Do you like interviews? Me neither.
So it’s rather unfortunate that this technique is called “informational interviewing,” because that can leave you with a rather unpleasant image. It sounds almost like you’re going through the pain of an interview, but with no useful result.
But here’s the idea:
An informational interview is a discussion with someone who knows something you’d like to learn, and where you have a plan for the learning.
Here’s an example: When I was looking into signing up with various kinds of coaching groups or companies, I really didn’t know much about how they worked. And, of course, I didn’t know if I could trust the marketing materials that they put out on their websites.
The solution? Interview a bunch of people, to find out what they knew. For each organization, I put together this plan:
- Talk to the people who currently work with the organization.
- Talk to the people I’m SUPPOSED to contact, the normal way of getting information.
- If possible, talk to the head of the company.
- If possible, talk to people who no longer work in the group.
- Talk to customers or clients of the coaching organization.
This was an EXTREMELY important decision for me, so it was critical to be thorough. In other kinds of decisions, this could be overkill.
Next, I got clear on what I was hoping to learn:
- What are the goals and culture of the company?
- How do people work with each other?
- Would this feed my desires and leverage my skills?
- How would they help me to build my business?
- Would this be a good BUSINESS decision for me?
As I interviewed various people, I refined this list of questions because I started uncovering things that I didn’t even know I SHOULD ask.
For example, I interviewed a number of coaches who worked with each group, or had previously worked with them. I requested just a 15-minute phone conversation, figuring that almost anybody could squeeze in 15 minutes. That logic worked out great: every person I reached, which was most of them, gave me 15 minutes either on the spot or within a day.
For each of them, I started by describing why I was calling, and what I was hoping to learn from them. Then I gave them these questions:
- How do you like working with this company?
- What are its strengths and weaknesses, for you as a coach?
- Are you being supported in growing your business?
- How is it working out for you financially?
- Is there anything else you think I should know before making my decision?
These informational interviews were crucial for my decision, and I could well have gone the wrong direction without them.
I learned, from the best people, what I could expect if I would work with each group.
I also learned a few things to be cautious about:
- You have to figure out the mindset of the person you’re speaking with. If you’re talking with someone who has an official promotional role, expect them to steer you toward the positive view and the “company line.” If you’re speaking with an ex-employee, expect them to be soured because of whatever caused the separation. With this, though, you’ll still be able to develop a well-rounded view after talking with several people.
- You want to express encouragement and deep gratitude for the help you’re getting. This is giving you huge, huge value, and they need to know how much you appreciate it. A personalized thank you note would be well received, even for a ten-minute conversation. For something more substantial, buy them coffee or lunch.
- Keep your promises. If you ask for 15 minutes, stick to that time limit. And don’t probe much deeper than the original expectation that you set: they might feel you deceived them.
The ending to this story is that I ended up joining Small Fish Business Coaching, a company headquartered in Australia. Because I talked with so many people in advance, I knew exactly what I was signing up for: both the strengths and weaknesses. Nearly a year later, I’m still very happy with the choice.
When you’re out there researching your next job, or next career, use informational interviews to learn everything you can before making a decision!