Find Your Dream Job, Episode 182:
Informational Interview Tips for Young Professionals, with Colby Reade
Airdate: March 13, 2019
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This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.
I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps professionals find fulfilling careers.
I believe that lifelong learning is the key to a successful career. And to get a better job, you need to learn the job hunting skills that will help you find the role of your dreams.
That’s why we’re here today. Every week on Find Your Dream Job, I interview a different career expert. We discuss the tools and tactics you need to find the work you want.
This week, I’m talking to Colby Reade about informational interview tips for young professionals.
Colby Reade believes in the power of informational interviews. He says these conversations can not only help you find and land jobs; they also can create networks that help your career for years to come.
But Colby says too many people, and especially young professionals, struggle with informational interviews.
Many of the new graduates Colby meets don’t understand they must ask for the meetings. And they need to run it like a business appointment. That means setting goals, doing homework, and following up.
Want to learn more? Listen in now at the Mac’s List studio as Colby Reade shares his informational interview tips for young professionals.
Colby Reade’s day job has been all about communications. He first built a career in journalism before launching a second career in public relations.
Colby also works as a career coach and advisor. He helps professionals find and thrive in careers they love. He shares advice every week on his own podcast, Coffee with Colby.
He joins us today, in person, here in the Mac’s List studio in Portland, Oregon.
Colby, welcome to the studio.
Mac, it is a pleasure to be here and an honor as well, sir.
Well, it’s a pleasure to have you here and I’m really excited about our topic. I had another guest recently, Karen Wickre, who talked about networking, and I must say that’s one of my favorite topics, but informational interviews, I warm to this subject.
I know you’re a big fan of informational interviews, too, Colby. Why is that? What benefits do you see?
Well, the fact is that, in today’s job market, as you know, Mac, nobody gets a job from just sending in their resume or applying to an HR inbox, applying to an application online. Jobs are found based on relationships. You need somebody in an organization to say, “Hey, HR team, we need to look at Julia.” Or, “We need to look at Shawn.” Or, “We need to look at Jackson because they are the perfect candidate for this role.” And informational interviews are really the perfect way for individuals, particularly young professionals or professionals who are moving from one industry to another and don’t really have that established network, to start building out those connections and those relationships in a way that’s going to help them grow that career.
I’m so glad you said that about the importance of relationships in hiring because, obviously, you know, I run a job board. I’m very proud of the value it offers, both to employers and to job seekers, but it’s only one way to find out about openings. It’s not the only way, is it?
Absolutely. One of the tricks of or one of the benefits I should say, of informational interviews is it helps shed light on that hidden job market that’s out there. I’ve lost track of the number of times that either I’ve been on an informational interview with somebody or I’ve been speaking with somebody about an informational interview and they’ve either, in that conversation said, “Hey, we’re thinking about hiring for this position. Do you know anybody who might be a good fit?” Or they said, “You know, I’ve heard that such and such organization might be looking. Let me introduce you to that person.” And the job may not be posted. Or, it may only be posted in one location or two locations, and it might not be on the board you’re searching.
Let’s talk about the structure of informational interviews, Colby. How are they different from requests to say, pick your brain or have a cup of coffee?
I think the key difference between just a general, get to know you chat, a pick your brain conversation, and an informational interview is there’s a specific agenda. But the great thing about informational interviews is that the agenda is non-stress, on both sides. You are not going to this person for a specific job, so you are not under the pressure of, “I need to put my best foot forward and nail this job interview.” And the other person doesn’t have to worry about you hitting them up for a job opportunity.
There is, as I said, an agenda of, we want to learn about something specific. “I’m looking for information about your role, about your company, a potential opportunity. I’m looking for your feedback on my skill set and whether or not I’m where I think I should be or what gaps may exist in my resume.”
There’s a formal conversation that’s already laid out but it’s also, there is no ulterior motive or specific opportunity to be gained beyond information, which helps take some of that stress away.
What stops young professionals, (which is the focus of our conversation today), from asking for these meetings?
I would say two things. The first, and frankly the most concerning to me is they just don’t know to do it. There are so many young professionals that I meet with and say, “Have you done informational interviews? Have you had any conversations?”
And they don’t even know what the term means, let alone that they can just email somebody and say, “Hey, can I meet with you for twenty minutes to learn about your organization?”
I think the other hesitancy, once they know that informational interviews exist, is there’s a fear of rejection and a fear of, “If I email the CEO or the head of communications for a specific organization and ask for an informational interview, they’re going to say no. Or they’re even going to be upset at me for asking about such a thing. Or it’s going to make me look unprofessional.” When, in fact, informational interviews can be one of the single, easiest ways to make yourself look professional and start building those relationships as a proactive job seeker.
I want to talk in a moment more about how the interviews work but let’s talk now about how people can increase the chances that someone will say yes to a request.
Let’s also talk about rejection because sometimes people will say no, won’t they?
Absolutely. When it comes to putting your best foot forward and how to be most likely to get a yes for an informational interview, the first thing you’ve got to do is be professional. Do not send an email that’s got typos in it, do not send an email that’s got slang in it, do not send an email that addresses somebody by their first name.
We actually were, I was just in a conversation with somebody who was asking for an informational interview and approached the head of a very large company by their first name and it was a huge turn off to everyone in the room. We all were like looking at each other like, “Really? Did they not use Mr, Such and such?”
So I think, being professional, being brief, being clear about your expectations. Saying, “I’m a junior at the University of Oregon, I will be graduating in 2020, and I’m looking to start a career in such and such field. I would really love if I could get 20 minutes of your time to learn a little more about your field, your career path, and get your feedback on how I might make myself to be a more attractive candidate down the road.”
Well, let’s get granular. How about a subject line for that message, Colby?
I think something as simple as putting the subject recipient’s first name and then, “Informational interview request.” Keeping it very simple and very direct up-front. The people that you want to be getting informational interviews with are your upper-level managers, directors, the senior people, the people who are actually going to be making decisions on hiring, frankly. Those people are inundated with requests, inundated with emails, so whatever you can do to make your point, stand out, be very clear, and be brief, that’s going to help increase your likelihood of actually getting that informational interview.
What are your best tips for listeners, particularly the students or recent graduates to identify the people they should reach out to once they’re ready to send that message?
You’ve got to do your homework and that starts by doing your research both on LinkedIn and on the company website that you’re applying to or looking for. We live in a time where there is too much information online not to use those resources.
What I always recommend is, when somebody’s looking to start a career, particularly someone’s who’s graduating from college or somebody who is starting over fresh in a new industry, is to start by identifying 20 companies that you think you might want to work for and find the person who does the job that you want.
In my field, communications, you’d be looking for the director of marketing, director of communications, the chief communications officer, someone of that nature, find out who that person is. Either on the website or do a search on LinkedIn and reach out to them that way, and I say, “Start with 20 names,” because odds are, probably 50% aren’t even going to respond. It’s not that they don’t like you, it’s not that they aren’t open to meeting with you. For whatever reason, your message just isn’t going to get in front of them so just like in sales, you want to have a strong funnel of potential opportunities.
If you start with 20, half don’t even respond, 5 are too busy, and you can get 5 good conversations, that’s a win.
What about follow up? Do you recommend people make a second or even a third attempt when making those requests?
I think there’s no problem with that at all. I think giving it two or three weeks and just sending a brief, “Dear Miss Johnson, I want to make sure you received my note. I completely understand if you’re too busy but I just wanted to follow up in case this got caught in your spam or this fell off your radar.” Something like that. If after 2 messages you’re not getting through, then I would say, let it go. Either you don’t have the right line to that person, you don’t have the right email address, you don’t have a way of communicating with them, in which case you’re just wasting your time, or they’re trying to be polite and they’re too busy and not interested.
One of the fun things though, is as you move through the informational interview process, and I’m sure we’ll talk about in a little bit, but you may end up actually getting connected to that person down the line through informational interview referrals.
I want to get there and I do want to touch on one question. I know there are students or recent grads out there who are thinking, “Well, why in the world would the director of marketing at a large private company in my city or the communications manager at a major hospital make time to see me?”
2 reasons. The first is pure ego, for lack of a better term. People like talking about themselves; people like talking about their backgrounds, their company, their organization, their career path, and they also get a boost out of helping other people.
As much as we all want to think that the chief communications officer or the chief executive officer of a company was born, went to high school, and then walked into the C suite, we all started at the bottom. We all started in these lower level capacity positions and had to work our way up, and so it gives them a little bit of positive memory, if you will, of remembering what it was like to be that young grad, just trying to get in the door and being able to reach out and offer some sort of help.
I think it’s an ego boost for someone to be asked and also, we live in a time where there is a very tight talent market. Particularly right now, but even over the last several decades, the call for good talents is so tight that when you have the opportunity early on to identify, “Hey, here’s somebody who’s got some gumption. Here’s somebody who’s not out of school yet and is willing to write a professional email to the director of marketing at our organization and reach out in a professional way just looking for information, that’s the personality type and the type of person we might want on our team. We may not have a role for them right now.” But building that relationship and making that connection could benefit that organization down the line.
What do you say to listeners who think to themselves, “I don’t know anybody? I don’t have a network. I can’t do this.”
Well, that’s exactly why informational interviews are so great because, yes, if you already have an existing network, it’s great to be able to reach out to people that you already know and say, “Hey Joe, I need to talk to you about what it’s like to work in financial investments.” But the great thing about informational interviews is they let you create that network from scratch.
It is an opportunity for you to reach out to someone completely cold, you’ve never met before, and say, “I want to do what you do. I want to work in the industry in which you work. How can I learn how to do that? Can you help me with that?” It is a humble process and it is a great process for starting those relationships just out of nowhere.
Okay, well, we’ve talked about why you should do this, who you should reach out to, and how to do it. I want to talk about what happens when you walk into the room and you have that conversation.
We’re going to take a break in a moment but first I have got a quick question for you that came via LinkedIn and it’s not related directly to informational interviews but it’s from a listener in Demoines. Matt Monfields, who asks, Colby, “What did you learn from studying journalism that sticks with you the most today?”
That’s a good one. As a journalist, as some of your listeners might know, I started in broadcast journalism and then moved into public relations and communications and journalism taught me a couple of key things. One being, how to take a complex story and complex information and boil it down in such a way that a broad audience can absorb it. Working in radio in particular, you had to take any story and boil it down to 30 seconds. That’s something that we apply in my day job in communications and I’ve worked with a number of clients on taking a complex message and making it something that can be easily consumed by anyone.
I think it also taught me about the importance of writing and organization and being detail-oriented. Things that are key skills that any young professional would be well-received bringing to an organization having that in their bag of tricks.
Okay, terrific. Well, we’re going to take a break, and when we come back we’ll talk more with Colby Reade about his informational interview tips for young professionals.
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Now, let’s get back to the show.
We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. We’re talking today with Colby Reade. He’s the host of the weekly career podcast, Coffee with Colby.
He actually joins us in person today here in the Mac’s List studio in Portland, Oregon.
Colby, before the break we were talking about informational interviews and your tips for, particularly young professionals, but clearly the ideas you’re sharing today really apply to anyone. No matter where they might be in their career.
Absolutely and one of the things that I didn’t really grasp myself, I went through a career change myself when I was about 26, 27, and the first time that I did it, I tried to do it the old-fashioned, traditional way of sending off resumes, sending off applications online, and gotten nowhere.
Then the second time I tried to do that, I started doing informational interviews. Just meeting with people in their field for coffee and it took about 50 of those conversations over the course of several months but those lead me to incredible opportunities. So whether you are somebody who is just coming out of school, whether you’re somebody who’s looking to make a jump within your industry; for example, if you work in finance and you’re looking to move from health care finance to nonprofit finance, or whether you’re looking to change industries completely, these conversations are incredibly valuable to helping you understand what your new role is going to entail, what skills you need, and helping you build that network in order to find that next opportunity.
You’re getting ready for your first informational interview and you’ve gotten the request honored or answered rather. Before you walk into that room, what do you need to do?
The absolute first thing you need to do, and the most important thing you need to do, is research who you’re meeting with, the company that they work for, and have some strong questions prepared, specific to that person.
It does you no good to go in and meet…you can meet with 50 people and have 50 informational interviews and if you don’t have a purpose for those meetings, it’s going to completely waste your time. But if you sit down and meet with 5 people that you have strategically identified as people who work in your field or work in the field that you want to be in, have the job that you eventually want to get to, and you’re able to sit down and say, “Here are specific things that I want to know about you, your background, your path, and here are specific questions about my background that I have for you and potential gaps that I may need to fill.” That is going to be so much more valuable and also, it’s going to show so much respect for the person that you’re meeting with.
When I sit down and have an informational interview with somebody and they have questions, for example, like your listener about my background in journalism, I know that they’ve looked into who I am and they want to meet with me specifically. When I sit down and meet with somebody and they’re like, “So, tell me about communications.” They’re just looking for any kind of contact, they’re hoping, they’re throwing spaghetti at a wall, they’re hoping that somebody will know someone who has a job for them and that’s a waste of my time.
Do you find that people do that just because they don’t know any better?
It’s something that everybody can fix and address.
You need to have an ask, a request, before you walk into the room and you recommend actually writing out questions…having a set of questions.
Absolutely, and when you’re sitting down in an informational interview, you should have a notepad in front of you and you should be taking notes based on what the person’s saying. You probably should have a printed copy of your resume, you probably should have a copy, if applicable, of your portfolio, and on that list of your notes, it’s perfectly fine to have, you don’t have to have 30 questions, but having 4 or 5 well thought out questions in advance also gives you a clear sense of, “This is what I want to get out of this conversation. This is the information that I’m hoping to walk away from.”
How should people dress?
I would say it depends on the person. Minimum business casual. You may be meeting with someone who’s going to show up in jeans and a hoodie. You need to be in, for men, slacks and a nice shirt, women, either slacks and a nice shirt or a nice dress. If you’re meeting with someone who is in a formal office environment, so for example an attorney, business formal. You should be dressed as professionally or more professionally than they are. Treat it like it’s a job interview.
I think I shared with you once, I actually had someone come by in their bicycling gear for an informational interview and they were still sweating when they sat down in my chair. I’m still thinking about that guy 15 years later and it wasn’t a very productive conversation.
Did you get the chair cleaned, at least?
Yes, we did have to take some steps.
You’re in the room, how long is this conversation going to last, Colby?
Again, this depends on who you’re meeting with and how good the conversation is. I would say plan for 30 minutes. If the conversation wraps up in 20, that’s fine. A conversation may stretch into 45 minutes or an hour. It really depends on how productive the discussion is, how open the other person is, and what their schedule looks like.
You can also ask them, “How much time do you have? Should I plan for 20 minutes? Should I plan for an hour?” I’ve not had an informational interview, either as the interviewee or interviewer, go longer than about 45 minutes but it could go a little bit longer and the last thing you want is to have a really productive discussion where you feel like you have to cut it off because you need to go, you have another appointment or something like that.
Who’s in charge of this meeting?
The person who’s running the meeting should be the person who asked for it. It should be…I don’t want to sit down in an informational interview if someone has asked me for an informational interview and feel like I need to ask you questions or I need to be feeding you information.
This goes back to being prepared. I want to sit down and feel like there’s specific information that you need from me, so sitting down with 4, 5 basic questions, kind of having a sketch of how the conversation is going to run, shows me that you’re prepared and helps the conversation run smoothly.
It’s also really awkward if you sit down like that guy I mentioned earlier, and say, “Tell me about communications.” Okay, I can do that in a couple of minutes. Now, what are we going to do for the next 20?
What other requests should you have besides that list of questions? What should you ask for in these conversations?
Every informational interview should end with the same question which is, “Is there anyone else that you think would be valuable for me to meet with? If so, would you feel comfortable introducing me for an informational interview?”
That’s one of the great things about informational interviews, it’s a snowball effect. You get one conversation. If that person refers 1 or 2 people and then those 1 or 2 people each refer 1 or 2 people, you start to build this very large network of contacts that can then expand and potentially lead you, too.
That’s also one of the great things about informational interviews; it’s never the first informational interview that gets you the job, it’s always somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody that then has a job opening or lead to a job opening.
I would say, don’t be afraid to end your conversation with that ask.
What shouldn’t you ask for in an informational interview?
Never ask for a job.
Okay, so people are sitting here and listening, “Okay, this sounds like a lot of work, Colby. How is this going to get me a job?”
The way that this gets you a job is, like we were talking about in the beginning of this conversation, there is this hidden job market of opportunities that are either not being posted on the places that you’re looking or maybe haven’t even been posted publicly. Maybe an organization is just thinking about potentially hiring somebody, maybe they posted a job and didn’t get a lot of options and took it down, but they still need to fill that position.
By having these conversations, what you’re doing is, number 1, you’re making these connections and networking with all these people so you’re starting to expand your reach of people who may have a lead on an actual job opportunity.
What it’s also giving you an opportunity to do, as you’re asking those questions that you’ve prepared in advance, one of your questions should always be, “Here’s my resume, here’s where I want to go, what am I missing? What gaps are there? What additional skills, opportunities do I need to fulfill in order to get to that place?”
That’s a great opportunity for you to gain information. To say, “Okay, I need to improve my writing.” Or “I need to have 5 years in my field before I can think about getting that role.”
It’s also a subtle way of selling yourself to your interviewee. It gives you an opportunity to say, “Here’s my skill set,” and kind of plant that seed. They may not have a job now but three months from now, they may have an opening pop open, an opportunity pop open and they’ll think, “Hey, remember I had that great informational interview with Julia? I wonder if she’s still looking? Let me give her a call.”
How many informational interviews do you see people do, typically, in a search?
Again, it depends on who the person is, how aggressive they’re being, their background, their experience. If you’re looking to break into a new field and you’ve never networked with this group of people before, you could be looking at 50 to 100 conversations. If you’re already well established in your field and you’re just looking to change roles or something like that, it could be 5, 10, as few as that.
What you want to be sure to do is to not put all of your eggs on one conversation. I have seen far too many times someone will say, “I had a great job interview, a great conversation with so and so and they’ve got a lead on a job and so that’s going to be my job and that’s going to be it.” And then they shut down their process. Odds are, that first job isn’t going to be the one that you get.
You’ve got to keep having those conversations and even once you get the job, continue to have these kinds of conversations every few months with different people in your field just to keep your network warm so that when it comes time to find a new opportunity, you’re not starting from scratch.
This is terrific. I could talk about this for a long, long time and, again, it’s one of my favorite topics, right up there with networking, which an informational interview is an important part of.
Tell us, Colby, what’s next for you?
Well, we’re continuing to do Coffee with Colby which is, as you mentioned, a podcast where I just share stories of my own experiences in the professional workplace and try to pull out a few nuggets and tidbits that are helpful and there might be an ebook guide on career searches coming here at some point in 2019.
I’ve got a beautiful 4-year-old at home that is occupying a little bit of my time but she’ll free up some time for Dada to work on that, I think we might see that go live.
Okay, well, I know people can find your show by visiting coffeewithcolby.buzzsprout.com. I do recommend people listen to it and I’m excited to hear that you’re planning an ebook and I look forward to its publication.
Yeah, thanks for coming in, Colby.
Colby did a great job describing not only the benefits of informational interviews, how they can help you find and get hidden jobs, but he also took us through all the steps necessary to make those meetings happen and to make them productive.
That conversation, for me, is a great example of the wonderful content that’s available on career podcasts that you can find on platforms like Apple Podcast, Google Play, and other sites.
Colby, of course, is the host of a weekly show called Coffee with Colby, but his isn’t the only great program out there.
Every year, we come across dozens and dozens of shows like Colby’s and we put them together in a free guide that you can download today.
It’s called Top Careers Podcast Guide.
We update it every year. You can get this year’s copy at topcareerpodcasts.com
Take advantage of the wonderful wisdom out there. So many podcasts like Colby’s.
Get your copy today at topcareerpodcasts.com.
Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of Find Your Dream Job.
Join us next Wednesday. Our guest expert will be Lesa Edwards. She’ll talk to us about active versus passive job search strategies. There’s a difference and she’s going to explain it.
Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.