It happens to many of us at some point: We reach a dead end in our job search or have hit a wall in our career growth. No amount of LinkedIn connecting, job post reading, or online researching can answer our tough questions so we actually need to sit down and ask someone for advice.
Career advice articles will call this “informational interviewing,” but I’d rather call it “relationship building.” Relationship building implies making authentic connections with people who could become friends, mentors, or maybe future colleagues. And real conversations are where the magic is.
The power of informational interviews
In my recent search, I knew what I wanted (a career in sustainable fashion) and knew a bit about the field, but I was still an outsider to the industry. And as an outsider, I had a lot of questions about how I would fit in: What job titles should I search for? Where my skills would apply best? How do certain individuals ended up with these coveted CSR jobs in the first place?!
But it wasn’t until after my search that a friend told me I had done something unique. Over the course of my search, I became really good at sending cold emails, getting a 100% response rate, and truly enjoying the conversations I was having. I didn’t mean to engage in “informational interviewing,” I just love meeting people and had questions that I couldn’t get answered any other way. I was living in a city where I wasn’t meeting people interested in what I wanted to do, so I had to search for them.
How you can get started
Somehow at the end, I had a job without asking for one; I just wanted answers to my questions. So before we started, get rid of your expectations of talking to someone and magically getting a job. Done? Ok, now let’s focus on having a great engaging conversation with someone you admire.
Identify what you want to learn
Whether you are focused on one field or you are feeling quite lost, reflect on where it is that you are stuck. What are your questions that you wish you could have answered? It could be as broad as, “Would my job experience by helpful at a nonprofit?” Or it could be as specific as, “Do I have to have a graduate degree in sustainability in order to work in CSR department?”
Take time to make your questions thoughtful: the more thoughtful the questions, the more likely you’ll get a response.
Identify who might be able to help you
Now that you know what you want answered, you need to find someone to talk to. If your questions are really broad (“What do I do with my life?”), consider a career coach. But if your questions are more specific to your goals or interests, finding someone who shares that experience will be really helpful.
I started by reaching into my own address book. Did I know anyone who could answer my questions? Did I know anyone who could introduce me to someone who could answer my questions, even if it was a distant contact?
Start with your personal networks: friends and family, your high school and university alumni associations, and any clubs or organizations you might belong to. Truly use all of the networks you’re already a part of: a response is much more likely when you have a shared connection. Send an email to friends, peruse your alumni network directory online or send an email to an alumni coordinator, and ask specifically if they know anyone who might be able to answer your questions (perhaps you even list a few of those you’ve written down).
No luck? Then try the cold outreach. Think about whom you admire. Can you find a way to get in touch with them? Did you read an article that mentioned someone who inspired you? Did you find someone on LinkedIn with your dream job and you want to know how she got there? Put on your detective cap, and see if you can track down an email address.
Now that you have the name and contact information of someone you’d like to connect with, it’s time to start the conversation. Rule #1: Always email; no phone calls. You get more opportunity to spell out why you’d like to connect, and your potential connection is given time to respond on their own schedule without interruption.
A great introductory email should include:
- How you learned of this person (i.e. “my friend Jane” or “through an Idealist article”)
- Mention any shared connections or interests
- A brief summary of what you are doing now, what you hope to do, and where you are stuck/what you want to do
- Why you think this person could be helpful (“I find your experience inspiring” or “It’s great to see a fellow alum with similar interests to myself”)
- A very simple request to connect. Here’s what I found helpful: “If you would be willing to have a conversation by email or a phone (or Skype), I would be incredibly grateful.”
What an introductory email should NEVER include:
- A request for a job
- A suggestion of meeting over a full meal (too long!) or alcohol (too unprofessional!)
- Your whole life story. Give them enough information to understand your present situation, but not the whole thing.
Can you follow up?
Yes. Once. Give them at least a full week before you email again. Can you include your resume or a link to your LinkedIn profile? Yes. You might want to say something like “I’m attaching my resume for your reference if you’d like to see more about my experience.”
If you’ve received a response and set up a time, congratulations! You’re already prepared: You have a list of specific questions and a time to talk to someone who potentially has a ton of experience you can learn from.
Before your “interview” time, take 20 minutes to review your questions, read the bio of the person you’re speaking to and the history of their organization, and then just be yourself.
Use this time to learn by asking thoughtful questions and listening to their answers. One of the best questions to open up the conversation is to ask: “How did you get to where you are?” which allows them to tell you a bit about their journey. And, as I mentioned earlier, ask for advice, not a job.
Say “Thank you”
Send an email or a hand written card to follow up, regardless of how the conversation went. Be grateful and be specific about what you enjoyed about the conversation – this will show your appreciation as well as help make your connection memorable. Share any thing you promised to follow up on, and feel free to include a reminder if they promised to help you out (“Thank you for offering to introduce me to your colleague. I look forward to meeting him!”).
Depending on how your conversation went, keep in touch! You might feel comfortable sending updates, perhaps if you see a job posting or your situation changes.
At the end of the day, if it was an engaging conversation, this is the beginning of a relationship, not a one-off “interview.” Relationships require nurturing and sharing, so don’t forget to give too.
Rebecca Magee works as the Social Consciousness Coordinator at EILEEN FISHER, Inc. When she’s not thinking about sustainable fashion at work, she’s writing about it in her free time on her blog, THIS I WEAR. She owes Idealist.org a huge “thank you” for connecting her to two full-time positions that led her to where she is now.