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?

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?

Should I start my career with an internship?

Internships are very topical right now. Last week, Bank of Canada head honcho Stephen Poloz recommended that unemployed young Canadians should take on unpaid internships to gain experience in their professional fields. The fact that today’s job market has evolved to the where even top government officials accept that unpaid work is the only way to get ahead is telling, and many critics have pointed out the flaws in this advice. Further, the competition to actually get an internship – paid or unpaid – is fierce.

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A Means to an End…

That said, it doesn’t seem like internships will be going away anytime soon. From the job hunter’s perspective, an internship, paid or unpaid, is a means to an end. The ultimate goal of an internship is to put you in a more competitive position as you launch your career.

I had two internships in the early days of my career, both of which were paid or associated with an educational program. Although I was not paid great sums by any means, I had the benefit of living at home and also was a part-time server to help balance the books.

officeSo, I’m of two minds when it comes to internships. First, I know from experience that taking on an intern role is one of the best ways to get a start in your career with some key benefits:

  • My first internship was my first time in an office where I learned how to cut it in a nine-to-five job and began to cultivate my professional identity
  • With broad exposure to many different activities, I learned in leaps and bounds about marketing, communications and advertising, and also determined what I did – and didn’t – like to do
  • In these roles I made great connections with smart, professional people, many of whom I’m still connected to today
  • I learned how to work with senior leadership and executives, including VPs and presidents
  • Having internships on my resume demonstrated I was eager to learn, willing to try new things and could take initiative, which was a huge asset that bolstered my resume

At the same time, it can be difficult to take on full-time unpaid work. It’s tough even if an honorarium is provided. Some ways to make an internship do-able include the following:

  • Plan ahead – To help save money before taking on an internship, I first took on full-time work outside of my career field to squirrel reserve funds away for the future.
  • Academic internships – If possible, an internship associated with an academic program are great ways to learn how to apply what’s learned in a university or college program. Your school may also help you find an internship, giving you a competitive edge in the job hunt.
  • Working part-time – Consider a combination of paid and unpaid roles while completing an internship. For example, being a server in the evenings or on weekends can help supplement your income.

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Do you have any other tips for making an internship role realistic?

How to set SMART goals for PR pros


As I’m in the process of writing my professional goals for the next year at work, it’s now a good time to focus on some best practices for goal-setting. Rather than just shooting blindly for the stars, I’m going to set SMART goals that will allow me to prove I’ve delivered against them at annual review time.

What are SMART goals? Each goal includes the following “SMART” elements, resulting in goals that can be tracked, evaluated and benchmarked.

Specific – Call out the who, what, when, where and why. What exactly do I need, or want, to do?

Measurable – Numbers are everything! Without metrics, I won’t be able to know if I’ve achieved a goal, or how far I need to go to get there.

Attainable – The end result needs to be attainable based on my skill set and experience level.

Realistic – Goals can be hugely motivating, so I’ve got to be honest with myself about what I can achieve. I’ll need to consider my workload and available time to set goals that are actually do-able in the next year.

Time-bound – Calling out the milestones between now and next year will enable me to make sure I’m in good shape in achieving my goals once my annual review comes along.

I’ll share learnings through the goal-setting process as my SMART goals crystallize.

In the meantime, do you have any other tips for goal-setting?

 

Why should I take walks during the workday?

I find that short walks during the workday are mentally refreshing and help me focus on my work. A short break from the office is also awesome to look forward to, so I try to pencil one into my calendar whenever I can.

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Today I came across a fantastic Fast Company article that speaks to the importance of regular activity and its impact on well-being. A key finding it mentioned is that the first 20 minutes of exercise can have a great impact on both happiness and productivity, which are both key ingredients to a successful day at the office.

“The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits. You get prolonged life, reduced disease risk — all of those things come in in the first 20 minutes of being active.”

– New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Reynolds, The First 20 Minutes

FastCompany.com also called out the immediate impact on the brain of getting away from one’s desk for an activity break. Check out the below scans of brain activity reported before and after a 20-minute walk:

brain imageImage via FastCompany.com.

Although it’s November and we’re facing chillier temperatures, this information is definitely motivation for me to stay active during the day in the winter.

Do you take walks while you’re work? If not, has this research encouraged you to start?