In my practice, I do a lot of career coaching. Whether it’s guys in their 20’s who are making their mark on the world, or guys in their 30’s who are often getting their first management positions, midlife guys who are making a career change, or early retirees trying to decide what to do after early retirement to give life meaning and purpose beyond the commuter grind, it seems like everyone can benefit from this kind of support. Sometimes it’s support to build your confidence and take new steps, and other times it’s a friendly (done with love) butt-kicking accountability to get you un-stuck after a career stalemate.
One of the best tools that can take your career success to the next level is the Informational Interview. This is very similar to “networking”, but that word can be so over-used that it loses its meaning. Networking is a process, and informational interviews are, too, but they are also an EVENT. It’s an event that you cultivate, plan, and carry out, often over and over with different people, and at different stages of your career. The hard part is right up front: it’s getting over your fear of ASKING someone for an informational interview. After you’ve conquered this, the rest is relatively easy.
But what IS the Informational Interview? Basically, it’s you asking for time on the calendar of someone you know, or know of, and asking them for the opportunity to learn from their experience in a way that is informative and mentoring. What’s in it for them? Well, it’s really an intrinsic reward. I provide Informational Interviews fairly often, because I get approached by grad students in psychology or social work, or new graduates, who want advice on trying to start their own practices. This can be slightly awkward, because I’m giving advice and help to people who will become my own competition, and some colleagues have questioned why I do that. But I believe in Abundance Thinking, and that there is plenty of business for all of us, and that the karma of helping someone else returns to us. It’s also expected, as one becomes more senior in their field (for me, 23 years in LA as a gay men’s specialist), that you help out “the new guys”, just like others helped us when we were young. Similarly, an executive of a company might sit on a Board of Directors, or conduct a company’s volunteer efforts or charitable activities. Still, when you receive the Informational Interview, they are doing you a favor, and you should be mindful of that.
For example, you can offer to take them to lunch (nothing fancy is necessary; somewhere convenient to their office or home (not necessarily convenient for you!) is perfect), or to coffee. For some, it might be easiest just to schedule a time at their office (and don’t expect validated parking unless they offer). You simply ask someone for 15 to 30 minutes of their time to ask a series of questions on career guidance.
Whom to Approach, and How
Whom do you ask? These days, that’s easy. Do a Google search on the leading companies in your field, or leading organizations. Search on LinkedIn, or even Facebook. Try professional associations, especially an LGBT-focused professional organization. Ask friends if they can introduce you to one of their friends who might be helpful. I will sometimes ask my personal friends if they will meet with one of my clients, but that must be done with the client’s permission, because their name and status as my client is confidential. Once you identify the people who might help fill in the blanks of your knowledge, then you approach them. Try a Facebook message, an email, or even call their assistant and ask if their boss provides Informational Interviews. The “bigger” and busier the person, the less time you ask for. Fifteen minutes is enough to get some great advice, and it also shows you respect a busy executive’s time. If they want to give you more time, let them, but always check in when those first 15 minutes are up.
Where and When
When you ask to have the Informational Interview, ask them (or their assistant) what location and time might be most convenient for them. If that time is not good for you, try to make it work. Call in sick or take a vacation day if you have to. Avoid sounding entitled by asking for too many accommodations; remember, they are doing YOU the favor. Prepare with your GPS or online maps well in advance of where the location is, and make plans regarding the parking and security. Don’t be late; treat it like a job interview, because in some cases, it might end up being one in the end!
How to Prepare: A List of Questions
Many clients ask me, “OK, great, but what do I say? Basically, there are several standard questions to the Informational Interview. Try to select from some of these:
- Hi. I’m interested in doing what you do for a living. Can you tell me how you got started, and when? What advice would you have today for someone getting started as a _____________?
- What is a typical work day like for you?
- What is the greatest professional challenge you currently face?
- Where do you see your field going in the next 5 or 10 years?
- If you had it all to do over again, what would you do differently, which you would recommend I do?
- Are there other people you would recommend that I should talk to, to learn more?
And perhaps most important of all, THANK them! Right there, at the time, verbally, and I would really show that extra (now almost unheard-of) ritual of writing them a hand-written thank you note on some nice stationery or note cards (Crane brand is really high-quality and impressive!).
How to Follow Up Afterward
Afterward, you can use the list of people they recommend in Question 6 to guide you on whom to follow up with to make new contacts and expand your network. Maybe the person you’re interviewing doesn’t have any openings at their organization now, but one of their colleagues might. And if you’re using Crane stationery and sending hand-written thank you notes a few days later, you are going to be remembered!
You can also check in with the person you interviewed as the months go by, particularly if you followed up on any of their advice about books to read, people to contact, or things to research. If you let the person know that you appreciated their advice enough to actually follow through on it, they will feel like it was time well-spent to meet with you, and it shows you respect their advice. With that kind of attention to detail, motivation, and follow-through, it’s going to increase the odds they will eventually hire you, or at least let you consider them a mentor for the long haul. I love the mentor relationships that I have developed with students and newer clinicians; they are professional relationships that end up being real win-win situations. They might hire you, or you might hire them for consulting work at some point. It’s a very community-building, benevolent thing to practice in this otherwise dog-eat-dog competitive professional environment in most big cities.
Keeping the Cycle Going – Event vs. Process
It’s good to think of the Informational Interview practice as a process, not an event. You can do this in job after job, setting after setting, year after year. There is an old adage that people will either hire you, or refer to, or recommend you when they know, like and trust you. And they get to know, like, and trust you by repeated exposure of who you are, what you do, and what you’re about. Even if they know both your strengths and weaknesses. I know that my colleagues know me as a frank, outspoken, activist therapist who has little patience with B.S. But they also know that I’ve been around for a long time, and that my strengths include helping my clients “become” more, better, and greater than they ever thought they could be. You can’t be all things to all people, but you can build your reputation by sharing with people what you’re good at, in a personal Self-Marketing Plan that will follow you from job to job, throughout your career in one (or more) professional fields.
Now, if things like the Informational Interview scare the bejeezus out of you with anxiety due to being an introvert, it’s OK. That’s where therapy or coaching with me comes in. We can role-play doing it in a safe atmosphere such as my office, so that you’re “rehearsed” when it comes time to do it for real. I can use techniques from Cognitive Therapy to help you with your anxiety that have been shown to work over and over. Sometimes, we have to do some work on your professional self-esteem and professional Sense of Self before you’re ready, or even some work to clarify what you want your life’s professional mission and goals to be. When you’re ready to take your career to the next level, I’m here to help you do it. Sessions are available in my office in Los Angeles, via phone, or via webcam, and information on fees is available here.