Expert interviews: get that ‘scoop’

Do you remember being at college and exploring possible careers options by taking on special school projects, or signing up for an internship? I always thought it was great fun and a fantastic way to get a genuine taste of a particular vocation…

Jumping forward  – with your career well underway – and ‘test driving’ a job or volunteering (with a view to exploring a potential career change) becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Time, as we know, becomes a rarer commodity…

This is where ‘informational interviewing’ can come in.  Essentially informational interviewing involves (to use a shopping metaphor): “trying on jobs for size”.

The term – coined by career expert Dick Bolles – may be a little misleading, however. A more accurate term would be ‘informational networking’ or ‘expert interviews’, as its primary purpose is not to find a job: the objective is to get credible first-hand information about a particular role, organization or industry that extends beyond standard research from general occupational sources, company brochures and Google.  Informational networking can also prepare you for a meeting that you’ll have at a later stage with a future employer.

One of my clients, Ryan, was straight out of an Ivy League MBA program; he had been 100% certain that he wanted to work in strategy consulting. He short-listed the industry leaders and, after some preliminary research, he set out to network with alumni of his school who worked in these organizations. The more he learned, the more he realized that strategy consulting –  working with a broad range of industries with a broad range of problems – did not particularly appeal to him.

Ryan’s ‘take-away’ from his research was: consulting as a profession – with its fast paced environment and range of talent and experience – continued to attract him, but not as a generic strategy consultant.  He started exploring boutique consulting firms in the organizational development domain – an area that genuinely interested him. Through speaking to stakeholders, and going the extra mile in his research, he may have saved himself years of being stuck in a job that he found unfulfilling.

Informational networking can help you:

  • Explore careers
  • Clarify career aspirations
  • Expand your professional connections
  • Build insight in a particular role or industry, which may come in handy during the interview process later
  • Understand whether a particular role would play to your strengths
  • Practice networking
  • Save you years of working in the wrong job

In practice…

In general, most people like to share their knowhow and thoughts with others. Most people are flattered to be asked their opinion and for advice. However, in order for you to be an effective informational interviewer, bear these rules in mind:

Rule 1: Prepare

If you do not know where to start, begin by understanding yourself. What motivates you? What skills do you enjoy leveraging? What is important to you? What are your interests? Next, look at industry trends in relevant publications, maybe The Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal. Look up occupations that may interest you on Onet.

Then: identify your targets.  Which industries/companies/roles do you find appealing? Which jobs could you genuinely see yourself in?

Consider contacting your alma mater and ask for alumni contacts. Speak with friends, family, neighbors, peers, acquaintances (anyone!), and ask if they know people who work in this sphere. Then prepare your questions. Once you’ve narrowed your target audience, make sure you learn all that you can about the role or organization that interests you. Prepare a list of questions that you’d like to have answered.

Rule 2: Connect

Briefly, in writing (email or letter): introduce yourself, explain who you are, what you are interested in learning more about, how long you’d like to spend talking (20 minutes?), and that you’ll be calling.

When you follow up with your phone call…

Is this a good time for me to call you?”

No: “When should I call you back?”

Don’t call back: “Is there someone else you recommend I contact?”

Yes: “Great. I emailed you on [date]. I am hoping to speak with you about [topic]. When would you be free?”

General Tips for the phone:

  • Prepare a call script. But don’t read it out, practice it beforehand and have it at the ready to remind yourself of key points that you want to address during the call.  Check everything’s covered before you hang up.
  • Call before 9am or after 5pm, Tuesday through Thursday.
  • Don’t leave a message. Wait until you get hold of someone.
  • Smile while you speak.
  • Briefly re-introduce yourself, then get to the point quickly.
  • Be courteous. Exude confidence.
  • Take notes and put them in your networking log.

Rule 3: Meet

Explore the possibility of meeting in person first.  Admittedly, this may not often be possible or practical. On the day of your meeting, arrive on time. Thank your interviewee for taking the time to meet and then start by finding out about them and their professional journey. Begin with covering basic questions:

“What does your job entail on a day-to-day basis?”

“How did you get to be where you are now?”

“What key competencies have you developed to succeed in your role/company?”

“What do you enjoy about your role?”

“What are the challenges?”

If there’s time, follow-up with some more in-depth questions… But stick to the time you agreed to take up. If you run over, point it out: “I’d love to talk more but I’m mindful of your schedule.” Often they’ll be keen to carry on, otherwise thank them very much for their time and leave it there.

An important rule: NEVER ask for a job during these informational interviews (if the other party mentions this, thank them very much and say that you’d love to explore this further once you’ve finished your research). At the end of the interview thank them, and ask them whether they know of anyone else it might be useful for you to talk to.

Rule 4: Follow-up

As with any liaison (especially if someone is effectively doing you a favor): always, always send a thank you email within a couple of days of the meeting.

Then, if appropriate, follow up on a regular basis and keep them informed as to how your research is coming on – maybe recommend a publication that you’ve come across that might be of interest to them.

Remember: even if you don’t take their advice – or decide to go into another sector or role – networking is a cornerstone of career development, and you never know which connections could prove invaluable for future career developments.

So, expert interviews can be an invaluable tool for gathering information about a job and – especially if you are already working full-time – provide a great means for efficiently gathering information about another sector, or just giving you ‘food for thought’ about a career change. And without overstretching yourself or committing too much time…