Companies & Industries

Acing the Informational Interview


If you're looking to "recareer," knowing the ins and outs of exploratory interviewing is a must

Baby boomers pursuing environmental or personal interests after retirement, executives fleeing downsizing companies, and restless upstarts pushing for higher pay all have one thing in common: They are part of a trend of professionals starting second careers, a trend that recruiters and coaches now call "recareering."

As companies struggle to retain talent and career changers chart unfamiliar territory, recareering is often facilitated through a series of informational or exploratory interviews. Loosely defined and malleable enough to fit a job seeker's desired profession as well as his or her unique circumstances, informational interviews can be as informal as trading contact information at a barbecue or as formal as lengthy office meetings that result in a job offer.

While most informational interviews don't bear fruit right away, recruiters say they are a great way to learn the language of a new profession, ask tough questions about a company's benefits and drawbacks and, if nothing else, gain practice at telling your story and selling yourself. "It gives you a safe forum to explore something completely different," says Carol Tienken, former director of marketing for Polaroid. Tienken knows of what she speaks: She became the first chief operating officer of the Greater Boston Food Bank after an informational interview with the organization's CEO and president 10 years ago.

"I think informational interviews are a fantastic way to change careers," says Bill Coleman, senior vice-president for compensation at Salary.com (SLRY), a provider of on-demand compensation management solutions. Salary.com recently surveyed thousands of career changers with Money magazine and concluded that second-career choices are influenced by passion for work, in addition to the more traditional drive for higher salaries.

Beware the Unfocused Interview

Still, the interview's informal structure can be daunting to a career changer seeking to prove he is knowledgeable but humble, seasoned but adaptable. Trying to put one's best foot forward while asking informed questions about a new profession and/or company in as little as 15 minutes can result in an unfocused interview.

"Sometimes I run into people who are so into selling themselves that they don't look at what the company needs," says Robert Crowder, senior executive recruiter for Hartford-based Aetna (AET), which has more than 30,000 employees. "Businesses are addressing problems, so the person has to think of the solution."

The interview provides an additional challenge to top executives who may be stepping down in seniority to follow their passions. "Since they've always been in a position of power and knowledge, sometimes it's difficult for them to go into a situation and ask questions about something they know nothing about," says Jeffrey Crown, a managing partner with Essex Partners who offers advice to senior executives who are seeking new careers. "They're used to having all the answers, so the big challenge for them is knowing how to have that conversation and not feel bad about it."

Getting a Jump on the Competition

Jodi Hullinger, 37, who is on the hunt for an educational nonprofit position after spending six years in government relations for a marketing services company, observes that the process can be lonely, "especially when you're job-searching without a job."

Any discomfort or embarrassment is a small price to pay, however: Candidates who apply for jobs with knowledge and recommendations from interviews are a step ahead of the competition. Exploratory interviews are also good business, helping recruiters to expand their networks and companies to create new positions. "It actually does help your credibility in the marketplace," says Coleman. "It's soft public relations."

As career switching has become more popular, informational interviews have become an increasingly important way for companies to tap into new talent pools. In a recent Korn/Ferry International (KFY) survey of 273 recruiters, 63% of respondents said there are more job opportunities for executives to recareer than there were 10 years ago.

Money, power, and prestige are prime motivators for switching, but retirees often pursue second careers for the greater good, says Crown. Experienced executives who retire often have the luxury of a comfortable nest egg, allowing them to pursue a passion, not merely a high-paying position.

But regardless of the motive and the goal, experts say informational interviewing is an indispensable tool for testing the waters. "You might like the idea of a title," says Brenda Greene, author of You've Got the Interview, Now What?: Fortune 500 Hiring Professionals Tell You How to Get Hired. "But when you get down to the nitty-gritty of what you do from 9 to 5, you have to like that too. You can find all this out in an informational interview if you ask the right questions."

Read advice from experts and career switchers on how to ace the informational interview.

Keller is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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