Why Informational Interviews Are The Silver Bullet Every Job Search Needs, with Jason Alba

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Find Your Dream Job, Episode 287:

Why Informational Interviews Are The Silver Bullet Every Job Search Needs, with Jason Alba

Airdate: March 17, 2021

Mac Prichard:

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 you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to get the work you want.

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Today’s guest says there are no shortcuts to finding your next job. You need to put in the time and the work.

But he also believes there is one strategy that can make all the difference.

Jason Alba is here to talk about why informational interviews are the silver bullet every job search needs.

He’s the founder and creator of JibberJobber, the six-week job search program. Jason is also a soft skills and career expert for Pluralsight.

He joins us from Salt Lake City.

Well, let’s jump right into it, Jason. Why do you believe informational interviews are so important in a job search?

Jason Alba:

Mac, it took me years to figure this out. I’d go around the country speaking at different job clubs and talking to people who were in the job search, and you know, I talk a lot about what the other career experts talk about, with LinkedIn profiles and networking and all of this stuff, and one day after being in this for years, I just realized that informational interviews is kind of the package of all of the good things that they say to do in a job search. It is networking and finding the right people to talk to, it’s having the right networking conversations, it’s asking for introductions and referrals, and it’s following up. It’s nurturing relationships that should be long-term, professional relationships.

All of these great things that people say to do are really wrapped up into this one little thing called informational interviews.

Mac Prichard:

Can you do a successful job search, Jason, without doing an informational interview or any at all?

Jason Alba:

Absolutely, I remember one time I was sitting across the table from somebody at a lunch, and I said, “Man, what’s your story? How did you get this amazing job?”

And I was expecting him to talk about his networking and all that kind of stuff that we’re supposed to do, and he said, very nonchalantly, he said, “Well, you know, I just found a job on Monster, and I applied for it and I got it.”  And I was like, “Wait a minute. You’re breaking all the rules here. It’s not supposed to be that easy.”

I recognize that informational interviews isn’t the only way to get a job but what I’ve seen in my own job search, or job searches I should say, and in a lot of the job searches that I’m involved with with JibberJobber clients or people that I meet around the country in job clubs, people are kind of like, “Okay, I’ve applied to every job I can find. I’ve talked to everybody that I can think of talking to. I just don’t know what to do now.”

And I’m not saying that you should save informational interview strategies for that time when you’re kind of out of other ideas but this is the thing that I think will really boost most job searches, especially the ones that are stuck.

Mac Prichard:

Do you find, Jason, that many job seekers do informational interviews? Or is this something that only a minority of candidates do?

Jason Alba:

Yeah, I mean, really, when I’m in a room of 100 people and I say, “Who in here is doing an informational interview?” maybe I’ll get 8-10 hands. Very, very few people are actually doing what they think are informational interviews.

And then my next question is, “Who is getting value out of informational interviews? Are they working for you?” And maybe I’ll get 2 or 3 people. Out of 100 people, 2 or 3 people say that they’re actually getting value out of informational interviews. So, I mean, you can read a lot about them, people talk about them, they write about them superficially, I’ve never really found a lot of in-depth information.

I go speak at outplacement companies, companies that the company will pay thousands of dollars for you to go through their program, and even they don’t do a lot with informational interviews. So, it’s a great strategy, it’s an amazing strategy. It takes work, and I think that’s why some people shy away from it. But really there isn’t a whole lot of information about how to effectively do informational interviews.

Mac Prichard:

Well, let’s talk about what informational interviews can do for you. I know that in your work, you say that there are 4 purposes to informational interviews and I’d like to walk through those, Jason.

The first of them is to learn. Tell us, what do you mean by that?

Jason Alba:

Well, I mean, I don’t want you to go talk to somebody and be like, “Hey, Mac, can I go get on the phone with you for like 20 or 30 minutes? I have some questions.” If I have questions, I should really go in wanting answers to those questions, right? This isn’t a trojan horse strategy, it’s not a bait and switch strategy. You really should be learning about an organization, about opportunities, about perspectives from the person that you’re talking with. This is your opportunity to talk to an insider.

I might say something like, “Mac, I see that you’ve been at this company or in this industry for the last 20 years. Give me some insight. Is it as great as what it looks like on the outside? What are some things that you love about it and what are some things that you’d rather not have to deal with?”

I do want you to learn from these informational interviews.

Mac Prichard:

How is that going to help you as a candidate get your next job?

Jason Alba:

Well, I mean, can you imagine if you talked to 10-20 people that are in either the organization or the industry or the role that you’re interested in and you go in for an interview, like a real job interview, and they ask you some questions, can you imagine the amount of information that you can have put together because of those conversations that you’ve had with those 10 or 20 people? There’s so much insider information that can be so valuable for you to bring into a real job interview and sound maybe a lot smarter than you would sound if you hadn’t had those conversations.

Mac Prichard:

Why do people agree to take those meetings, Jason? Because I’m sure when you’ve talked to people at job search clubs, they say, “Well, I tried that. I wrote or called this person or that person and no one got back to me.” Why do folks say yes?

Jason Alba:

I mean, definitely, you’re going to have some people who say no or they’ll ghost you or whatever. Some people are just not going to be…they’re going to be too busy. But there are really a lot of people that want to be helpful. I mean, honestly, if you go to somebody and you ask them genuinely for 20 or 30 minutes of their time to share their insights and their opinions, especially if they know that you’re in transition or you’re looking at different opportunities and you want to get their insider perspective, people generally want to help. I think that’s the main reason why people take their time and have that call.

If they’ve been in a job search, especially recently, they should be a lot more open to wanting to help. Because they’re like, “Well, I know the pain and the hurt that you’re going through right now, and if I could help you through a 20-minute phone call, then let’s get on a call for 20 minutes.”

Mac Prichard:

Why do people say no to those meetings?

Jason Alba:

Well, I mean, I remember, before I got involved in the job search world, I was an IT Manager and I had a lot of meetings all day long. I was balancing a whole bunch of different projects and I just was overwhelmed. And I might have felt like, maybe you want to have an “informational interview,” which, by the way, most job search experts say don’t ask for a job search interview; ask for like, 20 or 30 minutes of their time. But if you were to come and ask me for something and I had any hint that it wasn’t going to be productive but it was going to be a waste of my time, that maybe you were just asking me because you wanted an introduction to my boss or that you wanted to know about a job opening or something like that, I would have been more inclined to not take the meeting.

Really, if someone does not take your meeting, don’t be offended. Just move on to the next person. There are plenty of people that you can go talk to, and one or two nos is not going to break your job search.

Mac Prichard:

How can you make the request in a way that signals to the person or makes them think, “Oh, this will be productive, this is worth my time”?

Jason Alba:

Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I already said, I gave you an example a couple of minutes ago, “Hey Mac, you’ve been in this industry for 20 years. I’d love to get some insight.” And I might give, I mean, we’re talking about two or three sentences worth of content. So, I might say something like, “I’ve been looking at changing fields or changing careers and I’m looking at a few opportunities. I’m really interested in the work that you’ve been doing or the companies that you’ve been at.” Something like that. So, if you show them that you’re really serious about getting information that they might be able to provide to you and that they really are somebody that you have real questions for, I think they might be more inclined.

Like I said, if you come across in any way that’s like, “Is this person just trying to get an introduction to my boss?” I don’t think that’s going to go over well at all.

Mac Prichard:

How about general requests, Jason? Do you find those are effective? I’m thinking, for example, “Let’s meet for coffee.” Or, “Can I pick your brain?”

Jason Alba:

I think those are okay if you put some context on it, right. I mean, I’m kind of busy generally. I have a busy schedule, and so if you asked me, “Hey Jason, could we meet up at the Starbucks” or whatever and, “I’d like to pick your brain about something.” If it is as vague as that, I need some more information. I need to know if it’s worth my time to travel 20-30 minutes and to schedule an hour or so out of my day. I really have to understand if I’m the right person that we should be talking with, there has to be a real purpose. So, I’m okay if you start off general but I really like it if you put context on the top of the general.

Mac Prichard:

We’re going to take a break, Jason. When we come back, I want to talk about the 2nd purpose of an informational interview- understanding your brand.

Stay with us. Jason Alba will continue to share his advice about why informational interviews are the silver bullet that every job search needs.

You should bring your resume to every informational interview.

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Jason Alba.

He’s the founder and creator of JibberJobber, the six-week job search program. Jason is also a soft skills and career expert for Pluralsight.

He joins us from Salt Lake City.

Now, Jason, we’re talking about informational interviews and you say that they have four purposes the first is to learn and we not only talked in the first segment about what you might learn from these conversations but some of the mechanics of how to go about making an ask that people are likely to say yes to.

Let’s talk about that second purpose which is to understand your brand. Now, tell us more about that.

Jason Alba:

So, by the time I get done with my informational interview, this 20 or 30 minutes that I get with you at a coffee shop or in your office or over the phone or whatever, I want to walk away thinking, “Okay, I understand who Jason Alba is, and I like him. I understand that these are what some of his strengths are. He came across as a good communicator.”

Branding is such a complex thing but here’s the end result of that: if you walk into a meeting with your team and your boss says, “Hey, we just got approval for two new hires. Does anybody know anyone that they would refer for these two positions?”

I want you to think about me and of course, that’s not going to fit every time but if I’m a programmer or let’s say, product manager…I’m a product manager and they’re looking for two product managers because of the 20 or 30-minute informational interview that we had together, I want you to think, “Man, Jason had some really great questions about product management. He had some good observations about the industry and current events and news and all of that stuff.

All of those things wrap up into what my “brand” is, or the way I phrase that is, how other people perceive you. It’s not like you’re going to be able to go and say, “I’m an awesome product manager, and the next time you guys have an opening, you should hire me.” But after that 20 or 30 minutes, you will have perceived me as a certain way, and hopefully, you will have perceived me as someone who has the product management skills of having good conversations and asking good questions and being able to communicate well, presenting well all of those different things.

That’s what I’m talking about with the objective of branding yourself during an informational interview.

Mac Prichard:

When you request a meeting like this, you’re really in charge of it, aren’t you?

Jason Alba:

Yeah, it’s your meeting, and a lot of times I think people are intimidated because, especially the job seeker who’s like, “Well, I don’t have a job so I’m lower on the pecking order.” Like I’m a third-class citizen. I did not feel like a first-class citizen when I was in my job search. And so you go in and meet with someone who has a job and they have a management title and they have a fancy office and all of this stuff, and it’s like, “Normally when I’m in this situation, they’re in charge and I have to go by what they want to do.”

But really, when you go into this informational interview, you have to understand 2 things. First, you asked for it, so you have to drive it. You have to decide how the conversation goes. You should come with questions ready, you’re not going to get to all of them. You’re not like a reporter that’s going down the list of, “Here’s my 12 questions that I need to ask you.” You want to have a conversation with these people but if there’s a lull or if it goes to the wrong place, it’s your opportunity and your responsibility to bring it back together.

The other really important thing about this is, I don’t want you to go in thinking, “I’m a third-class citizen, I’m a job seeker, I have nothing to offer.” I want you to go in thinking, “Look, just because I don’t have a business card and a title right now, I still am a peer or colleague of this person, and if I had the job that I’m looking for I would have no hesitation to go into their office or get on the phone with them and have a human-to-human conversation.”

Please, I beg you as a job seeker, put away that issue of not feeling like you’re good enough and that you have nothing to bring to the table, and put on your professional hat and go in and add value to this conversation.

Mac Prichard:

When you do that, when you take charge of the meeting, when you behave as a peer or a colleague of the person that you’re meeting with, how does that help your brand, Jason?

Jason Alba:

Well, I mean, I’m always looking for people to add to my team. I might not have openings right now but when I go out to eat I’m looking at how I’m treated by the server staff, when I go to the movies I look at how the people behind the counter act. I am always looking. I am always looking at, “Would I like to work with this person?” Do they bring the level of energy or customer service or creativity or whatever that I’m looking for. And so, when you go in, if you are that needy, begging job seeker, they’re going to see someone who lacks confidence, they’re going to see someone who, they’re kind of there but they don’t know why they’re there, you know?

Contrast that to going in with your list of questions and you have confidence and you’re having a peer to peer, human to human conversation, they’re going to be like, “Yeah, I like this person. I think I could work with them. I like the way that they think, I like how they have conversations. I wouldn’t be embarrassed to bring them into my team.”

That’s the type of branding that I’m looking for.

Mac Prichard:

Number three on your list of four purposes of an informational interview is that you want a professional relationship with the people that you meet. What does that professional relationship look like exactly, Jason?

Jason Alba:

You know, I almost just said just now that this is probably one of the most important things, although I think all four of these points are really important. It is so critical that we walk into an informational interview thinking that this could be a long-term professional relationship.

I’m not just there for 20 or 30 minutes to share my brand and learn stuff, and then the 4th point, which we’ll get to in a minute, but I really want this to be the beginning of a relationship where maybe I’ll come back in a week or a month or 6 months, and say, “Hey, Mac, I really appreciated our time. Here’s an article that I was reading and it made me think about our conversation.” “Hey Mac, you mentioned this in our conversation. I’d like to introduce you to somebody that might be able to help you.”

I want that to happen over time, multiple times, and here’s why. When I started my job search in 2006, this was the worst job search in the history of bad job searches. I had no network and I had no brand. And it was like I was starting at zero and people around me that had relationships, they had the professional relationships, they had people to talk to. They had someone to say, “Hey, by the way, I’m in transition again, I’m looking for a role.” Or, “Do you know anybody at XYZ company, or something like that.”

I want you to build your professional network and what better opportunity is there than with the person you just had a 20 or 30-minute conversation with? So, the real point of this is, please, after you do this informational interview, don’t treat that as a one-time event. Please follow up with them, and then follow up with them again later and then again later and later and just nurture that relationship over, hopefully, years to come.

Mac Prichard:

What does follow up look like? What do you mean exactly by that?

Jason Alba:

Well, I mean, follow up could be an email where…actually, I’m going to back up a little bit. I’m going to go back to the 1900s. I would suggest that you go down to your Walmart or some store and buy a dollar…it doesn’t have to be expensive at all, and buy a pack of thank you cards. And these are things that you can put in the mail and they’re physical. And I know the younger you are the more you cringe at this but they’re really inexpensive and you can go on YouTube and learn how to put a stamp on these letters and send them out.

People don’t hardly get anything like this anymore, so if they get something like this from you, it’s actually pretty meaningful. After that first time, and if you didn’t do that, you didn’t break anything so keep up the follow-up stuff, but after that first time, I might send you an email like I mentioned earlier, “Here’s an article.” Or, “Here’s someone that I wanted to introduce you to.” On LinkedIn or whatever other social network the other person is on. I might write something and tag them in it. There’s someone who does that with me on LinkedIn and it’s flattering every time.

She’ll write something like, “I just saw this from Jason Alba.” And she’ll tag me and she doesn’t really send me emails or anything but I can tell that over time, she’s interested in me and she’s watching my stuff. So, for example, let’s say that the person is working at a company where something newsworthy happens in a positive way, good newsworthy thing, you might go onto LinkedIn and say something like, “Hey, congratulations to Mac. I just saw that this happened at his company. Great job.”

That’s a really off the cuff example but it’s a way that you can get in front of them because when they get tagged, they’ll get a notification, you can kind of get in front of them but really the follow up is over weeks and months. Or the frequency would be weeks and months where I continue to go back and say, “Hey, how are things going? I’d like to catch up with you? What’s going on in your world? What can I help you with?” These are things that I would send every 3 or 4 or 5 weeks over a long period of time.

Especially if you’re relevant in my industry or you’re at an organization that I want to work with or just somehow I know that I want you as a strong network contact.

Mac Prichard:

The final purpose of informational interviews, you say, Jason, is to get referrals. What kinds of referrals do you want to get in these conversations and what’s the best way to ask?

Jason Alba:

See, this is where it gets really exciting. And what I really want out of that informational interview, that 20 or 30 minutes that you and I get on the phone is, I want to talk to someone who is closer to my dream job. And so in that 20 or 30 minutes that we’re having this conversation, I find out that you know people at one of my target companies. I might say, “Hey Mac, I actually am looking at some opportunities over at that organization. Can you introduce me to somebody that works in this department? Or can you introduce me to your friend that you said you’d worked with?” Something like that.

I don’t want you to say, “Here’s a name and number, go contact them.” My ideal is that you contact them on my behalf and do a virtual, like, an email introduction. So, if I can walk out of every informational interview getting a referral to someone who’s closer to my target company or my target role, I feel really good about that.

Mac Prichard:

That’s a hard ask for many people to make, Jason. What’s your number one tip for how to do that?

Jason Alba:

It is a hard ask, especially if you feel like you’re an introvert or you’re not used to asking. My tip is, this is going to sound really weird, but just get over yourself. Networking and informational interviews, you have to get out of your comfort zone. You are not in a position where you’re stealing or being an opportunist. You’re really trying to make real professional connections and there’s nothing wrong with asking someone if they can introduce you to someone else. So, if you’re having a problem, maybe practice but I’ll tell you what, the more informational interviews you do, as you learn and share your brand and build these professional networks, relationships, and you ask for referrals, you’re going to get better and better at them, and it’s actually going to be fun.

Even if it’s uncomfortable at first, you’ll get to a point where it’s like, “Yeah, this is really fun.”

Mac Prichard:

It’s been a terrific conversation. Tell us, Jason, what’s next for you?

Jason Alba:

Well, I mean, I’m running four different businesses right now. I have JibberJobber, which is the CRM for job seekers to help organize and track your job search, and we are revamping that entire system and bringing it up to current look and feel and we’re working on all kinds of things. A lot of work there.

I have a number of Pluralsight courses that I am revising and bringing them back into 2021 which is really exciting. So, I have a lot of polishing that I’m working on this year and just kind of taking care of the products that I’ve been building on over the last 15 years.

Mac Prichard:

Well, I know people can learn more about you and the products and services that you offer by visiting the JibberJobber website, at jibberjobber.com.

Now, Jason, given all the great advice you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about why informational interviews are the silver bullet of your job search needs?

Jason Alba:

I think the one thing that I’ll say again is that informational interviews is- when people say that you’ve got to network, it is networking. When people say you have to follow up, it is follow up. Informational interviews is having the right conversations with the right people. It’s as simple as that; the right conversations with the right people. This is one of the most effective things that you can do in your job search.

Mac Prichard:

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Next week, our guest will be Agnes Zach.

She’s the CEO at Nonprofit Professionals Now. Her organization offers executive search, temporary staffing, and talent evaluation services.

To many applicants, the interview selection process looks like a black box.

But Agnes says recruiters use common steps to screen applicants.

And if you understand how the process works, you can increase the odds of meeting a hiring manager.

Agnes and I will talk about how employers choose finalists for job interviews and what you can do to make it to the final round.

I hope you’ll join us. Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

There are many elements involved in landing your dream job; networking, a professional resume, and solid skills are just a few of the things required. But even with all that, it can be incredibly difficult. What if there was a silver bullet to fast-track your job search? Find Your Dream Job guest Jason Alba says informational interviews are the answer. Jason adds that informational interviews are an incredibly effective job search tool that most people aren’t taking advantage of, and he shares how to get the most out of your own. 

About Our Guest:

Jason Alba is the founder and creator of JibberJobber, the six-week job search program. Jason is also a soft skills and career expert for Pluralsight.

Resources in This Episode: