In this blog series, our mbaMission Career Coaches dispense invaluable advice to help you actively manage your career. Topics include building your network, learning from mistakes and setbacks, perfecting your written communication, and mastering even the toughest interviews.
One of your greatest tools to learn about potential job opportunities, build new relationships, and advance your career is the informational interview. Ideally, you will use your network to connect directly to people who work in the firms that interest you. When you are introduced to someone, that person is much more likely to agree to speak with you. Once someone has agreed to an informational interview with you, keep these keys in mind to make the most of your time.
Respect Their Time
Everyone is busy. So keep things brief. Ask for 20 minutes to talk. The phone will work best for most people, so do not begin by proposing coffee or an in-person meeting. Then make sure you are ready to get everything you need in those 20 minutes. If the other party wants to extend the conversation, that is up to them.
Do Your Research
Speaking directly with someone at a target firm is a rare opportunity for primary research. So avoid asking basic questions that you could find answers to on the Internet or by reading one of our Career Primers. Do your best to leverage publicly available information to ascertain things such as
- where the firm is located and whether it has offices in different geographic areas you are interested in
- the nature of the position that would interest you (e.g. entry level analyst, senior consultant)
- Any recent news coverage related to the company (e.g., earnings releases, mergers, changes in leadership)
Know What They Have to Offer
Do not just research the firm, research the individual with whom you will be speaking. Use LinkedIn and the company’s website to familiarize yourself with your interviewee’s basic information, such as title, tenure with the firm, and career trajectory prior to their current role. This is critical to asking great questions. For example, if you are seeking a position in the finance department, and your interviewer is on the marketing team, they will likely not know much about the challenges a finance associate will face. That said, they will know plenty about corporate culture, firm success factors, and the interview process. Leverage the expertise of the person you are talking with and show respect for their time by asking them questions they can answer.
Set the Context
Do not neglect this step. Before you jump in and begin firing off questions, let the person know who you are first. Introduce yourself briefly. Be succinct, but let them know a little about your background, where you are in your career, and what you hope to get out of your conversation. People want to be useful to you, and you make this much easier for them when you tell them what you want.
Ask Great Questions
Everyone likes to talk about their experiences, and most people like to give advice. These are also the two topics that will make your informational interview most valuable. Creating an interview guide for your conversation might also be a good idea. You will get much more valuable information if you ask questions that are easy to answer an require robust answers. So instead of “What is your job like?” consider asking something like “Could you describe what your work life looks like in a typical week?”
Here are some topics you could explore:
- How would you characterize the culture of the firm?
- How do people collaborate and work together here?
- What values are emphasized in teamwork?
- What kind of people have not been great fits at this company?
- What would you suggest I do to learn more about the firm’s culture?
The Work Itself
- What does a day in your work life look like? What percentage of your time do you spend in meetings, on email, on the phone, working on the computer, traveling, etc.?
- What aspects of the job have you struggled with most? What aspects of the [position I am interested in] do people tend to struggle with most?
- What do you find most rewarding about your work?
- What problems have you been most passionate about solving?
- On what key dimensions are you evaluated in your work? What key dimensions is [the position I am interested in] evaluated on?
- What are the three core skills without which you could not have succeeded?
- What are the key development areas you are working on now?
- Do you have any advice for me on core skills or qualities to develop that would make me a better candidate for the position I am targeting?
This is not an exhaustive list but just a few ideas to get you thinking about what you want to know. But notice how most of these questions center on the interviewee’s work and the “what” of the job. This enables the individual to expand on their own experiences rather than just giving opinions, which may or may not be relevant to your job search.
Give the Connection a Future
This is the important last step in any conversation. Create an opportunity for follow-up. This is as simple as asking for something or offering something. For example,
An Ask: I would really appreciate if I could follow up with you in the next several months to see if you have any openings on your team. Would that be okay? And if you do think of a position that would be a good fit for me, please let me know.
An Offer: I read an article last week that reminded me of the challenges you described in your job. I will send it to you when I get back to my office.
Then make sure you actually follow up as you promised!