The Informational Interview - Key Takeaways
I am neither an academic nor professional expert on this subject. I am simply a millennial with around two hundred "informational interviews" under their belt, which I began conducting during my junior year of undergraduate business school.
An informational interview is a conversation that, more often than not, has been orchestrated by a member of your personal or professional network with the intention of sharing or receiving knowledge, but not necessarily leading to an interview or a subsequent job.
I have found that the most meaningful informational interviews have been with those professionals who are not linearly related to a firm or position I was targeting, but rather someone I could extract at least one meaningful piece of advice from and hopefully offer something to in return.
While the above might seem intuitive, I would like to share three of the most meaningful lessons I have been gifted, small precious nuggets of wisdom, which I hope illustrate the impact leaders in all fields can have if they take merely fifteen minutes to answer that LinkedIn message or eager cold call.
1) Advocate vs. Mentor.
During my first job, I learned this tested and proven crucial distinction from a senior colleague. He explained that someone can be seen as a mentor to hundreds, even thousands of people, such as a Ray Dalio or Steve Jobs, with whom many people can identify and learn from. This does serve an important purpose, to a certain degree.
More importantly, though, is an advocate, the person that in your gut you can rest assured will pound on the table and fight for you when the door is closed and you are on the other side. Few people in your life will take on this precious role, but you can find them. They will have a long-term impact on your career and life beyond measure.
Be certain, though, that it will not happen overnight. An advocate's support is something you earn, should be authentic, and will be a meaningful relationship you can count on.
[Related: Back in the “New Girl” Career Seat]
2) Thank you note/e-mail.
I cannot stress this enough: Always send a thank you note, always. Anyone who is willing to take time out of their likely busy day is doing you a favor, and while I am sure they are happy to be doing it, gratitude should be communicated directly.
Let me follow, though, and say it does not have to be lengthy for the sake of being lengthy; simply referencing something they said that resonated with you and stating that you are grateful for their time will go a long way.
If they went above and beyond and took you out for a meal or something similar, make it handwritten. Call me old-fashioned, but this is such a meaningful touch that matters.
[Related: How to Shake off the Stigma of Networking]
3) Return the favor.
At risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, I will say that life is short and the world is small. These are important considerations because, particularly in the business world, everyone knows someone who knows someone.
I make this point for two reasons. First, always be willing to at least consider someone's request to speak with you. It is unarguably flattering, you really do not have anything to lose, and you could be making someone's day by doing so.
Secondly, being kind and generous with your time can be mutually beneficial. Although I thoroughly enjoy talking to most people, you may be someone who can argue for better uses of your time than chatting with a current sophomore from your university. I would challenge that instinct and gently remind you that you were once that person desperately seeking professional connectivity. Also, who knows whose mother that sophomore has? She could subsequently become your advocate if you see the relationship through.
While the formal interview has a clearly-defined objective of a job at stake, the informational interview is more nuanced. Consider making informational interviews a part of your (you pick the volume) routine, regardless of your tenure, and I have a feeling you will be pleasantly surprised with what you can take away.
Amanda Gallop works for Cantillon Capital Management.
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