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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Changing careers? First career? Get Thee to an Informational Interview

The current economy has placed many workers-in-transition in the position to evaluate their careers, something they never expected. We have all grown accustomed to the fact that if you do your job, show up on time, and do what is expected (and maybe even do MORE than what is expected), that we'll be gainfully employed until we retire.

So many people have had this dream shattered over the past two years. I've met many people with this scenario and my heart goes out to them. Even my dad, who was employed with the same company for over 20 years, was let go from his job. He had planned to retire within the next 10 years. He was a hard worker, often working overtime or coming in on weekends when requested. But like so many others, his position was eliminated and he was escorted out of the building with a box of possessions from his desk. Ouch. And then some. He's fine now, but it was pretty traumatic at the time.

For many others, their layoff occurred at different points in their career and they've been taking advantage of the many free workshops and networking events for the unemployed. Some are still looking and waiting for the job they had to come back with a different employer, while others have bid farewell to that career and have turned their heads in another direction. These "career changers" are the inspiration behind this blog entry.

One technique I suggest to job seekers who are changing careers is to set up an informational interview. An informational interview is different than a job interview because you are NOT interviewing for a job. You are instead interviewing a person so gather information. These informational interviews are highly suggested by many career counselors as a way to learn more about a particular industry and career path.

Let's take the example of Steve (name and some details have been changed to protect the identity of this person). Steve worked in retail for over 20 years, moving into progressively higher positions. He changed retailers every few years (common for the industry) and made minor gains in salary and job titles. His experience has included hiring and firing employees, managing schedules, maintaining inventory, and working with the public in a sales capacity. Steve left the retail industry after the last holiday season and is now considering moving into a non-retail position, possibly with HR or Sales.

When I was speaking with Steve about his background, I suggested he first revise his resume to highlight the skills that showcase his experience in HR and eliminate any accomplishments from his resume that aren't specific to this new field. I also suggested to Steve that he set up an informational interview with a person in my network who has worked in various positions in HR over the years.

The process for an informational interview is as follows:
  1. The job seeker requests a connection to the person they would like to set the informational interview with. I highly recommend doing this through your LinkedIn network.
  2. When the connection is made, the job seeker mentions to the interviewer that they are seeking an informational interview to learn more about jobs in their industry, and also mention that you are NOT looking for a job; just to gain some insights.
  3. Mention that you are looking for just 15-20 minutes of their time. If they give you 45 minutes, they like you.
  4. Bring your resume, but do NOT offer it unless it comes up in conversation or they ask for it.
  5. At the start of the interview, mention again that you are NOT looking for a job, but you are looking to gain some insights from their perspective.
  6. Ask questions: how did they get their start in the industry? What positions are available/in demand? Based on your background, how would they suggest you get your foot in the door? Use this time to pick their brain.
  7. Dress professionally, just as you would in a job interview.
  8. Have a list of questions prepared. Don't rely on this person to guide your career.
  9. As you approach the 20 min mark and if you're not finished with your discussion, mention that you want to be considerate of time and ask if they have a few minutes. (this gives them an "out" that might be awkward for them to mention, but will be appreciated)
  10. At the end of the interview, request a business card, thank them for their time and their insights.
  11. Send a thank you note.
  12. Did you read #11? Make sure you send a thank you note. Yes, it's THAT important.
  13. Follow up on their tips and send them a follow-up note. You never know where your future will lead and it's good to start building your network now, before you're even in the industry.
Regardless of your circumstances or the reason for your career transition, an informational interview can provide you with insights that you won't learn during the job interview process, or even through casual networking. It's important to have the right qualifications to move into the career, but you might not know what the "right" qualifications are unless you've had an informational interview with someone who works in the field.

From the perspective of someone who has been on both sides of the desk for informational interviews, I'll say they are helpful and essential if you are moving into your first professional career or moving into a new field. And as someone who is passionate about marketing, it is flattering to me when someone asks to pick my brain over coffee. I also like to know that I could be helping someone in the quest for their next career. Because hey -- if we all help someone else out -- it's going to help improve the economy all around, wouldn't you agree?

As for Steve: I'm going to keep close tabs on him. I have a feeling his career change will be the start of some great things.

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