An Untraditional Way To Propel Your Career Through Connections

by Michael Schramm

Whether you’re entering sophomore year of college or reaching a 20-year work anniversary, informational interviews are one of the strongest tools to aid you in taking your next career step.

The informational interview reverses the role of a traditional interview. Instead of being interviewed for a position, you ask an interviewer questions about his or her position, specifics on the company’s culture and general information in the field.

While these interviews won’t directly lead to a position, they lay a foundation that helps you get that crucial foot in the door.

Research has shown that 60 to 80 percent of jobs are found through personal connections. Many of us don’t possess the massive, interwoven networks necessary to aid our transitions into new positions, but these interviews serve as an opportunity to create relationships intentionally and organically.

When a company sifts through applicants for a future position, you’ll be more than a name in a large pile of résumés, and that personal touch can be what elevates you to an interview and, hopefully, a job offer.

Even if a position doesn’t become available, a good informational interview has the potential to give you a strong network connection. Besides a new person on your “happy holidays” email chain, you now have a connection in the know.

This has serious advantages, as it provides you a connection to their connections. They can notify you if they hear of cross-company openings, or they can recommend other relevant professionals to informational interview.

Done correctly, and assuming you continue having strong interviews, you can expand your professional network exponentially, as more conversations lead to more conversations.

But, a successful informational interview requires some work on your part.

First, you have to find someone you’re interested in interviewing. This can be done by reaching out to your personal network of friends, parents, professors and colleagues.

Though the idea might sound uncomfortable, inquiring about others’ connections isn’t inappropriate. If someone thinks of a relevant connection, ask if you can reach out to him or her and get his or her contact information.

If you’ve exhausted your personal network, you can try to find relevant employees online. Try searching local and national companies you believe are a good fit for your skills. If there’s an employee page, you can sift through people in the company until you find someone who seems to match your interests.

Next comes emailing the worker.

Emails are usually the best first contact method, as they don’t carry the pressure of the phone call and you can carefully craft what you want to say. First, give a brief introduction of your name, your work/school and your interests. Then, explain how you found the person’s contact information, whether through a mutual connection or via an online directory.

After this, you should ask if this person would be interested in chatting for 15-20 minutes about his or her experiences in the field. You’ll also want to make sure you connect how his or her experiences relate to your interests.

After this, the person will either respond to you or not. It’s important to note that sometimes, people won’t respond to you, and that’s okay. Don’t let that dissuade you from sending emails. Eventually, you’ll get someone who's willing to help.

Once someone’s expressed interest, find a time to contact him or her, and get his or her phone number.

Before the interview, you’ll want to prepare a few questions for this person to answer. Since these people are very busy at work, don’t plan on having more than four to five questions prepared (hence, why you only asked to speak for 10-15 minutes).

Make sure to pick questions you wouldn’t find online. Also, try to ask one or two questions about this person's knowledge of the company, as this is great information to know for cover letters and regular interviews.

Call the person at the appropriate time and introduce yourself. Take a minute or two to ease into the conversation with some small talk (talking about the weather always works).

Once the interview starts going, it’s important to balance sticking to your prepared questions and letting the conversation flow naturally. While you do want your questions answered, you should avoid the conversation becoming mechanical.

Though it’s technically an interview, it should feel more like a natural conversation, and you should allow yourself and the interviewee a little wiggle room to digress and speak without a mental script. If the conversation dies down, you can use one of your questions to spark a new topic.

As the conversation is nearing its end, make sure to thank the person and ask for contact information of anyone he or she reccomended to you. If you two had a strong conversation, confirm you want to keep in touch.

After the interview, write down anything noteworthy that was discussed if you already haven't. You’ll also want to send this person a thank you note within 24 hours of your conversation.

Post-interview, there are many ways to stay in contact. While you won’t speak every day, you’ll want to contact this person every few months to remain in each other’s social worlds.

You can send an email on your recent updates and ask what he or she has done since your last chat. You can also utilize Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to connect and remain in touch.

If you two connected very well, you could email this person a few months later asking to speak again on the phone. If you allow the connection to wither, you aren’t able to use your connection to help you when applying for a position.

An informational interview doesn’t guarantee you a position at a company, but it does give you the inside information, connections and links to new employers, which make you stand out in a sea of applicants.