Informational Interviews: A Success Story

This is the third of three blogs on Informational Interviews. In order to make it as clear as possible that these are powerful tools, I want to introduce you to Martha, who by the way had the same reaction you probably did when I said in the first blog that you should do DOZENS of informational interviews.

Martha was graduating in a few months with a degree in Environmental Engineering. I started by having Martha make a really big list of everyone she knew who worked professionally. She came up with 43 people who had some sort of a career, and that she could imagine picking up the phone and calling. We started with her professors in college, added the people she worked with on an internship and on her summer jobs, added in relatives and friends of her parents and then her friend’s parents.

Martha had three professors that she thought might be helpful and she called each and asked if she could have twenty minutes of their time to talk about her future career interests. She offered to bring them coffee and met each in their offices. Each of these meetings was useful in and of themselves, and each yielded an unexpected twist. She shared that she was interested in working in waste water management and they had useful ideas about the kinds of initial roles that would be most beneficial for her as she was just starting out. They talked about the trade-offs of working in small and large firms and about how to make sure that wherever she went she would be positioned to get her PE license.

The first professor offered to connect her with an ex-colleague of his who was in a large environmental engineering firm in the city where she wanted to live. The second professor suggested that she cast a wider net and not limit herself to just waste water management; and the third was still in touch with an alumnus of her school who went into environmental engineering and suggested that she reach out to her. Martha thanked each of the professors for their time (both during the meeting and in a follow-up email) and their thoughtful input, asked them if she could connect with them on LinkedIn and asked them if they would take a look at her resume when she completed it. She made notes about the conversations, added the new names to her networking list and continued to make contact with people. As Martha worked the process key learnings emerged:

  1. In general people were very willing to be helpful.
  2. It was hard at first but got much easier quickly once she had her elevator speech down pat.
  3. In addition to new contacts, people gave her great advice that broadened how she thought about her early career and what was really important to her.
  4. She often had to do a lot of follow-up to make sure that the meetings happened.

It was the Amy, the 88th person on her list, who created a breakthrough for Martha. She had been referred to Amy by one of her friend’s parents. Amy was a professor of Environmental Engineering at a different school, and had ties to the city where Martha wanted to live. They had a wonderful conversation and at the end Amy said to her “you ought to talk with Josh over at company XXX. They have a great entry level program for smart engineers and I think they would like your background.”

Martha did what she was supposed to and asked Amy if she could use her name when reaching out to Josh and Amy said sure. Martha also looked Josh up on LinkedIn prior to reaching out to him. Up until this point when Martha was purely doing informational interviews and as such, it would have been inappropriate to ask about a job. However now, someone had specifically suggested that she reach out to a contact of theirs about the potential for working in his firm. Martha called Josh saying that Amy had referred her, and asked if she could come talk with him about her interest in his company. She brought her resume and came prepared to talk about her background, her accomplishments and why this specific company interested her. In other words, she came prepared to do an interview should that opportunity open up.

Josh actually did a quasi-interview with Martha and at the end of their time together he said that he would be happy to walk her resume into the HR department and suggest that they interview her for one of their entry level opportunities. Two days later Martha was called by HR, she went in for an interview and happily took their offer to start in three weeks.

The bottom line here? Informational Interviews are powerful tools for getting clearer about your career interests and broadening your network of people in your field. And sometimes, they can lead you to a contact who is genuinely in a position to help you get your next (or your first) professional position. So yes do DOZENS of these. People will be willing to help you, you will get better at presenting yourself as a young professional and sometimes they can lead you right into a company and a job that you will love. Martha wasn’t convinced at first that this would be helpful, and she wasn’t great at it when she started but she took some risks, worked through feeling uncomfortable and ended up with a job she loves.