(Update: I’ve now updated and embedded this info in my official HR guide)
For those who have read my blog, even my HR entries, you’ll notice that I rarely share links to articles out there about how candidates should do things in interviews. Not necessarily because I think that other people don’t know what they’re talking about, but usually I don’t share for one of two reasons…either it is completely inapplicable for the public sector / government type interviews and selection processes that I care about or it is generally okay but not overly useful to the candidate. Almost like it is either too pointedly private sector or too vague motherhood and apple pie statements. Colour me intrigued and wary then when an article popped up from the Harvard Business Review blog sites that started with the following questions:
When you’re looking for a job or exploring a new career path, it’s smart to go out on informational interviews. But what should you say when you’re actually in one? Which questions will help you gain the most information? Are there any topics you should avoid? And how should you ask for more help if you need it?
For those not recognizing the term, an informational interview is where you basically want to talk to someone about their area of work to find out if there are jobs available, openings coming up, what life is like working in that area, etc. Now, let`s be frank. Most people asking for informational interviews are really saying, “Hey, wanna hire me?”. But they have learned, or been advised by people like me, that if you ask to meet with someone to talk about openings in their area, the person will usually decline to meet with you. If they had an opening, they would advertise it; if they don’t, you’re wasting their time and yours. So it’s easy for them to say no.
By contrast, if you contact them and ask for a chance to meet with them for an informational interview, find out about the type of work they do, and get some advice from them, the person might find it hard to say no. Partly cuz it’s kind of rude, partly because they remember when they were in the same boat and someone gave them info they didn’t already have or met with them to give them some insights, and partly because people like talking about themselves and you’ve already flattered them by suggesting they are worthy of meeting with to pick their giant, knowledgeable brains! Plus, if you are in government, there is a component of your job that is supposed to be about building the public service so there’s almost a values-and-ethics component that encourages you as a manager to say yes to these types of requests. No, that doesn’t mean the Deputy Minister or CEO of a crown corporation will meet with anyone who asks, i.e. they’ll almost always delegate if you waste your time even asking, but managers and middle managers often (almost to the level of “usually”, but not quite) will say yes to an info interview.
So while I am often reluctant to share the private-sector approach, the article by Rebecca Knight is first-rate. It talks about:
- the benefits of primary research as well as gaining exposure;
- the importance of preparing and keeping your personal intro spiel about yourself short (you’re there to listen, not just talk about you, even if you really are trying to fake your way into a job interview);
- managing the duration / respecting their time;
- figuring out your areas of questioning before hand (more so than the list of 500 Qs you want to ask to show off);
- asking for advice on what other skills you might need to get into the industry (assuming you have any of them to begin with); and,
- following up with gratitude (not requests).
The only part I disagree with is the suggestion at the end that the “real purpose” of info interviews is to build relationships and develop a network. I think the real purpose is exactly what it is called — an interview to gather information. Not every person you meet will create a “relationship” or a lasting network contact, and it does read a bit like “ways to force a relationship”. You’ll know (or should know) if the person is open to further contact or not, or if you felt a connection or not. Sometimes you’re going to meet with someone where there’s no connection, no chemistry, and it’s just not a good fit. Maybe they’re busy, maybe they’re not very friendly, maybe they’re just plain jerks. Maybe they just don’t like you. However, if you follow most of the above bullets, you stand a much better chance of it coming out well, or more pointedly, not missing a possible good connection because you didn’t do your part well.
The secondary purposes of the interviews — gain exposure, build a contact network, or even leverage it towards a job — are all there, but I think expectations need to be managed. After all, you started the conversation by asking for information. Sometimes, that’s all it will turn out to be, and that’s not only okay, that’s sometimes downright perfect.