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Proactive job search begins with informational interviews

Jill Hinrichs | March 21, 2014

This step will help you learn more about a person's career path, company and field of expertise, and how you can apply that success to your own career.

As a career coach, when I talk to job seekers on the phone, they're usually exasperated about coming up empty-handed after applying for the multitude of open jobs that interest them. Recently, I spoke with a woman, Zeena, who was looking for a position as a translator.

After she told me about her efforts to find a job on her own, I wanted to know more about her networking efforts. Let's face it — your network can be your most powerful asset when it comes to the job search because it's like a ripple in a pond — once you've told your network you're looking for a specific role, they can help amplify this message out to their respective networks and so on.

Zeena had relayed to her connections her desire for a new job, and I asked her to give me an example of what she was communicating. I discovered that while she was talking herself up, she really wasn't communicating her value to her contacts or potential new employers. Her other problem? She wasn't being specific about what she needed from her network.

My first recommendation to her was getting proactive with informational interviews. By using these as an opportunity to connect with new individuals, Zeena could also learn more about the person's career path, company and field of expertise while simultaneously building a relationship with this person. The benefit of this approach is that you get to hear from people in the roles you want and learn how they got there.

Even though Zeena hadn't heard of informational interviews before, our call left her really excited and with a new outlook on how to continue her job search efforts even after she'd sent off her resume and cover letter to the open jobs she'd found.

She immediately identified four individuals who were either in the exact role or type of industry that she wanted to work in and committed to setting up a 30-minute informational interview with each of them to learn more about their own career journey.

If you are like Zeena and feel like you're waiting for things to happen, I'd recommend you think about setting up informational interviews with people either currently in your network or identify individuals in careers that you want to be in yourself one day.

Here are tips on how to go about setting up your own informational interviews:

1. Identify your potential contacts. Look for the people in your networks who you find intriguing and inspiring in their own profession. Be sure to tell your friends and family that you're looking to setup these informal meetings and ask them for the names of people they think would be helpful to you. Look for people with job titles one, two or three levels within your current target job title. These individuals can give you tips on navigating your own career path based off their experience and may have influence in any open positions or hiring at their current respective workplaces. You can also meet with people that have your current title or even individuals with titles a step below yours to understand growth and mobility options at various different organizations within your area.

2. Reach out appropriately. Once you've made your list of who you want to interview, send out an introductory letter, email or phone call to explain your background, career goals, interest in speaking with him or her and what you hope to gain from the meeting. Request no more than a half-hour of the person's time at their convenience and reiterate that you're only looking for information — not a job. While meeting up for coffee or lunch is great, actually meeting with the person in their workplace will give you a better feel for the job, the company they work for and the general industry. Remember that if the individual you want to meet up with is a referral from someone in your network, be sure to mention that so you don't appear to be a total stranger.

3. Define your expectations. Since you're the person requesting this meeting, you're setting the agenda. You should define what questions you want answered. Don't dwell on questions about salary, benefits or perks. Instead, ask questions related to the person's individual experience in their role, how they got the position with the company, what their typical day is like, what their career path looks like and what types of things they read or follow to stay current within their industry. Determine what skill sets are necessary to perform this person's job and what their favorite and least favorite parts of their position/profession are.

4. Prepare for the interview. Do your homework and be sure that the time the person gives you doesn't go to waste. Come in with your questions prepared and do a little research on the person you're interviewing (tenure at the company, changes in roles within the company) and the company itself (who are their competitors, what's the most recent company news). I'd recommend keeping this business formal to business casual in terms of dress and I cannot stress this enough — this isn't time to ask for a job or find out if there are open positions at the company.

Lastly, after you've had your interview, thank the person for their time and ask for a business card so you can follow up with a brief thank you email or snail mail note to reiterate your gratitude and that you hope to stay in touch.