Rising young executives are often not thoroughly prepared for all the ins and outs of an executive-level job search. Unfortunately, insufficient training in the techniques of career transition results in their ineffective or inappropriate application. The information interview is one of those tools that has been misused and poorly applied especially during down economic times when competition for every position is keen.   

A young executive recently received a referral to meet a partner in a high profile venture capital firm in the San Francisco Bay area for an information interview. She had solid niche experience that would be appealing to the startups funded by this VC firm. She was excited about having an opportunity that could potentially lead to access into startups that were hiring. She had been looking for work since her last company was acquired and moved their headquarters back East.

The meeting with the VC partner started off well as the conversation centered more on her capabilities rather than her gathering data and information. She stumbled when the partner asked which of his firm’s startups were of most interest because she had not done sufficient research to respond. She expected him to tell her about the companies.

In the age of social networking, can information interviews still be viable tools as part of a career transition strategy? Can they be applied as a “3 degrees of separation request” on Linkedin? Can’t we assume that an information interview puts us on the receiving end of information?   

Consider the following points whenever meeting with anyone who can potentially be a career door-opener for you:

  • Any time you gain access to someone in a company who has the power or the influence on a hiring decision and you would like to work there, it is never just an information interview and you will always be scrutinized as a potential candidate whenever you meet a search consultant regardless of context, venue or situation.
  • The context and intent of the information interview conversation can easily blur into a partial or full blown interview that should verbally be acknowledged to activate a new set of ground rules and intentions for the conversation. The 800 pound gorilla in the room is that everybody understands that you are seeking work—not information—when requesting an information interview.
  • For a job interview, it is a given to be well-prepared with in-depth research on the company’s products and services. The same holds true for an information interview. The preparation is the same.
  • Knowing how to do a "save" when you are not prepared and caught off-guard is always a good technique to master in employment conversations. Since the meeting with the VC was intended to be an “information” interview, raising that point as a fallback strategy could have deflected his question.
  • It is more genuine to treat a meeting with a contact or company representative as an “opportunity discussion” rather than an information interview. Expect the ensuing discussion to be an informal way for a company to assess your capabilities and organizational fit without formalizing the process into an actual interview which costs money and requires legal reporting.
  • Initiate a discussion of the company’s products, financial position, customer base, technological developments and challenges not to gather information but to reveal what you already know about them. When your questions go into greater depth to identify their current needs, always be prepared to directly present your value proposition and how you can make a contribution to their organization.
  • A contact would often request a copy of your resume in advance of meeting by way of getting to know you. This was always a flag that the discussion could be escalated into an interview. Today social media has made that need for a resume into non sequitur.
  • Use an information interview with people connected to your target sector who would never hire you. For example, talking to a financial analyst or university department chair that specializes in the sector would be a sincere seeking of information to prepare you for the “opportunity discussion” with a potential employer.

Making connections and creating conversations has not become easier because of social networks and the Internet. People are just as unwilling to take the time and energy to speak with you unless they are given some compelling reason to do so. Requests for information interviews only succeed when the initial level of introduction is warm and the reason is of value. They succeed most often when you over-prepare, keep your expectations low, and approach the conversation with gratitude.


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