For many job seekers, information interviewing seems too much like groveling. "Who am I kidding?" says one unemployed chief financial officer. "Everyone knows that I'm looking for a job. It's bogus to pretend that all I really want is information."
Informational interviewing gets short shrift from candidates for this very reason -- they feel that calling contacts and asking for appointments to gain information is a sham because what they actually want is a job.
What job hunters fail to realize is that this type of networking is not exclusively the domain of the unemployed. Exploratory interviews are a critical part of networking, while in transition and while working. In other words, everyone does it and knowing your ultimate goal is a job doesn't offend employers.
Pamela Peterson, an employed executive in Chicago, conducts information interviews whether she's working or jobless to ensure that she keeps building her network of contacts and her career focus on track. Then, when she does decide to look for work, she has a network in place to help her uncover leads and refer her to potential employers.
"Never, never, never ask for a job," says Ms. Peterson, currently director of business development for IPSA International, a risk-management consulting firm. "This is the cardinal rule of information interviewing; you are there only to gather new knowledge and validate your focus. Eighty percent of the time people are delighted and willing to meet and to help, primarily because they recognize the value of networking as well the satisfaction that comes from being able to help someone."
Lose the 'Begging Bowl' Mentality
Informational interviewing is a focused form of networking that revolves around learning new things and relationship-building. To use this particular job-hunting strategy effectively, it's absolutely crucial to lose the "begging bowl" mentality. No employer is going to hire you because you desperately need a job. Employers hire people because they add value by helping to solve problems and address challenges.
Some job hunters think exploratory interviews put them in the awkward position of appearing to ask for favors, but they're discounting the value of these meetings. Just because an employer doesn't need you now doesn't mean it won't in the near future. It also doesn't mean that the company can't or won't create a new position after meeting with you.
Although job offers should not the goal of informational interviewing, they can become an unexpected benefit when the timing and chemistry are right. When he was between jobs, an executive who had headed several global midsize companies as president and chief executive officer met to have lunch and network with a former subordinate and her husband. When the husband heard the exec was seeking another senior-management role, he arranged for him to have breakfast with a board member of his employer, a capital-equipment company in Chicago. The board member, in turn, introduced the former president to the company's CEO.
The executive, who asked that his name not be used, and the CEO hit it off right away. Knowing the executive could help him solve several pressing business problems, the CEO called him the following day and asked him to work as an interim vice president of sales and marketing, a position that didn't exist before they met. The former president took the job and stayed on for nearly a year, helping the company until it merged with a European competitor.
"It's always better to make an in-person impression versus a paper or phone impression," he says. "No matter how good a resume or profile is, it's difficult to convey a person on paper. It's the whole package, not just the accomplishments."
This is particularly true, he says, for senior-management assignments, where personality and "cultural fit" will be deciding factors in hiring. An additional motivation in seeking these meetings is to counter his resume, which says "over 50."
"When I can get in front of people and demonstrate high energy level, enthusiasm, 'youth,' I find a much better chance of being remembered positively," he says.
Edward G. Maier, CEO of Maier Consulting Group LLC, an executive-coaching and leadership-training firm, believes there's an art to setting up informational meetings. "Often, the people you want to interview are very busy, and it's hard to get their attention or on their schedule," says Mr. Maier, a former senior partner at Arthur Andersen in Chicago. "Clearly, a referral from a mutual acquaintance is great."
Coach referrals to present you in ways that make decision-makers want to meet you, he suggests. "If you're going to ask someone for a referral to an executive to establish an informational interview, get your referrer to mention some specific aspects of your skill set that could pique the interest of the executive you want to meet."
Before she begins exploratory interviewing, Ms. Peterson lists 10 to 20 companies where she wants to develop contacts. Next, she makes sure she has the skills and experiences these employers value. When calling contacts, she uses a "30-second goals-and-objective statement" to say why she's phoning and the kind of information she's seeking. She asks for a face-to-face meeting because they allow her to create rapport and demonstrate her fit.
In closing, she always asks about the professional organizations the person belongs to and for names of others she can speak with. Along with writing a sincere thank-you note, she keeps contacts apprised of the outcome of her meetings with their referrals and occasionally calls to report her progress. This strategy allows her to remain in touch and build relationships.
The View From the Other Side
To understand the value of information interviewing, it may help to see how a hiring manager uses the technique. Bill Colaianni, a former vice president and general manager for Coca-Cola Co. and Monsanto, uses informational or exploratory interviews to find potential rising stars. During his tenures at Coke and Monsanto, he frequently conducted exploratory interviews to get to know talented people and define or refine solutions. Then, when new positions developed, he had candidates he liked "waiting in the wings" to work for him.
"This was particularly useful when I was managing new or rapidly growing businesses, and when we had well-established ones that needed fresh thinking. [Often] I didn't have an immediate need when I first met with these people, but felt they were worth knowing [for] when the need arose. Then I wouldn't have to scramble," he says.
Since leaving Coca-Cola in 2002, Mr. Colaianni has discovered the value of informational interviewing from a job seeker's perspective as well. A face-to-face meeting helps him to create a unique impression of what he can do for employers now rather than what he has done in the past for other companies.
"It enables me to learn more about prospective employers, understand their needs, and build good professional relationships. At this point in my career, it's important to find the right fit. Exploratory interviews are a great way to test out whether there's a good match," says the executive, who is now president of a consulting firm that provides executive leadership to private companies.
Not every employed executive is open to informational meetings, but rather than butting heads with those who don't value this kind of networking, focus your attention and energy on identifying and building relationships with people who share your perspective.
"People who are resistant to informational interviewing are also resistant to networking," says Ms. Peterson. "They don't appreciate the value of building relationships."
For her, informational interviews are never a waste of time. They help her to understand the business marketplace, expand her referral base, and build good will.
If you're currently job hunting, exploratory interviews are ideal ways to stay connected and energized while quite possibly opening the door to viable job offers. They also can boost your self-confidence by reminding you of who you are, who you know and what you have to offer.
-- Ms. Hirsch is a career counselor in Chicago, who has written several books on career issues, including "How to Be Happy at Work" (Jist Publishing, 2003).