Four Steps to Improving Your Informational Interviews
Effective informational interviews can help you land a great job, but bad ones can be both frustrating and counterproductive. Almost every year at least one job-seeker I advise will ask “How am I supposed to learn about the company, show interest in their work, and make a meaningful connection in a 30-minute phone call?”
At the same time, I’ve spoken with recruiters who’ve said that some of the candidates who reached out the most left the least favorable impressions, since it felt like they were only reaching out because they’d been told to. Here are four lessons I’ve learned from talking with job-seekers and recruiters to help make your informational interviews more efficient and effective.
Focus on the work, not the company. Show your conversation partner that you’re focused on the problems you want to solve and not just the prestige of a great company. You want to show that you’re thoughtful about your job search and will be as motivated to succeed on the job as you are to get the offer. As an added bonus, if she winds up leaving her company for another organization that fits your goals, she may still help you.
- Great Informational Question: “I’m really interested in how domestic companies expand into international markets, so I’m thinking about either becoming a consultant or joining a company with a growing global footprint. What tradeoffs do you think I should consider in thinking about your company as opposed to working in a consulting firm?”
If you think you know something, ask for confirmation. Telling someone how you think her company does things can make it feel like the conversation is redundant at best. If you already know all about how they operate, then she might as well get back to work. A more nuanced approach is to share your understanding and ask if that’s consistent with her experience.
- Great Informational Question: “I read in your annual report that your CEO wants to empower branches to customize their approaches to their local markets. Has your branch changed its approach?”
Make it personal. Recruiters’ least favorite questions might be the ones they suspect are intended to impress them. Questions about industry trends, reactions to news headlines, or company goals run the risk of seeming disingenuous. A brief introduction to your question that explains why you care or how your background shapes your thinking can both highlight the work you’ve done and reassure the interviewer that the answers matter to you.
- Great Informational Question: “In my previous company I introduced carpooling incentives and worked with HR on a ‘selective travel’ policy that reduced our office’s carbon footprint by 10%; what is your firm doing to improve sustainability?”
Be targeted in your referral requests. Your conversation partner may have been at her organization for several years and know hundreds of people there. Asking if you should talk to anyone else may seem like you’re not appreciative of the conversation you just had, or require her to do a lot of guesswork about your interests. Specifying the type of referral you’d like makes it easy for her to guide you and feel appreciated.
- Great Informational Question: “Thank you so much for that, I think I’ve got a better understanding of how new products get developed, and the R&D team sounds like the right fit. Is there anyone in that group without an engineering background that you’d recommend I speak with about their experience?”
Whether or not informational interviews directly influence who gets the job interview (and company norms differ on that front), having a memorable conversation that indicates you’re approaching your job search thoughtfully will maximize your chances of turning strangers into allies who want to help.
These types of questions will help ensure that you’re making good use of your interviewees’ time as well as your own in informational interviews, and can also often be re-used at the end of an interview when the interviewer asks if you have any questions for her.
--------------Jacob K. Lehman has been the Consulting Advisor for MBAs at the Johnson Graduate School of Management since 2015. He began his career with McKinsey & Co. and worked in a variety of consulting and corporate strategy roles before transitioning to career counseling. He holds a J.D. from the University of Michigan and a B.A. in English from Cornell University. When not helping others navigate their career journeys, he choreographs fights for theater and film projects, solves crossword puzzles, and writes one of the least-read blogs on the internet at www.jacobklehman.com.