiel from a recruitment consultant. You get closer to the heart of what it’s like to work for an organization, and the best and worst part of a job. Otherwise, you’ll often find out the worst part when you start on the job, and by that time it’s too late.

There is a lot more too this process than just asking questions. Have a read of Richard Bolles’ book “what colour is your parachute?” . It’s all about “information interviewing.” This book has been phenomenally successful, most likely because it works.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Miriam Salpeter, Keppie Careers April 18, 2010 at 6:30 pm

Karalyn –
Thanks for the mention and the additional thoughts about informational meetings. I have always found that people who are not successful using this strategy are approaching contacts as a job seeker instead of as a person seeking information! Nice to be in touch.

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