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
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
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 be 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
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
"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
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
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.