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.

informational interview JPEG 3
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!)

apple-971148_1920 (1)

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!).

Informational interviews JPEG

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!

 

Advertisements

Managing career challenges: Lessons from Sheryl Sandberg

4 Challenges JPEG

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?

 

 

How I planned my wedding: Tools and tips

Weddings are a magical and exciting time. You get to mark a significant milestone with your partner, and celebrate your relationship with your friends and family. I got married to my husband Chris on a beautiful day in June 2016 at a restaurant in downtown Toronto. Our ceremony and the reception were quite informal, and it was more of a cocktail party than a traditional wedding.

It all worked out perfectly, but not without some serious preparations in advance.

Working in PR has allowed me to hone my event planning and project management skills over the years. I planned my wedding myself given my background of planning and executing events, and the knowledge that came from working with amazing team members who mentored me as I learned the ropes.

Although doing the planning myself was time consuming (which I mentioned in a previous post), I enjoyed the process overall and it made my wedding even more special.

So, if you’re recently engaged, congratulations! I encourage you to think about planning your wedding yourself. But don’t be discouraged by the claims that you should worry about your sanity while doing it. If don’t have a background in planning events or managing projects, I wanted to share the tools that came in handy as I planned my wedding. They included:

A detailed budget – The first thing I did was start a budget. The budget broke down the total amount we wanted to spend into every different category and item we’d need to spend on. This included our stationary, stamps, venue (which included food and drinks), flowers, the officiant, décor… it seemed endless. However, the result of this exercise was eye-opening because it made me understand how much everything would cost altogether, and it allowed us to direct our planning to things that fit within the total amount. Without doing the budget first, I could have wasted time and energy considering things that eventually wouldn’t fit into it.

I treated the budget spreadsheet as a living document throughout the planning process. I updated my estimates with the actual amounts I spent on everything on a regular basis. It was tedious, but extremely helpful because I always had a clear picture of how much was spent as compared to my original forecast.

Critical path – A critical path lists the key milestones and dates in the planning process, and outlines the steps to get there. There are many things to do in advance of a wedding so this tool was very important.

We got married in the summer in Toronto. Venues and vendors book very early due to high demand. Also, working with some vendors is very involved (such as an officiant or venue), and some require some paperwork or meetings (such as a florist or DJ), which takes time. Therefore, I started engaging the venue and vendors in the fall of the previous year to book them and then fully understood the steps required to work with them. I also wanted to plan and complete DIY projects far in advance of the wedding. So, I built the critical path to with these timelines in mind, and laid out the requirements, steps and payments and when I needed to have them done. I used an Excel spreadsheet, but a Word document also works.

The completed critical path allowed me to see everything we needed to do in one glance. The anxiety of missing a deadline was pretty much erased. Like the budget, I updated the critical path regularly, marking off when things are complete, changing deadlines, or adding in new steps as I learned them.

As a result, in the two weeks before the wedding, all the major things were done. I was almost stress-free (I said almost!) knowing everything important had already been taken care of.

Weekly action items – The critical path provides all of the actions and deadlines, which is a lot of information. So, each weekend I reviewed the critical path and then jotted down the things I needed to do during the week in note in my phone. This provided an easy-access to-do list. I found that doing short tasks on a weekly basis was easier than overwhelming myself with a lot of tasks all at once to meet a deadline.

Run of show document – This explained the who, what, where and when of the entire wedding day. It was in the form of a spreadsheet that listed times in half-hour increments along the left side of the page. Separate columns were dedicated to the important players. They included, me, my husband, our dog, the photographer, the DJ and the venue. Each column was colour-coded and blocked off the times for different activities throughout the day, as well as where they took place – kind of like a timetable in high school.

For example, it listed when family photos would take place and where, when the dog walker would take our dog home, when the food would be served, when the speeches would start, and when the dessert buffet would be set up. I also included contact information, so for example, the venue could contact the florist or DJ to see if there was a problem if they didn’t arrive when they were supposed to.

I shared this one-page spreadsheet with everyone – including the venue, vendors, family and friends –  to cut down on potential questions or confusion in both before and on the day of the wedding.

Lastly, a clear vision of what you want – Trust me, you want to avoid the falling into the wedding wormhole when researching online, shopping, or talking to your friends, family and others about your upcoming nuptials. My husband and I aligned on having a simple, non-traditional wedding that focused on food, drinks and having a good time. Without this clear vision in mind, it could have been tempting to incorporate other things, distorting what we both wanted.

In summary, remember that your wedding day is about the marriage of you and your partner, so your opinions and happiness are what matters – both on the big day and once it passes!

I hope my tools and tips are helpful. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments!

Also, you may have noticed that it’s a year since we got married. I’m fully aware that post is a dorky way to celebrate our anniversary month!

Cultivating your personal brand

Have you ever thought about creating a personal brand for yourself? If not, you’re in the right place! I’m going to explore what a personal brand is, and provide some tools and tips to get you started on building yours.

Taking a step back, the concept of a brand is something that you’re probably familiar with. The shoes you’re wearing, the store that you bought your latte from this morning, and the smartphone or computer that you’re reading this post on probably all have brands associated with them.

Some examples of products with well-known brands.

Although brands themselves are unique, the overarching concept of a brand means they all have something in common. A brand makes a product greater than its tangible attributes. Brands stand for something. By standing for different things, brands differentiate one product from another in the minds of consumers.

So, what is a personal brand? Your personal brand is the image or impression that you can establish about yourself in the minds of others. Usually, in the professional domain, this includes colleagues, contacts in your network, your employer or potential employers.

By positioning your work or career as a brand, you can help others to easily identify what makes you stand out, and what you are considered the go-to expert or resource on.

How do you determine your personal brand? Is this all new to you? If so, I got you fam. I’ve found a few tools and tips to get you started.

  • PwC has a built robust workbook that you can use to determine your strengths, understand your values, highlight your passions and define what drives you. Doing this legwork will ensure that your personal brand will reflect who you truly are – both inside and outside of the workplace. Think of the time spent on this as an investment in your future self!
  • Entrepreneur provides some timely tips on personal branding as well. They suggest that being authentic and visible, knowing your industry and giving back are among the essentials for sustaining a healthy personal brand.

Live your brand. Once you define and refine your brand, bring your vision to reality. Fast Company provides some tips for walking the walk (rather than just talking the talk) so that you can leverage the power of “word of mouth marketing”. Increasing the visibility of your brand can boost its validity, making you more marketable as a professional.

The article suggests trying the following activities to increase your expertise and thought leadership:

  • Teach a course at a community college
  • Join a panel discussion or conduct a presentation at a conference
  • Highlight your expertise using a consistent voice through your social media profiles, like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn

What tips to you have for building your personal brand?

Video

What’s behavioural finance and how can it help me save more?

A few years ago I watched this TEDTalks video by economist Shlomo Benartzi, entitled, Saving for tomorrow, tomorrow. Although it’s a few years old, and is based on US data, there were a lot of key messages that really resonated with me and still do.

Benartzi discusses how the general population’s lack of saving is a result of behavioural challenges related to self-control, loss-aversion and immediate gratification, and presents a solution to help increase savings – all related to an area of his expertise, called behavioural finance. In fact, a Bloomberg article discusses the growing influence of behavioural finance in many different, and even unsuspected, industries, and how it’s changing the way organizations reach their target markets.

I thought it was particularly interesting when Benartzi discusses a study of people who contributed to their retirement savings following the “save more, tomorrow” strategy, at 12:00 in the video above.

Keeping in mind my recent post on career transitions, I hope that many of you are progressing in your careers in a positive trajectory. As you move up in your roles – and your compensation moves up accordingly – I think it’s a great idea to keep this “save more, tomorrow” strategy in mind and “pay yourself first” by contributing more to savings incrementally.

What did you think of the tips in this TEDTalks video?

Tips for working from home

chairs

Working remotely or from home can be a big perk of a job.  In an earlier post, I shared some benefits of working from home from Minute MBA. I’ve also been fortunate enough to work from home in my professional role, which has been awesome in terms of work-life balance.

Whether you’re in a role that lets you work from home occasionally like me, or if you’re telecommuting from the home base 100 per cent of the time, there are a lot of ways to make sure you’re being as efficient as possible getting work done while you’re away from the office.

I’ve definitely developed my skills and abilities in terms of working from home. In university, I struggled to get homework or assignments done at home. I often lost focus and was continually tempted to step away from my work by endless distractions, including cleaning, walking the dog or watching daytime TV, and it was challenging to stay on track.

Over the years, I’ve become much more focused and efficient when working from home, and have found that the following tips have really helped:

  1. Plan your workday – Having the self-discipline map to your day, including laying out tasks and deadlines, along with meetings and calls, can really help you can stay on track. A daily and weekly to-do list helps to put immediate and medium-term deadlines in perspective. There is no better feeling than crossing something off your to-do list!
  2. Now, plan for the things you’ll actually do – If you absolutely love watching Maury at 11 a.m., or if you need to run out to pick up your dry cleaning by 4 in the afternoon, pencil these activities into your schedule too. Use your judgment, but as long as you don’t have an important call, deadline or deliverable, you can try to work your day around these “wants” or “needs”. Just make sure you update your calendar so others know you’re unavailable, and advise team members you won’t be as reachable at a certain time.  Otherwise, you risk veering off track if you’re suddenly enthralled by an episode of House Hunters International, and may miss a deadline or fall behind on a task.
  3. Improve communication with your team – I’ve learned that being clear and concise in emails is even more important when you can’t just pop over to someone’s desk to ask a quick question face-to-face. Make sure action items and owners, along with timing of next steps are spelled out clearly – bullets and lots of white space help! Picking up the phone and having a brief chat (gasp!) is another way to get to the bottom of a question or to discuss next steps.
  4. Pick your environment based on your work – I find I can be more creative, efficient or analytical in different settings. For example, quiet places are better for working on financial documents or complex problems. When brainstorming creative ideas, a coffee shop or a restaurant may help yield more exciting results. If you’re writing a report, a serene setting like the couch or a chair on a dock at a lake (above) could be appropriate. I’ve found that being conscious of the impact of my surroundings on my productivity has allowed me to love working out of the office as I get stuff done.

Do you ever work remotely? What tips do you have for staying focused and productive?

Digging up the truth about bringing dogs to work

dogsatworkHaving dogs at work can have a positive impact on a workplace’s culture. If a dog-friendly office is a good fit, it can be a great way to bring people together, reduce stress and add some fun to the everyday routine.

Check out this recent article from the Huffington Post, which highlights some research on the benefits of having pooches in the office.

As a fan of dog-friendly offices, I’ve been fortunate enough to bring my Jack Russell, Junior, to work with me on Fridays for the past few years.

If you’re a dog owner who’s thinking of bringing your pet to work with you, here are a few things to consider first, which I’ve learned in my experience as an owner of an office pooch:

  • Schedule some time to care for your pup – It’s great to go for walks throughout the day and to chat with others about your dog. Just make sure you plan ahead to fit these things into your day. Try scheduling walks in your calendar so your team knows when you’re unavailable, bring your smartphone with you on walks so that you can be reached, prepare water and treats ahead of time and be conscious of how much time you spend with colleagues gushing over how adorable your pet is.
  • If you’re under the gun, dogs are no fun – Have a busy day planned, with a lot of meetings, projects and deadlines? It may not be best to bring your dog with you, since your focus should be 100 per cent on your work. Even well-behaved dogs can be somewhat distracting.
  • Keep Fido on a leash – Not everyone is a fan of dogs at work. Some people are afraid of dogs – even small dogs. Offices are also exciting places for dogs to explore, with lots of nooks and crannies and new smells to investigate. Therefore, I always try to keep Junior under my control when he’s at work with me. I keep him on a leash, and even if I need to run down to the printer for a minute, I like to have him fastened to something so he can’t wander off on his own adventure.
  • Find a dog-sitter – You may have a slow day planned, but that can all change and then having your dog with you may not be very convenient. For example, if a client ask for a last-minute conference call and it may not be appropriate to have your pup barking in the background. Therefore, It’s super helpful to have one or two coworkers who can watch your dog for an hour. It’s usually best if this person is familiar with taking care of dogs, and who your pet knows and trusts. You’ll probably find that people volunteer to dog-sit, which always helps!

  • Silence is golden – Your dog should be calm and quiet throughout the day so as not to disturb you and your coworkers. You may not know how your dog reacts to being in your office until he or she is there a few times. Over time, I’ve learned a few tricks to keep Junior calm, quiet and ideally asleep.  He has a nice pillow to lie on, wears a dog sweater and often chews on a bone. He also tends to be calm and tired if the weather’s nice and he’s had several walks throughout the day. It make take some trial-and-error, but you’ll learn what works for your pup too.
  • Use your judgment – Depending on the workplace or industry, it may not always be appropriate to bring your four-legged friend to work with you. Also, if a client or someone on the company’s leadership team is visiting your office, it’s probably best if you leave your dog at home that day.

Have you brought your dog to work with you?

What tips do you have for helping your pooch get used to the office environment?