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!

 

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?

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?

 

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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?

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What to wear when driving a Vespa to work

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As the summer is about to officially come to an end, I’m reflecting on how much I enjoy driving my Vespa to work on a daily basis in the warmer months. I really love it, not only because it’s really fun, but also because it can turn a 25-minute walk into a five-minute drive.

In the past few years of “Vespa-ing” to the office, I’ve also learned a few tricks to adapt my warm-weather work wear to keep me safe and warm, helping to make driving a scooter realistic. They involve Superman-inspired quick changes that are really easy to incorporate into my routine.

Below are some awesome outfit additions I often make to my office looks when I drive my Vespa to work:

A Lovely Leather Jacket

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Photo via Mackage.com, at http://www.mackage.com/ca/en/lisa-f4-black-biker-leather-jacket-for-women.

Driving a Vespa is one of the only reasons I’ll wear a leather jacket in the summer. Although it can be hot and humid during the day (although not this past summer!), the morning and evening temperatures can be quite chilly as I drive to-and-from the office. Combine that with the breeze one always feel while driving, and the warmth of a leather jacket is greatly appreciated.

Some Sturdy Flats
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Photo via Michaelkors.com, at http://www.michaelkors.com/p/MICHAEL-Michael-Kors-MICHAEL-Michael-Kors-Fulton-Moccasin-FLATS/prod25760030_cat2501__/?index=7&cmCat=cat000000cat121cat2501&isEditorial=false.

Like many Toronto commuters, I like to wear flats or flip flops for the trek to work, and then change into one of the many pairs of heels I keep under my desk for the workday. I like these Michael Kors flats for my scooting commute because they have a sturdy rubber heel, which is perfect for gripping the ground when stopping. Depending on the style and colour, flats can also go from the street to the boardroom in a pinch.

A Backpack. Yes, a Backpack.

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Photo via MEC.ca, at http://www.mec.ca/product/5026-315/mec-high-jinx-daypack/?h=10+50042+50093&f=10+50093+50587.

As a professional who tries to keep it sophisticated when I’m going to work, a backpack isn’t something I wear everyday – but it can be handy when it’s needed! My Vespa has storage space under the seat which conveniently fits my purse. If I have to bring a laptop, heels, books or lunch to work, it’s great to have a backpack available so I can just toss things into it at the last minute in the morning before I leave. The above Mountain Equipment CO-OP backpack is a great example because it’s light and can be folded quite compactly, so if I’m not carrying anything in it on the way home it can be tucked into the under-the-seat storage space.

Leggings: Key for Avoiding Wardrobe Malfunctions

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Photo via Lululemon.com, at http://shop.lululemon.com/products/clothes-accessories/pants-yoga/Wunder-Under-Pant-IPLUX?cc=0001&skuId=3548143&catId=pants-yoga.

In the summer, I often wear dresses and skirts to the office. A quick way to make these outfit choices work while driving a Vespa is to have a pair of simple leggings handy. Wearing them under a dress allows me to move freely as I’m driving because I’m not worried about making sure my dress stays down, which can be really distracting and therefore dangerous. Leggings are also compact enough to be tossed in my purse after I change when I get to the office.

In conclusion, driving a Vespa to work is totally possible for professionals!

By incorporating these minor outfit additions into my work wear, I’ve made driving a Vespa to work realistic. I avoid major outfit changes, making the commute process simple, short and sweet.

As a side note, although I’m a Vespa driver, these outfit hacks would work well for driving a motorcycle or bicycle as well!

What other clothing suggestions do you have for riding a Vespa to work?

Tips for working from home

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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?

Video

How do I write a cover letter?

Once you’ve spent hours refining and proofreading your resume, writing a cover letter can seem like very challenging and time-consuming task.

But, it doesn’t need to be.  It’s important to remember that a cover letter is your first opportunity to build a relationship via a piece of paper (or email) with the person who’s doing the hiring, as described by Aimee Bateman, founder of Careercake.com. Therefore, a cover letter is just as important as your resume, as it allows you to shine some light on your professionalism and personality.

Check out some other tips for developing a stellar cover letter in Aimee’s video, below.

Do you agree with Aimee?  Do you have any other tips for writing a great cover letter?