SMITH BRAIN TRUST – If you have your sights set on a dream job or you’re considering a career switch, make sure you talk to a lot of people before you’re married to a particular path. Career coaches call this tactic conducting “informational interviews,” and it’s a lot like dating, says Rachel Loock, a career and leadership coach at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
“Get a range of perspectives to help narrow down what resonates with you and what would really light your fire,” Loock says. “It’s a good way to get clarity -- you may think a particular field or company is for you, but this offers a good way to hear from someone actually doing it.”
And it shouldn’t be too hard to land dates. “If people like their job, they generally like talking about it,” Loock says. Here are the rules of the informational interview dating game:
Ask others to set you up. Everyone in your network has his or her own network, so someone you know is likely connected with someone else who currently has your dream job. Ask your connection to make the introduction and offer to return the favor. Or consider reaching out to more senior people at your organization through others who you may already have a working relationship with to see if they would be willing to do an informational interview.
Don’t come on too strong. Don’t reach out to someone you met just once in passing at a networking event and ask for an interview. It’s better to build a bit of a relationship first, Loock says. Try to make a few connections first, perhaps through LinkedIn, emails and professional groups.
Send clear signals that you’re interested. If you do meet someone at a networking event -- who happens to have the job you’d love to land one day -- and you have a great conversation, use what you talked about as an entry point to start an email relationship, Loock says. After a few back-and-forths, you can ask if they have a time for a short informational interview.
Broaden your search. High-profile options might not be your best match. People with the most coveted positions at top firms get many, many requests for informational interviews, so it might be difficult to get time with those people. Loock says it might be better to identify someone else in the same industry who can share similar knowledge. You may find that mid-tier or lesser-known organizations actually offer a better fit for you.
Make a good first impression. Schedule a phone call and be mindful of the interviewee’s time. Try to keep the call to 15 or 20 minutes and no more than 30 minutes if the person has the extra time. Request a phone call first, but if the person suggests grabbing coffee or lunch, then take them up on it.
Make your move. Be prepared to steer the conversation during the interview. Have a list of five or six questions ready. You can even offer to send your questions in advance so the person can be prepared, Loock says. Some basic questions to start with: What do you like/not like about the job? What’s the culture of this particular company or industry? What characteristics make someone in this field successful? What’s the biggest challenge that your company/industry faces? What’s most rewarding about your job? What’s the typical education level for someone on your career trajectory?
Talk about past relationships. Provide details about your past work experience and talk about people in your network and others you’ve spoken with about your job interest. This person may be able to point you to others, or they may even be interested in connecting with someone in your network.
Don’t wait two days to follow up. Send a thank you email or handwritten note later that day or the next, and ask if you can stay in touch. If you feel like the conversation went well, you can ask if they have other suggestions of people you can connect with for another interview.
Play the field. At least three “dates” can be very helpful, Loock says. Perhaps you’re not sure if you want to do marketing or PR, so talk to somebody in each field, she says. Or if you know you want to be a chief operating officer one day, talk to people further along the career path than you to figure out how to get there. For people just starting their careers, talk to someone at the entry level, someone at mid-career, and a more senior-level professional. Each informational interview is one person’s perspective, but chances are as you talk to more people you’ll see themes emerge. “Are those themes appealing to you? That’s what you need to decide,” Loock says.
Not interested? End it quick. Maybe your informational interviews reveal that the job you thought you wanted actually involves sifting through spreadsheets all day long -- a fate that would make you miserable. Now you can start over with your research, Loock says, to find the job you really want.
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