A Quick Guide to Informational Interviews
How do you decide what direction to head next in your career?
Would you like to be more visible inside your company? Or is there another company you really want to work for?
Over the course of my speaking and client engagements I frequently find myself recommending informational interviews.
Informational interviews are a great way to explore opportunities, discover mentors, and get information about a field of work from someone who has firsthand knowledge.
When To Use Informational Interviews
I have conducted numerous informational interviews in at least three distinct scenarios. I am sure that you can think of other situations where they would be helpful.
1. Exploring and expanding career options
There are times in our lives when we decide that our careers need a definite shift in direction. For example, graduating from school is often one of those times.
In the early 2000’s, as I was finishing up my MBA, I took the opportunity to reach out to more than twenty people in three distinct fields that interested me: supply chain management, product management, and leadership and organizational development.
I ended up conducting twenty-four informational interviews with twenty-four wise and generous souls. Their insights and encouragement still echo for me to this day. I ended up making a pivot from IT leadership into human resources and leadership development. I have never looked back.
2. Inside networking
Building relationships inside of your current company is an essential component in job and career success. An informational interview is an ideal way to gain insights into how careers typically progress at that company and how the rest of the company works.
For example, within the first 90 days in a new role, I recommend that you conduct informational interviews with all of your manager’s peers. If you manage projects, develop products, or work in a support function, then you also have a broad list of key stakeholders with whom you support and influence. These people are great candidates for informational interviews as well.
Get an understanding of their role in the company, what they are working on, their drivers, and their constraints. Use this information to shape the work that you do and the results that you deliver.
3. Job Searching
Most career coaches will tell you that the best way to find a job that is right for you is to start by finding the right company.
If you are looking for a new opportunity, it is not enough to complete an application and submit a resume. You must also endeavor to connect with the hiring manager. This is no easy task. Informational interviews can help. Your goal is to understand how you might contribute sufficient value to cover what would be your salary.
In order to do that you need to interview people inside the company to get a better understanding of what the company does, the challenges it might be facing, and the kinds of people who are successful there.
Quick Tips to Improve the Interview and Make a Great Impression
Getting an informational interview is a good first step — but once you’ve got it on your calendar, you need to take steps to make sure you come off as professional as possible. Here are a few suggestions for scheduling and conducting successful informational interviews:
- Approach the interview like a dress rehearsal for a job interview. However, don’t ask for a job. The point is to learn something.
- Do your homework. Be prepared with good questions and a good understanding of the experience, background, and responsibilities of the person you are meeting.
- Honor people’s time. Request no more than 30 minutes—then stick to it.
- Don’t talk too much. Be prepared to answer questions, but your principal role is to ask them.
- Be a good networker. Find out what they are working on and look for ways to be helpful.
Sample Interview Questions: What to Ask During an Informational Interview
There is no end to the list of great questions you could ask in an informational interview. Your list will depend on the person you are interviewing and your objectives for the interview.
Here are a few sample questions that might stimulate your thinking.
- Which of your accomplishments or challenges were the most helpful for your career?
- Which of your decisions have had the most impact on your career?
- What are the nuances to being successful in this company? In this industry?
- Who are the important people to know in this company? In this industry? Why?
- What would you do differently if you were starting your career over?
- What would you do if you were in my situation right now?
- What problems have you solved? How?
- What are your drivers?
- What are your constraints?
- How have you increased revenues, profits?
- How have you improved processes?
- How have you demonstrated creativity, innovation?
- How have you reduced costs?
The web is awash with great information on informational interviews. Here are a few that I recommend:
- Quint Careers: Informational Interviewing – a thorough tutorial
- NY Times: Mastering the Informational Interview – great suggestions and a great list of sample questions.
- Schedule an informational interview with someone inside your organization who intrigues you. Learn more about their career and what they have done to be successful.
- As you navigate toward your next career, or carer opportunity, pick a company or an industry that interests you and find someone in your network to interview about their work.
- Check out Helpful: A Guide to Life, Careers, and the Art of Networking. It contains two chapters dedicated to informational interviews and the entire final section — Part IV: Networking at Work — goes in to great detail on building relationships inside of your organization.
How often do you go on informational interviews? What have you learned? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Originally published October 31, 2013. Updated and revised July 3, 2019.
Heather Hollick has been helping others become better leaders and craft more meaningful careers for more than 25 years. Her experience spans both business and technology, operations and organizational development. Oh, and she was born in Canada, so she can't help but be helpful. 😉