Gathering Information Before You Start Hunting
Meet with people who can give you
insight and direction
Several years ago, Charlie Phillips
was pursuing a distinguished career as an air traffic
controller, which included a public relations position for his
local PATCO union. Overnight, his world collapsed when PATCO
struck and thousands of controllers were fired for breaking
federal law. To make matters worse, Charlie faced a federal
indictment for inciting the illegal strike.
Today, he says with a measure of amazement, he thinks he's one
of my most successful clients. As a vice president for Dataserve
Equipment Inc., a Bellsouth Corp. subsidiary, he is in charge of
computer sales and leasing for the western half of the country,
and he loves his job.
Lisa Brady taught elementary school
for 12 years before she decided it was time to work with "big
people." After a summer job search, Lisa was hired by the Dallas
Times Herald as coordinator of education services to market the
paper's training programs to local school districts. She also
solicits corporate and foundation grants, plans promotional
events and trains teachers. While it seems like a long way from
the classroom to the newsroom, Lisa says her job uses the skills
she's developed in both her career and volunteer activities.
Mike Benton and I first met at an
American Society for Training and Development meeting. He was
there for two reasons: to find sales recruits and to look for a
training position. Before becoming a branch manager for a large
insurance company, Mike had been responsible for creating· and
implementing the firm's management training program. In
evaluating his experience, he realized that selling something
immediately helpful to people (training) was a lot more fun than
convincing them to buy a product (insurance) that wouldn't be
useful until they died.
Margaret Hensley, a former teacher
and real estate agent, has built a thriving business as a
certified financial planner with Financial Net work Investment
Corp. Several years ago, when she was looking for a career
change, Margaret knew she wanted to work with people and
numbers, but wasn't sure how to combine the two in a satisfying
career. Apparently, she's found a perfect match.
These four people have very different
backgrounds, skills and interests, but they also have an important
similarity: Information interviews were critical to finding the
Some critics will tell you that
information interviews (meetings with potential employers to get
information about job descriptions, company philosophy, etc.,
without asking directly for a job) have fallen out of favor. A few
potential employers see them as wastes of time. While this
perception may be in vogue, it fails to consider four important
aspects of human nature:
People love to play "the expert."
enjoy discussing their careers, companies and industries.
altruistic tendencies are tapped by persons who genuinely need
their insight and advice.
are intrigued by someone who is pursuing information in a
systematic way and has the potential to become a terrific
Information interviews are mutually
beneficial. The job seeker gets the background he needs and the
employer feels good about her role in helping someone make a
critical life decision. Charlie, Mike, Lisa and Margaret all
remarked on their surprise at strangers' willingness to share time
and expertise. In fact, according to Lisa, the only person who
didn't agree to see her right away was the woman who eventually
What can information interviews do
for the job seeker? Their benefits include:
Providing job descriptions, required
qualifications and skills, company "buzzwords," corporate
hierarchies and a host of other tidbits invaluable
Offering new contacts. If you ask
interviewees for other people to talk to, they usually suggest
names and say, "Tell him I told you to call."
Broadening horizons and
brainstorming new options. If you're picking the brains of an
expert, take advantage of his or her background to get
suggestions about additional alternatives you hadn't considered.
Uncovering jobs not available
through the usual channels. Very often, company managers don't
advertise or use search firms to fill open positions. Instead,
they prefer to rely on friends and business acquaintances, whose
judgment they trust, to suggest good candidates. Even if there
isn't a position available, you may be able to create one. Good
people are hard to find. Smart companies know this and will make
a place for a talented job seeker if they can.
Practicing for employment
interviews. Most professionals have relatively little job
hunting experience. Their interviewing skills are rusty or
undeveloped. Low-stress information interviews give them the
opportunity to become more comfort able with strangers, polish
their techniques and recognize that good questions are as
critical to selling themselves as good answers.
Once you're ready to begin
informational meetings, you need to identify the best people to
interview. As Charlie Phillips says, "There are people worth talking
to everywhere, but few job seekers capitalize on their
availability." The best information interviews usually are with
people who have hiring power. However, you never know who will be a
key contact, so talk to all seemingly useful prospects.
To develop a list of potential
resources, start with friends, business acquaintances, fellow
members of your church, social clubs, fraternal and professional
organizations, hobby groups and volunteer colleagues. Then think
about where you might find other sources beyond those you currently
know. For instance, you might speak to people who teach continuing
education courses in your field, executives whose promotions or
accomplishments are detailed in local newspapers or magazines, and
key managers in companies you've targeted to investigate.
As a rule, it's· best to practice on
those with whom you feel most comfortable, then move on to people
suggested by your friends and to cold calls. By easing your way into
the process, you become a seasoned pro by the time you need the most
While some gutsy people find
"dropping in" for an informal discussion very effective, most job
seekers save time and feel more professional by scheduling an
appointment. In calling to set up a meeting time, your conversation
should sound something like this: "This is Taunee Besson. Bob Jones
suggested I give you a call. (Be sure to mention the person who
referred you by name.) I'm new in town (or thinking of changing
careers, or trying to expand my understanding of how businesses are
using industrial engineers, etc.) and Bob said you would be an
excellent person to see be cause of your expertise and background
in _______ area. I'd really appreciate the chance to get together
at your office for about 30 minutes to discuss your
insights on the field."
Note that you aren't talking about
job opportunities at this point; information, not a position, is
your immediate goal. Should your contact say, "We don't have any
openings," or, "Let me connect you with Personnel," clarify that you
want the benefit of his expertise, not a job. After talking with him
you may decide to pursue a position with his firm, but you don't
know that yet.
Making the call to schedule an
interview is the hardest part of the process, because potential
rejection lurks in every contact. Remember, though, you are unlikely
to be rejected because people love to talk about themselves. Promise
yourself you will set up a given number .of interviews before you
put down the phone. Then keep dialing until you've met your goal.
Because first impressions are
critical to your success, prepare carefully for each interview.
Research the person, company, industry and career field. A couple of
intelligent observations carefully placed in your conversation will
impress your interviewee. Don't waste time asking basic questions
with answers easily found in newspapers, books or magazines.
If you don't know how to research,
put yourself in the capable hands of the reference librarians at a
local library. They will help you pull together articles, annual
reports and other materials to boost your information quotient.
Develop a short list of questions
appropriate for each type of information interview. Your queries
will vary according to your need for background on career options,
company opportunities or more contacts.
If you're changing careers, Margaret
Hensley's list is a good one. It includes the following:
Tell me about yourself.
What is your background?
How did you get into the field?
Describe a typical week.
What do you like or dislike about
What skills and personality traits
are most useful?
What does the future hold for this
Company options require more specific
questions, such as:
What is a typical career path for
What role does the department play
in the company hierarchy?
What does this firm look for when
choosing new employees?
Would my past experience be
beneficial to your organization? Why? Why not?
People you call for contacts rather
than jobs can be excellent sources of career ideas as well, because
they usually possess a broad overview of the com munity. Be sure to
offer them the option to brain storm with you. They will enjoy it
and you may be pleasantly surprised at their interesting ideas.
While you ask for 30 minutes, a good
information interview can easily take an hour. Watch your time
carefully. If you are really clicking along and building wonderful
rapport but are running short of time, mention that, unfortunately,
your 30 minutes are almost up. Then follow your interviewee's lead
in choosing whether to continue or wrap up. Often, the discussion is
so stimulating that both parties want to continue.
Before leaving, be sure to ask for
other contacts. Without a continuing supply of new names, your
networking will lose its momentum. Also try to find out salary
ranges for the positions that interest you. You should never go into
an employment interview without an idea of what the job is worth. In
information interviews, compensation questions are easy to ask. In
employment interviews, they're much stickier.
Don't ever take a resume to an
information interview. It's a sales tool that sends a suspicious
Finally, always send a thank-you note
after each interview. It's the courteous thing to do, it gets your
name in front of the contact again and it gives you a vehicle for
detailing your on-going job search plans.
If your contact asks for a resume,
offers to talk to colleagues about a potential position for you or
suggests that you keep in touch, be sure to follow up with vigor. As
Linda Jordan, Lisa Brady's manager told her, "Persistence is what
got you your job!" Don't underestimate assertive self-interest. Good
companies want employees who aren't shy about asking for what they