When you are considering a career change, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the unknown quantity of what may lie ahead. You may be attracted to a particular career path or industry, but feel hesitant about committing to the journey when you are uncertain about the terrain.
It’s natural to feel indecisive and a little afraid when making any kind of change, but these are feelings we need to overcome to avoid getting and staying stuck.
So, how can we reduce this uncertainty and overcome our fears? We need to take control of the situation. One way to increase confidence is to master the unknown by gathering and using information.
One approach to consider is an informational interview. This powerful tool can give you the information and insight you need to make an informed and appropriate career decision.
What is an informational interview?
An informational interview is a fantastic source of data that can help you to decide and validate your next career move. An exploratory meeting with someone who is already in your target role or industry, it allows you to hear about the role straight from the horse’s mouth.
The purpose of this exercise isn’t to secure a job. Your aim is to find out as much as you can about a potential career path, before committing to it. An informational interview with the right person can be a valuable shortcut, fast-tracking your knowledge and helping you to decide if you are setting off on the right path.
How to arrange an informational interview
To make the most of the experience, cherry pick the person you’d like to interview. Perhaps you already know someone who is working in your desired role or industry. If so, call them up and ask for an hour of their time.
If the person you’d like to talk to isn’t in your immediate network, now is the time to get to know them. Find them on LinkedIn, and send a personalised invitation, giving some background on your situation and outlining your interest in their work. Explain that you’d love to sit with them for 30 minutes or an hour, when their schedule permits, to understand more about their role. Offer to buy them a coffee, and make it as easy as possible for them to accept your invitation by flexing to their schedule and location. This may mean meeting at their office, or near a client site; be prepared to travel.
If there’s no immediate response, follow up with a telephone call a week later. If you have sent an email in advance, they are likely to have read your message and will understand why you are calling.
Preparing for your meeting
Once the date is in the diary, you can begin to prepare for your informational interview. The key to making the most of your airtime is to ask great questions. Start off by brainstorming everything you could possibly want to know about the person’s role, industry, and career. You can then begin to whittle down your question list.
The time you have secured is precious, and you won’t want to waste it by asking obvious questions, so spend time researching online before the interview. Revisit your contact’s LinkedIn profile and company web pages. Google their name and job title for recent news and even set up a Google Alert to stay abreast of new stories. The questions that remain unanswered, after you’ve mined the internet, can stay on your list for the interview.
The questions you ask should be insightful, demonstrating keen interest in and motivation for your target career. Ultimately, the answers you seek will give you a competitive edge over other candidates, an inside understanding of the industry you wish to join.
If you get stuck, think about what it is that this person can tell you, that you can’t glean from other sources. Often, it will be their story, their experiences, and their challenges that will provide the most insight. Here are some example questions, that will hopefully trigger some of your own:
- How did you first get into this?
- What part of your role do you feel has the biggest impact?
- What is the most important part of your role?
- What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?
- What is your biggest career achievement to date?
- How do you measure success in your role?
- What are the most important relationships for your role?
- If you had more hours in your day, what would you do more of?
- How has your role or industry changed since you started?
- How do you maintain and refresh your professional skillset?
- What advice would you give to a newcomer to the role or industry?
It can be useful to order your questions, allowing you to develop the conversation in a logical and progressive way. Also, be careful not to break rapport by asking potentially intrusive questions too early.
Making the most of your moment
On the day of the interview, you could arrive early and base yourself nearby to run over your questions. Ideally, you’ll aim for a free-flowing conversation, rather than a stilted Q&A session, but it’s still handy to keep your list of questions close as an aide-memoire. Taking copious notes in the interview will make it hard to give your full attention, so instead immerse yourself in the experience and listen actively and attentively with all your senses. You can capture the gold dust soon after.
Capture the gold dust
After the interview, find a quiet space – in your parked car, on the train, or in a café – and jot down what you have learned. Take a notebook and pen with you for this purpose, and spend as long as you need to capture your findings. You might start with broad subject headings, then flesh out the content as your conversation comes flooding back. If you prefer, record yourself using your phone, you can always transcribe it later.
It’s well worth taking the time to do this. You may think you’ll remember the conversation, but over time it’s likely that you will forget. Also, as you learn more about your target role, you can revisit your notes and uncover new gems of information that you can access with new understanding.
Follow up with a thank you
After the interview, follow up with a thank you. The person you interviewed has been kind enough to send the ladder back down, and this deserves recognition and thanks. Saying that, simple and sincere is the best approach, rather than gushing, over-the-top gratitude. You can write a thank you email, a LinkedIn message, or even post a handwritten note – a good way to stand out.
Connect and nurture the relationship
Now you’ve forged or warmed up this relevant connection, be sure to nurture it. Invite the person to connect via LinkedIn, follow their updates, and keep in touch. Maintain a professional relationship and demonstrate interest, but avoid stalker-like intensity.
Reflect on the experience
After a couple of days, think back on your experience. Read over your notes, and engage in a free-writing exercise to capture what you gained from it. This will help you to assimilate your learning, and to map out next steps. Are you any closer to making your decision? What else do you want or need to know? Who might you want to interview next to meet your information needs?
Informational interviews are a practical way to understand more about a target role and industry, and can help you to make an informed and confident next step. Use them in conjunction with networking, independent research, and professional training to develop your knowledge, skills, and connections, ready for your next career move.