Before getting into my system for sourcing, reaching out to and completing these interviews, I’d like to further explain why this approach is far superior to other ways of obtaining a new job, mentorship, networking or pitching someone an idea. Remember, our working definition for an informational interview is “an opportunity to learn by talking in person to someone you haven’t talked to before, usually over coffee or lunch.”
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I have talked with a lot of people through informational interviews. By my estimate, I think I have done over 200 during my professional career. These meetings have been over coffee, a drafting table, in a living room, over lunch, drinks, networking events, the beach, in the office and at the mall. Topics have covered my career, the construction industry, the newest bar in town, my family, housing, graduate schools and countless other subjects. These meetings, usually within a professional context, are what I call “Informational Interviews.” Not exclusively a chance to further my reputation, network, get a job, pitch a deal, or get mentoring, informationals are an opportunity for two people to share information and advice freely. While you may get many benefits from doing them, they should always be about learning and sharing information.
I think you should do informationals if you are trying to pick a major, get a job, move up in your career, or do anything to alter your own personal trajectory. How many times have you heard someone respond to the question: “How’s the job search going?” with “Well, I’m applying for jobs.” Maybe that’s you right now, with lots of applications and hope, but no jobs or prospects.
One reason (amongst many others) is that you are using one of the least effective methods at getting a job. Firstly, applying online has the highest competition, giving you the lowest probability of making it through the stack of resumes. Is it harder to reject a faceless resume or a real person standing in front of you? By contrast, doing informational interviews has the least competition and the highest likelihood of getting you a job.
In 2013, the Lou Adler Group conducted a survey of 1,582 US company employees how they got their last job. They asked employees to choose from four choices: 1) internal move or promotion, 2) proactive networking activity or internal referral, 3) contacted by a recruiter or hiring manager or 4) responded to a job posting. They also asked if employees were actively looking for a job at the time, or not. Even with the small sample size, the results are staggering:
“Most jobs in the U.S. are filled either via an internal move or through some networking activity. For active candidates these two steps totaled 58%, and for passive candidates an astonishing 81%. If suitable candidates are not found at this point, companies default to the “post-a-job-description” and “look-for-resumes” approach.”
This study matches my personal experience. Most employers look within their own companies or to someone they know to fill a job. By placing yourself within new circles, you can find jobs before anyone else knows they exist. By doing one informational interview, you are already ahead of a significant portion of job seekers who only apply online or wait for a recruiter. Do I have your attention?
But it doesn’t stop there. Have you ever tried to get a raise, professional mentorship or consider a career change? Many people wait for their boss to recognize them for a raise. Others want a mentor or consider changing careers, but don’t ask for input from real people and settle for internet searches and conventional wisdom. I’d like to offer an alternative that has worked for me and many others. You can get these things if you use the informational interview.
Here are a few examples of people who have done their own informational interviews and gotten pretty awesome results.
I am a normal dude from central California. My parents aren’t rich and my family isn’t “super connected”. We were just middle class folks. What was a bit different about me though was I loved meeting people and to hear what they had to say. Actually that is a bit of an understatement; I was a bit obsessed with it during high school and college.
Researching this book, I looked back through all the notepads and Moleskins I kept from back then and I found this awesome list. It is titled: “People I Need to Meet:” followed by a list of my favorite professors, super rich businessman in town, people I had heard of in the paper, and others. This was a list from my senior year of high school. Every opportunity I got, I would grab coffee with my parents accountant, a professor I liked, or a guy from my grandfather’s duck club. I can’t quite place where or why I gained this obsession, but it got stronger and stronger as my career progressed. Soon it became my guiding principal for most career decisions: what job or opportunity can I take that will afford me the most opportunities to meet exciting people.
And I did. The first job I ever got was working for a lighting manufacturer in central California who was a multi-millionaire (which for Fresno is a boatload of money). I met him through my grandfather and an informational interview. That was in high school!
In 2008 after graduating college, I called up my favorite business professor to see if he knew anyone I should talk with. He told me that he had just heard of an opening at this small real estate company. His warm introduction got me an interview, and ultimately the job. This was in 2009 when good real estate jobs had ceased to exist. After working there a while, I realized this “small shop” was worth over a billion dollars and I was able to meet most of the movers and shakers in central California real estate.
Every move in my career has a story like this: whether meeting a USC graduate that propelled me to applying there, doing hundreds of coffees to land that first job out of grad school, or finding my first (and second and third) personal real estate investments. I still love doing informationals and they are really the only thing I can directly attribute to my success.
One night I was talking with my friend Ben about his career. He was an aspiring TV host trying to break into the industry. He had been attending classes based in Hollywood with top talent coaches and actively going to casting calls and begging producers to give him a chance. It wasn’t going so well. I asked him that night: “Have you done any informational interviews?” He hadn’t really heard of them before, and I explained what they were.
A month later, he told me he gave them a shot. He started grabbing coffee with anyone within his niche he could find, and what he learned completely blew him away. “Down to the person…” he said, “every single one told me that I was chasing a dying industry.” He continued: “They all told me I should be building an online presence, slowly building a following, and then launching an entertainment career from there.”
Not only was he able to clearly define what he should and shouldn’t do within his industry, his conversations completely re-oriented his career path!
Jen is a nurse inside the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (really sick kids age 0-18) at a prestigious southern California hospital. She’s been working within this unit and gained expertise there for the past five years, making her functionally a specialist within this niche. That said, though, she had always wanted to work in the Neonatal Unit.
After applying to myriad jobs throughout southern California, across many hospitals, she was never able to make this leap to a different unit. She didn’t have the right expertise, according to HR, to work in this other specialty. I begged and pleaded with her to do some informationals with connected people with the hospital.
Months later, finally conceding to give the “informational interview” approach a try, she talked with her OBGYN. Subtly she let the OB know how much she wanted to work in the NICU unit. She described how she had tried and tried to no avail going through the traditional system of applying through the hospitals online application system. Literally before Jen could finish, her OB said: “You know, I am like this [two fingers crossed] with the CEO of that hospital. Would you like me to put a good word in?” And the rest is history. Jen now has her dream job, simply by talking with someone who happened to be connected and generous.
I went to graduate school with Brian. He was another avid networker who really bought into doing as many informational interviews as possible. He used the USC platform to find as many people to talk with as possible. While our classmates would do one or two informationals a month, he and I would constantly be sharing who we had met with that day, and who we would be meeting with next.
His approach paid off huge. During a competition, he gained five minutes of access to the biggest retail developer in Los Angeles. Their time was short, but he made a good enough impression and followed up enough that he was able to gain another longer meeting. Then another. Then the billionaire invited him over the next time! And this time it wasn’t to catch up; it was to offer him a job. Now Brian has one of the most exclusive real estate jobs in Los Angeles, working as a Vice President developing hundred-million dollar projects.
These stories aren’t rocket science. They don’t involve incredibly connected people. They just follow a few individuals who believed in informational interviews and what they can achieve. Again, it’s simple: Ask someone new to coffee, be nice and interested, ask them a slew of questions, and walk away with a new ally, connection, and possibly new boss or investor. It has worked like magic for me, not once, but hundreds of times, and I promise it will for you too.