April 1, 2016

I Totally Disagree!

I’m a hiker. I am not intrepid or rugged. I just love hiking. I love reaching a peak and looking out on the long view - Yosemite Valley, Lake Tahoe, or the Shenandoah Valley. I’ve trudged all along the Pacific Coast Trail and along the Appalachian Trail - at great effort and with a lot of help from fellow hikers. I can always count on someone crossing a stream or heading up a steep trail before me to turn around and pull me up. We all help each other. I believe it is important to turn around after you’ve made it and give a hand to the person behind you. Especially since I am frequently the person bringing up the rear…

A while back my husband sent me a link to an article on Slate "Against Informational Interviews." In it the author, L. V. Anderson, declares that they are just a disingenuous way to network. She further says that informational interviews give an unfair advantage to people who use them. Maybe she’s had a few bad experiences in the “once or twice” per year informational interviews she has done.

Well I totally disagree. I have coached a lot of people through informational interviews and the vast majority of people interviewed are really happy to help.

For anyone looking to get into a career, informational interviewing is a way of exploring options and getting information to make decisions so you can figure out whether you really are interested in a field or in a company. It saves you the pain and suffering of finding yourself in the wrong place and then having to extricate yourself later… And it lets you make connections with companies that really want people who demonstrate a strong interest in the company by taking the time to visit.

How else should you connect with opportunities? If you have ever tried applying for jobs online you know that that is the least effective way of getting a job. Rarely do you even get a response from posting your resume on a company website.

As a counselor for the past 30+ years, I know that people benefit greatly during the decision making process from the wisdom of others who have gone before them and from the connections made from the experience. And connecting with a real human being is the most productive way to get a job.

It really is who you know and you will need to develop a contact network to get just about anywhere in your career. Networking is what LinkedIn is all about- networking with other people in your field to find a connection - a helping hand - to explore opportunities and eventually get a job in your chosen field.

A manager at one of the most recognizable tech companies recently told me that a person who is referred by a top performer is more likely to be successful in getting hired than someone who randomly applies. Why? Because someone who works for the company knows what it takes to be successful there and they tend to be judicious about whom they refer. It is not in your best interest nor is it in the company’s best interest for you to fail…

Informational interviewing, in my opinion, is one of the most productive ways to get enough information to decide if a place qualifies to employ you or if a field is interesting enough for you to pursue it. If you do it right you may find yourself with an offer of employment or enough information to figure out a particular company is just not right for you.

Do it wrong and you burn employment opportunities as well as risk disconnecting your contact network …

One of my best contacts has kept in touch throughout his career and has welcomed the opportunity to share information with people. He had employed informational interviewing to get jobs in the past: “When I was laid off from Aerojet in 1992, along with 500 other Engineers and Technicians, I called a former manager and asked if he could give me an informational interview about his current company, Tri-Tool. I told him that I wanted to get some information on getting back into design work. At the end of the informational interview I thanked him for his time and the great information he had shared. As I walked away, he asked if I had brought a resume with me. Of course I had – just in case, hoping he would ask! I went to work for him two weeks later as a tooling designer.”

He also shared feedback about my referrals. I’d once referred someone to him while he was a manager at HP who showed up 35 minutes late for an informational interview, not calling to say he was running late and dressed in a tee shirt, short pants, tennis shoes and lugging a backpack. Nor did my referral have a list of questions generated from researching HP. Even so he was helpful … after asking my referral about his interests and projects he’d worked on he gave him really great advice telling him to apply at Siemens Mobility where the technology learned in his projects is used on their light rail vehicles or Aerojet, a local aerospace company.

From that feedback I learned to give really specific instructions to people on informational interviewing. There is a whole chapter on the subject in Chapter 8 of my book… Here is the simple version.

Rules for informational interviewing/job networking:
  1. Call for an appointment. Ask for just 20 to 30 minutes and show up on time. (Plan for enough time to get lost and find parking before and enough time to go long if the person you are visiting keeps talking- a good sign they like you...). Explain clearly what it is you are asking for. If you are not sure, read chapter 8 in The Serious Job Seeker (free online).
  2. Do your homework! Do not waste the time of someone kind enough to see you by being unprepared or unprofessional. Study the company and know why you are interested. Identify your knowledge, skills, and interests that intersect with the company’s beforehand. Look up the person you are going to be meeting with on LinkedIn. Research job descriptions on their website for positions that match your knowledge and skills. Make sure you have a nice outfit for your meeting – go business casual.
  3. Develop a list of questions-
    • What is a typical day like?
    • What kinds of projects do new grads work on?
    • What is your background?
    • What does it take to be successful in this field/company/industry?
    • What is the future of this field? – What development is next?
    • What are the drawbacks in this field/company/industry?
    • What advice would you give someone planning a career today in this field?
    • Is there anyone else you recommend that I talk with inside or outside of your company?
    • If I decide this is the company for me, what is the process and who is the best person to speak with.
  4. Send a thank you note immediately!
  5. Thank the person you spoke with for taking the time to meet with you and for the information they shared. Tell them how it helped you. If the person was really helpful and you made a good professional connection - follow up every few weeks with an update on your quest. You want to stay visible to the people who have invested time in helping you on your way.
Do it right and you a link with someone who might hire you or remember you for later when a good position comes up with your name on it, or link you to someone else who can use your knowledge and skills.