Nine tips for successful informational interviews

Have you ever been on an informational interview?

If you haven’t heard of them before, an informational interview is a meeting with someone who’s already in an organization, field or industry that you’d like to get into, which doesn’t relate directly to a job opening. It’s an opportunity for you to learn, grow your network and get your foot in the door.

Informational interviews can help improve your career prospects. They’re especially helpful when you graduate or if you’re starting out in a new field. In fact, the effectiveness of informational interviews has been described as “engineered nepotism”. Essentially, if you don’t have an existing strong personal connection, an informational interview can have the potential to result in one.

Informational interviews have benefited my career. My first job at a PR agency was the eventual result of an informational interview with a VP there. We were put in touch through connections in our networks, so I didn’t know her personally before the meeting. That said, I diligently prepared for the meeting and it was a success.

That’s why, when a role became available at my level at the agency a month after the informational interview, the person I met with contacted me. She thought I could be a good fit based on what she learned about me in the informational interview. As I had already dipped my toe by meeting with her and learning about the agency, I was immediately engaged. So, we met again to discuss the role and I was interviewed by other senior members of the organization. As a result, the role was a great fit for me, and I was a great fit for the team.

This experience has made me believe in the power of informational interviews. Since, I’ve continued to participate in them, both as interviewer and interviewee. Based on what I’ve learned, I have some tips for acing informational interviews as your start off in your career:

Tip 1: Prepare as you would for a job interview – Would you ever go to a job interview without Googling the company and person you’re meeting with? Informational interviews should be treated the same way. In addition to reviewing the company’s website, check out the social channels of and recent news articles about the company, its leaders, its brands and the person you’re meeting with. Review your contact’s LinkedIn profile and consider connecting with them before or after the meeting. Show you’re really on-the-ball by weaving-in what you learned in your research during your conversation, or even print out and bring an article or two.

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Tip 2: Determine an objective – Understand what you hope to get out of your informational interview. Keep your objective(s) top-of-mind, and even mention them to the interviewee either before or early in the interview. For example, if you’re emailing the contact in advance, you could say, “I look forward to meeting with you to learn about your career path and the trends and opportunities you see in the industry,” if that’s what your objectives are. This will help the interview subject prepare, and as a result, you’ll get more from the meeting.

Tip 3: Prepare a list of questions – Make a list of questions to address anything you’re curious about – the person’s career path, something you learned when researching their organization, industry trends, their organization’s culture or their organization’s open positions (if they’re not posted online). Write the questions down in your notebook (see point 5, below) or print the list. Refer to them during the interview to demonstrate your preparedness and engagement.

Tip 4: Get ready to share a bit about yourself – Ideally, the interview should focus on the person you’re meeting with. However, it would be helpful for the interviewee to know a bit about you so that they have context when sharing information or advice. Rehearse a summary, also called an “elevator pitch”, about yourself in advance. Make sure it’s short, concise and clear. Learn how to craft an elevator pitch here.

Tip 5: Make notes – Bring a notebook and pen and jot down important things that your interview subject says. Write down questions that arise when they’re speaking and ask them later to avoid interrupting them. Even if you’re a digital record-keeper, writing down notes demonstrates to the speaker that you’re fully engaged. Making notes on a smartphone, tablet or laptop can have the opposite effect. (Still not convinced to write in a notebook? Richard Branson has a compelling pitch for using them!)

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Tip 6: Dress to impress – First impressions count. But, before you put on a tailored suit for an informational interview, keep in mind that in recent years, attire for job interviews and other professional meetings has changed, just as how people dress in the workplace has evolved. A suit is great, but not always necessary (hello, suit separates!). As part of your research, learn about the culture and dress code of the organization and industry of the interview subject to ensure your attire is appropriate. However, even if the organization’s dress code is very causal on a day-to-day basis, you should dress more formally to convey your seriousness and professionalism. Learn more about dressing for a job interview here.

Tip 7: Find an appropriate venue and time – Allow the interview subject to share their preferences for when and where they’d like to meet. Encourage a venue that’s close to their workplace to minimize their time away from work. Your interview subject might suggest a meeting room at their office. Or, coffee shops or casual cafés are usually good bets, but make sure you can get a table at the meeting time; you might even want to arrive early to secure seats. Don’t order drinks or food in advance, and offer to pay if you’re the one who called the meeting (although if you’re a student or if it’s early in your career, the interview subject may politely decline your offer!).

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Tip 8: Be mindful of time – Try to arrive early, and ensure the meeting ends on time. This shows that you respect the interview subject’s time, that you’re able to manage time effectively, and that you understand they have other priorities in their schedule.

Tip 9: Send a thank-you note – An email or a card sent in the mail that expresses your appreciation is a thoughtful way to follow-up on the interview. Also, if someone introduced you, take the time to send them a short email to share that the interview occurred and to thank them for the connection.

I’ll finish up with a disclaimer. The result of my informational interview scenario, described above, was ideal for me at that time because I was starting out in my career and looking for a job at the same time a position became available. However, not every informational interview will result in a job offer. (And, sometimes, that’s not your objective!)

You might not be able to anticipate how participating in an informational interview now can benefit you down the road. Outcomes can include being approached regarding a job opportunity, increasing your technical knowledge, absorbing perspective based on the interview subject’s experience and gaining connections to the interviewee’s network.

What other tips do you have for making the most of an informational interview? Share in the comments below!

 

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Stand out with these 3 traits

A resume can get your foot in the door when you’re looking for a job. But, oftentimes hiring managers want a new hire to fulfill criteria that can’t be expressed on paper. Why? These traits will help hiring managers ensure that the candidate will benefit the organization in ways that go beyond just fulfilling their role.

What are employers looking for when they hire someone new? Emily Heward, co-founder of branding agency Red Antler, explains the top things she looks for in the video from Inc.com, available here.

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Image via Inc.com.

What are the three traits she looks for?

  1. Enthusiasm about your industry, your work and the company
  2. The ability to ask thoughtful, challenging questions
  3. Kindness

You can demonstrate these traits to a potential employer in different ways. Try:

  • Before even applying for a job, consider scheduling an informational interview with someone at the organization
  • Carefully crafting a tailored cover letter (learn more about that here)
  • Mindfully conveying these traits in an interview
  • Sending a thank you email or hand-written note after an informational interview or formal interview

Do you agree with the top traits that Emily Heward suggests?

What other ways could you express these traits?

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Can a strong personal brand help you land a job?

I’ve recently posted about the importance of cultivating your personal brand. ICYMI, your personal brand is the image or impression that you can establish about yourself in the minds of others so that they can easily identify what makes you unique, and what you’re considered the go-to expert or resource on. This group includes colleagues, contacts in your network, your employer or potential employers.

While I know that personal brands are important, I’m always on the lookout for new research and information. I recently came across a CBC Radio Spark episode that revealed that personal brands aren’t the ultimate predictor of career success.

The episode featured an interview with anthropologist Ilana Gershon of the University of Chicago. Gershon wrote a new book called Down and Out in the New Economy. In the interview, she explained that a shift in the relationship between employer and employee has resulted in the way that we present ourselves as “businesses” in the job search.

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Image via CBC.ca / Ilana Gershon

“We are imagining ourselves as a bundle of skills, of assets… that we’re constantly having to manage, and we’re also supposed to be continually enhancing them.”

Ilana Gershon

Gershon studied how people find work in today’s job market. I was surprised to hear that although job searchers are routinely told to work on their personal brands, Gershon found no evidence this was effective with hiring managers.

What made a difference? Sixty-one per cent of people got jobs through workplace ties and references.

Note that this study was conducted across many different industries. In certain industries (for example, PR and communications), personal brands may hold more clout and be a worthwhile investment of your time. Further, your personal brand may make an impact with others in an organization, beyond only the hiring manager.

What can we take away from this finding? Your personal brand is important. But it’s not necessarily going to be the deciding factor that gets you hired.

This confirms that there are other items to consider. For example, your connections, years of experience, skillset, understanding of the industry, education and designations play a role. Your portfolio, resume, references and interview skills are critical as well.

So, it’s beneficial to be well-balanced. Spend time thinking about and cultivating your personal brand in a way that works for you. But, also invest in the other elements of your professional and job search skills.

How do you stand out in the crowd of job seekers?

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If you have nothing nice to say…

Have you ever been asked by a former co-worker to speak about them to a potential employer? I think it’s an honour to be asked to be a reference because I feel it demonstrates they think highly of me and our work together. In fact, I was recently asked by an old co-worker to be a reference, which makes this topic quite timely for me.

In the past, it was commonly thought that a reference can either say positive things about a co-worker, or speak in neutral terms and confirm the person worked at an organization, in a certain position and completed specific tasks. A reference wouldn’t speak negatively, even it if was the truth. This avoided the risk of the job applicant claiming the reference cut their chances of getting a job.

A recent court case turns that belief on its head.

The National Post reported on the verdict of Ontario defamation lawsuit in which a man accused his former boss of badmouthing him to a potential employer, costing the man the job. The candidate’s interpersonal skills were his downfall when the former boss was asked about them. The reference reported that the candidate insulted his team and acted like an “intellectual snob” in his former role. However, since the reference spoke truthfully and verified the report with other staff so that it was not grounded in opinion alone, the judge in this case found that the old boss was justified in his actions.

This finding brings a few things to light…

  • For job candidates: If you’re looking for a new job and thinking of who you will put forward as a reference, make sure you had a positive experience working with them. Ask their permission and take the time to share the attributes of the new job to prepare them for the call with the hiring manager. Glassdoor provides a good summary of all the tips to consider.
  • For references: It’s possible to speak negatively when asked about a potential candidate as long as you’re being honest. It’s important to be self-aware, objective and unbiased when giving a negative report. A hiring manager can most likely see through a biased report, tarnishing their opinion of your feedback.
  • For everyone: This is a keen reminder to always try your best. Treat others with respect, whether it’s your manager or anyone else you work with.

Thankfully, I’ve never been in the position of needing to give a negative report when a hiring manager has called regarding a reference. And, if you’re curious, the old co-worker who I recently provided a reference for landed the new job. (Congrats!)

What do you think? Could you give negative feedback if required when being a reference?

When searching for a job, what’s in a name?

I recently heard about a new process in Canada’s federal government that will help reduce bias around who is contacted following a job application in an interview on Toronto’s Metro Morning.

Six federal departments are piloting a blind recruitment strategy with the goal of increasing equity and diversity in its workforce. This process will remove any identifying information like names and educational institutions from resumes and job applications.

Research on bias in the hiring process reveals the reason behind this project. A research report compiled by Ryerson University and the University of Toronto,  by Dr. Rupa Banerjee, an associate professor at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management, uncovered the extent to which these biases impact hiring decisions.

Dr. Banerjee reported that the study found that people with Asian-sounding names (such as Lei Xi or Hina Chaudhry) and Canadian education and work experience receive 42 per cent less call backs than people with Anglo-sounding names (like Greg Johnson or Emily Brown) and the same Canadian education and work experience.

While I was listening to the interview, I was curious about if researchers had pinpointed why some of the reasons why such biases exist. Dr. Banerjee explained that implicit bias enables people to make quick decisions (it’s important to note that she mentioned that biases don’t necessarily make someone racist). For example, in the study, bias might have impacted hiring managers’ assumptions around a candidate with an Asian-sounding name’s mastery of the English language and ability to assimilate with a workplace’s culture. In reality, we know these things aren’t necessarily linked.

The results of the Government of Canada’s pilot project will provide a recent, Canadian case study on a blind hiring strategy works. Ideally, the makeup of the staff in the six departments will become more diverse as the project goes on. Roles will be filled with the best possible candidates, no matter their names or backgrounds.

If this pilot is successful, I would hope that the practice of blind hiring will spill over to other federal government departments, levels of government, and even the private sector. This would result in the job application process being more fair and equitable for everyone.

What are your thoughts on this blind hiring pilot project?

Why I admire this student’s “dating resume”

Your resume is a critical tool for a job search. It’s usually one of the first impressions of you that a potential employer gets, so it’s appearance, and each word, is important. No surprise here!

Based on resumes that I’ve seen – including my own – I assume that many professional resumes are in a traditional format. Resumes are traditionally documents that are text-heavy and black and white. Often, this style is the convention, and is expected by both job seekers and employers.

That’s why I was impressed when I saw this fun dating resume on Buzzfeed, which was created by Joey Adams, a 21-year-old student at Michigan State University.

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Here are a few reasons why:

He thought differently. Joey Adams applied his resume writing and design skills in a new and unique way – to get a date for formal.

The design is great! It is colourful, provides visual representations of information, and uses impactful headlines. If this were a professional resume, this creative, eye-catching layout would make this resume stand out amongst the resumes of competitors. Depending on the industry you’re in, for example, if you’re in a design or communications-focused industry, taking this type of approach to your resume would also showcase your skills in graphic design and layout.

He knows his target audience. The information in this “dating resume” is tailored to what a potential date might want to know about him. For example, he reports that he’s good at making small talk with parents, he’s skilled at replying to long texts, and he spends time on FaceTime with his mom. I would suspect that he thought critically about the sections and information that dates are interested in before embarking on designing the resume.

Try dipping your toe. You might not want to revamp your entire resume to look like Joey Adams’ “dating resume”. You may not have the design skills (learn more about boosting your skills here), this style may not be appropriate for your industry, or the necessary information in your resume might take up too much space to weave your information into visuals. That’s okay! But, why not try incorporating a few small visual elements into your resume? For example, in the “dating resume”, a small calendar icon and location pin are used under his job title (think emojis), descriptive icons are used in the list of things that make him “Moderately Interesting”, and he uses colour throughout. These simple concepts could be incorporated into a traditional resume to help differentiate it from others.

What do you think about this style of resume? Would you incorporate visual elements into your own professional resume?

Managing career challenges: Lessons from Sheryl Sandberg

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Photo via CBC.ca (Matt Albiani/Penguin Random House)

I was inspired by an interview on CBC Radio’s The Current with Sheryl Sandberg, author of the bestselling book Lean In. As a seasoned strategic business person, Sandberg is well-suited to provide career advice, so I was interested to hear her professional advice.

But this interview addressed a different issue. Sandberg talked about her new book, Option B, which discusses how she dealt with the death of her husband, Dave Goldberg. She talked about how she and her children faced the loss and how she learned to turn grief into joy. She was candid and provided personal anecdotes.

I thought about how the lessons she shared can apply when facing professional challenges. The research and advice that went into her book has far-reaching applications, beyond the type of personal loss that Sandberg faced.

You might find that you’re faced with a professional “option B” if a project has failed, you’ve been laid off or lost your job, or you’re struggling to adjust to a new job. Since work is the biggest stressor for Canadians, it’s likely that any of these work-related situations were to occur, the effects would be far-reaching into one’s life.

The three take-aways that apply to these types of professional situations include:

  1. Build your resilience – The ability to endure tough times is an attribute that can help one both professionally and personally, as with Sandberg’s experience. Sandberg describes a key step in building her resilience as when she and her children set out to play and enjoy a favourite board game, despite their feelings of grief four months after he passed away. Continuing to perform and be productive when faced with a professional challenge, no matter how small, is important for building your ability to be resilient. Making a resiliency a habit will be beneficial in case you face adversity in your career.
  2. Your feelings are impacted by your actions – By changing your actions and your circumstances, your feelings often follow suit. For Sandberg, her feelings of grief changed over time after actively learning how to manage her grief. Facing a professional challenge may evoke feelings of anger, frustration, stress or anxiety. However, taking actions to find solutions can alleviate these feelings. Seeking advice from a mentor, dedicating your time to managing a poorly-performing project, or making (and abiding by) a job search action plan are all positive actions to take.
  3. Rebuild your confidence – After facing a challenge, you might lose confidence in doing things that you once excelled at. For example, after returning to work after bereavement leave, Sandberg lost confidence in her work. She confided in her boss, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook’s founder), that she felt she wasn’t performing as she once did in meetings. She reported that told her, “you said two really important things today and here’s what they were. He built me up.” This example demonstrates how small steps (such as speaking up in meetings), getting feedback, and engaging a trusted support network are important for building confidence.

Have you read Option B?

Are there any other lessons from this book that apply to a professional setting?