Why Informational Interviews are Necessary for Advancing your Career

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Featured Image: Hanabusa Café (77 Kensington Ave, Toronto)

This article was written with contributions from Elsie Chan, a budding professional who has been on over a dozen informational interviews as a Program Management Intern with the Government of Ontario.

What is an Informational Interview?
“An Informational Interview is an informal conversation you can have with someone working in an area of interest to you. It is an effective research tool and is best done after preliminary online research. It is not a job interview, and the objective is not to find job openings.” (University of California, Berkeley)

Before starting my internship with the Government of Ontario, I had no idea what an informational interview was. There were, however, two instances in my life where I asked to have coffee with a professional to learn more about their work or organization. One was with an individual from the David Suzuki Foundation because I wanted to learn about upcoming volunteer opportunities, and the other was with an author who wrote a book I completely adored and I just wanted to learn more from her about the process of bringing that book into the world. It wasn’t until I attended a Professional Development and Networking Event where I learned that I actually conducted informational interviews – I just didn’t have the lingo to label them as such.

When you ask someone to meet to learn more about their job, work, team, or organization, then you are conducting an informational interview. If you are asking someone to have a coffee with you to seek their advice, knowledge, or expertise on a certain career path, industry, or workplace culture, then you are conducting an informational interview. These are not job interviews, and an informational interview is not the place to ask someone to hire you. These meetings are an informal learning opportunity to get someone’s perspective on their job and/or organization. It’s a perfect way to learn about the roles and responsibilities that come with a certain job title. As a Policy Intern, I am interested in learning more about what it means to be a Senior Policy Advisor in X unit within X branch within X division within X ministry (the Government is a complicated place). I may also be interested in pursuing a job in operations, for example, but since I have no clue what this role entails, I could reach out to an operations staff and ask them more about their position.

Who are informational interviews for?
Throughout my time here, I learned that almost everyone in government has participated in about a dozen or more informational interviews as the person requesting the meeting or accepting the meeting. I’ve found that people are more than happy to talk about their work. It is likely that they requested informational interviews with senior staff when they first started out, and they are excited to give back and depart what they’ve learned onto young professionals, students, or people looking to change career paths. Informational interviews are for anyone in any industry. The meetings are usually beneficial for both parties because the more experienced person may be building a candidate pool for future hires and they can assess you in this informal setting and judge whether or not you would make a good fit for their team. This sounds daunting, but an informal setting is a much better place to talk about your work and show your true self in comparison to a real interview which is way more structured, nerve-wracking and may even take months to get.

Why are they important for advancing your career?
These meetings will help you advance your career because you will be able to:

  • Gain insight on a workplace culture, specifically the team size, team dynamic, group norms (Are flexible work arrangements a norm?), office type (open concept vs. cubicle), management style, etc.
  • Hear a real-live person’s honest opinion about a certain job or organization
  • Learn about the day-to-day responsibilities that come with a job
  • Get answers from an expert about your unique career questions
  • Expand your professional network and strengthen your interpersonal skills
  • See yourself in someone else’s shoes (or find out that you aren’t interested in their position after all)
  • Talk about yourself (which may make you less nervous for an actual interview)
  • Show that you are eager to learn about a role/organization to a potential employer
  • Figure out if you have a good connection with someone who may one day be your colleague or boss

The more knowledge you have about a job or organization, the more well-equipped you are to make a career-related decision for yourself. If you learn that your dream job requires you to have excellent fundraising skills, maybe you can start looking for an opportunity to grow that skill now. If you have a terrible connection with someone and there is a job posting for a position on their team, you might think twice about applying. If you learn that a team has major organizational challenges – that’s a big red flag that you should consider.

What kinds of questions can you ask in an informational interview?
You should do some research before meeting so that you can somewhat tailor your questions for each person and that your questions are not too general. Here are some examples of questions I’ve asked in the past:

  • What does your day to day look like as a…?
  • What are important skills that you developed early on that you still use today?
  • What are the top qualities that you think a … should have?
  • What type of learning and development opportunities would you recommend for me to advance my career?
  • What is the biggest challenge that your work area is currently facing?
  • Are there any key stakeholders that your team regularly collaborates with?
  • Are there any networks in this organization that you would recommend joining?
  • How has your career progressed in this organization?
  • What would you consider as the most important initiatives/programs/files in your team?
  • Would you recommend any resources that can help me better understand your organization?

I have someone in mind that I want to contact – what should I do next?
The first step is to identify who you want to contact and why. You have to have a good understanding of why you want to talk to someone, and not come off as if you are just cold-calling a ton of managers for no good reason other than to get your name out there. You should have a common interest with someone, i.e. you both started off as interns, or you’re both working in policy. Also, if you know someone that knows the person you want to have an informational interview with, ask them what their relationship is with that person and if they would be comfortable connecting you both. This is always better than a cold call.

When you’re ready, craft up an email with the subject heading “Informational Interview Request”, tell the person a little bit about yourself and why you want to meet, and kindly ask if they are available to meet at a café in the next couple of weeks. A typical meeting should be about a half hour long, give or take ten minutes.

Here are some tips on how to have a successful informational interview:

  • Set up your meeting at a time and place that is convenient for them to get to. Be sure to provide the individual with the option to meet in-person, on the phone, on Skype, etc. to best work with their schedule.
  • Get a basic sense of their organization through an online search before meeting them
  • Come prepared with at least three questions, but be careful not to overwhelm the other person!
  • This is not a job interview, but it’s still important to be punctual and dress professionally
  • Pay for their coffee – they are offering you their time and expertise, it’s the least you can do
  • Send a Thank You Email following your meeting to thank them for their time
  • Feel free to contact them after your meeting happens to maintain a connection. For ex., you could share an article relating to something you’ve discussed, inform them that you’ve looked into something they suggested, recommend a work event, send a holiday message, etc. Just be sure not to completely dissapear…
  • Ask them if they would recommend that you talk to anyone else in their network

Reminder: This is a learning and networking opportunity, not an interview. Do not ask for a job!

Are you interested in requesting an informational interview, but are feeling shy?
I’ve been there! In fact, I still get nervous before most meetings. I think that’s normal though when you meet a new person. I used to feel really hesitant about emailing a manager, but I thought about the pros and cons of asking for an informational interview, and honestly the pros outweighed the cons by a lot. It’s intimidating going on what basically is a blind date for professionals, but I thought: If I’m too nervous to meet with someone informally at a café, then I probably wouldn’t do too well in an actual interview.

It took weeks to muster up the courage to send out one email, but that email turned into another, and another, and I’ve found that my confidence has improved, I’ve expanded my network, and I’ve learned a lot about jobs that I wouldn’t have been able to learn about via the internet. Someone that I just met for the first time even offered to help me with interview practice for a position on her team! This would give me a huge competitive advantage over someone else going into the same interview. So, even if you are feeling shy, I would say push yourself to do it anyway. It is really important to build a solid network in the early stages of your career when you need it the most. When you do eventually get the position of your dreams, don’t forget to make time to help others! Helping others later in your career will all be part of the beautiful professional circle of life.

What if someone declines your request to meet or doesn’t respond to your email?
It is very likely that people will decline your request to meet for an informational interview. This could be for one of many reasons: they are too busy to meet, simply not interested, there is a conflict-of-interest because they are running a job competition, etc. If you suspect it is the last reason, but you are still keen in learning about the team, try to reach out to someone else on the team that is not on the hiring panel. You can also try following up with your initial contact after the job competition wraps up.

If people are not responding to your email, it is possible they have seen it and meant to respond but haven’t yet because it is not a high priority for them, or they missed your email. It is totally okay to send a follow-up email, but if they do not respond to the follow-up, then that is probably a signal to move on.

When you do set up a meeting, the best thing to do is approach it with an open mind as someone who wants to learn more about their organization. If they have any opportunities in mind, then leave it to them to willingly offer that information. They are under no obligation to help you get a job, and you want to leave them with a good impression of you. Who knows? A job competition may come up later and your resume might stand out to them in a pile of a hundred other resumes because they already know you. If you really hit it off, you could even consider establishing a mentorship opportunity with them.

So what are you waiting for?

Send out your emails, make your connections, and get your foot in the door! Good luck!

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