Susan Adams, Forbes Staff
More people land jobs through informational interviews than by way of formal interviews connected to a job posting.
When I was out of work some years ago, a journalist friend suggested I phone a friend of hers, Paul, a reporter on the national affairs beat at a nightly television news show. At that point I had only worked in print journalism, so I was curious. Paul was friendly on the phone and invited me to come by the next day to chat and watch the show being taped. Not only did I find Paul and his job fascinating, but I discovered that there was an opening on the economics team. Paul introduced me to the senior producer, she and I clicked, and she asked me to interview for the post on the spot. A few weeks later, to my surprise and delight, she hired me.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my meeting with Paul was one of the most effective means of looking for a job: the informational interview, otherwise known as the exploratory meeting or networking interview. Sarah Stamboulie, a New York career coach who previously worked in corporate human resources at Morgan Stanley, Nortel Networks and Cantor Fitzgerald, and as a career coach in Columbia University’s alumni office, says she’s struggled to come up with a felicitous term for this type of interview. Her default setting: just call it a meeting, but do realize that more people land jobs through these kinds of connections than from formal interviews connected to a job posting. “It’s how almost all of my clients find jobs,” says Stamboulie.
Example: an information technology manager who had gone on a poker weekend with his old high school buddies. After one of them learned Stamboulie’s client was out of work, he offered to make personal introductions to senior I.T. managers at five different companies. The friend didn’t know whether there were job openings at any of the companies. Stamboulie’s client made a great impression on one of the managers, who asked him if he would come on board as a consultant. That job turned into a full-time position.
Stamboulie has since coached the client to take another step toward an even more desirable position: She urged him to reach out to a competitor of his former employer, through a mutual contact. Stamboulie encourages her clients to do extensive research on a company before going on the informational interview, and use that research in the email requesting the meeting. She wants her clients to write at some length about why they are interested in the company, what they admire about its strategy, how the particular department has handled a challenge, and about the person with whom they hope to meet.
“Your email isn’t about how great you are,” says Stamboulie. “The bulk of the email is about why you want to meet with the friend or colleague. You need to make it clear you’ve done some grown-up research.” The I.T. client got results from his email and subsequent meeting, and is now up for a new job. As so often happens, there was no formal job opening at the company. “There’s always a pipeline,” notes Stamboulie. “They’re always going to have to hire someone at some point.”
Once in the interview, ask lots of questions about the work, about the department’s needs and challenges, about what’s not getting done and about businesses the company is trying to develop. How is the department set up, who reports to whom, who handles which sides of the business?
“Ask what opportunities are getting lost,” advises Stamboulie. “What’s keeping the person up at night?” Stamboulie recommends acting as if you are a consultant trying to figure out how to help a company improve its business. Your goal is to figure out how your skills overlap with their needs. For instance, if you speak Spanish and have done business in Latin America, but the firm you’re interviewing with has yet to expand there, talk about how the region could be a gateway to new clients and business. Suggest that a competitor made a substantial profit by expanding there. “You want to make them feel like they can’t go another day without doing something about this,” says Stamboulie.
Then after the interview, put effort into a thank-you note that reflects on what the person said and offers an idea about how to solve a problem that came up in the meeting. Do include a suggestion for an action step, like a subsequent meeting or a meeting with someone else at the company.
Another example: A client of Stamboulie’s was angling for a job at a hedge fund. Stamboulie recommended he go for an informational interview at a fund that he would normally consider beyond his reach. It turned out the manager with whom Stamboulie’s client met was a Frenchman living in London, and deeply involved with French food and wine. Stamboulie’s client happened to speak fluent French and also love French food and wine. The two connected personally and a job materialized. “That affinity they had, that’s what got him hired,” says Stamboulie.
Of course it’s always best to initiate contact with a personal connection. LinkedIn is an excellent tool that can instantly help you figure out whom you know who might be able to initiate contact at a company you’re targeting.
How open should you be about the fact you’re looking for work, when you’re setting up the meeting and once you’re sitting down with the person? Stamboulie recommends playing down your job search, unless it comes up naturally. You can even say something like, you probably aren’t looking to hire right now, but I’m very interested in your company for the following reasons. You might say, I’m talking to all the biotech sell-side firms, and your company is at the top of my list. Or, I don’t want to move somewhere without talking to you. “The key is to be specific in your compliments,” says Stamboulie.
Stamboulie also recommends turning what might seem like weaknesses into strengths. She had another client who was searching for a hedge fund job, but he was Japanese and spoke poor English. Stamboulie recommended he target Japanese firms doing business in the U.S. He landed a job.
“This is the number one activity that should be in everyone’s job search,” notes Stamboulie. “People are hiring or thinking about hiring all the time,” she adds. “But people only have a job posting out once in awhile. Some companies never post their jobs.”
To recap, here are seven ways to make informational interviews part of your job search:
1. Use your network to find personal contacts at companies where you may want to work. LinkedIn is a great way to do this quickly.
2. When possible, get a personal introduction to the contact. Have your contact email or phone in advance, and use your mutual acquaintance’s name in your email or phone call requesting a meeting.
3. Do lots of research in advance and write an email that’s about the person and the company where you want to meet. Mention any background you may have in common. If you both previously worked at IBM, for example, say so. Do write five or six sentences about what you think of the company’s strategy.
4. Play down the fact you’re looking for a job. You can even acknowledge that the company is probably not hiring. Emphasize the fact you want to talk to the company for specific reasons.
5. In the interview, position yourself as a consultant who is trying to understand what the company needs. Ask lots of questions about the company’s needs and goals, and the challenges facing the person you’re meeting with.
6. Look for a way to connect with the person outside of work. If you share a hobby, like French cooking or cycling, this can be a great way to make a positive impression.
7. Follow up. Write a thank-you note that reflects what the person said about the challenges she and her company are facing. Offer solutions and explain how you could help address the problems. Do include a suggestion for a next step, like a subsequent meeting with another manager at the company.