This past week one of my favorite employees, Shelly, was offered a promotion to another role in a different part of the organization. This had been a long time coming; she’s been interviewing for new positions for quite a while now. When her soon-to-be new manager called me to give me the good news, she said that she knew she was going to give Shelly the position way before the interview process even started.
That gave me some pause; after all, what could have happened that would be more important than the interview?! After we hung up, I reflected upon Shelly’s experience and realized…the most important step in the interview process may not be the interview…
OK, Mrs. Type A, so what could possibly be more important than the interview?
Well, not so fast. I’ll get there. I want to say first that the interview itself is very important. Under no circumstance would I ever offer the position to someone who did not do well in the interview itself. Now, maybe, you may not have done the best out of all the candidates in the interview and I would still give you an offer.
Well, there are other factors to my impression of someone. I may have had previously worked with you, so I know what you are capable of. Yes, if I already know you, your interview may not be the most important part of the interview process.
OK already, just tell me what the most important part is!
The most important part of the interview process is the…
First, I’ll describe what the informational interview is, then why I think it’s the most important step in the interview process and, finally, specifically how to succeed in this informational meeting.
In case you don’t know what the informational interview is, it is a meeting you have with someone in an area of your company (or another one) in which you are interested in moving to in the future. Many times, these informational interviews occur early on in the interview process, perhaps when a role has just opened up and potential candidates are considering applying.
While I will give a more complete list of questions for this meeting below, but in general you will ask foundational aspects about the role (i.e., the roles and responsibilities, qualifications, etc).
I’m sorry Mrs. Type A, I find it hard to believe that the informational interview is the most important part of the interview process? How could it be more important than the interview?
Your skepticism is well placed; I agree, it does seem odd. But, let me explain a bit…
As a hiring manager, I going to be honest in saying that I will likely not hire someone if I have only met them during the actual interview. It could be the most impressive interview I have ever seen. I just won’t take a chance that you just happen to interview really well. There are a lot of people out there that can say all the right things in the interview but cannot get anything done.
However, if you set up an informational interview with me, and you impress me (I’ll explain how to below), I will likely do more research on you. For example, I may call your current manager, reach out to an ex-manager of yours, or ask someone on my team what they think. Or, I may even set up additional time to get to know you more so that, by the time you do interview, I’m am familiar enough with you to give you an offer; I will have done my research.
On the flip side, if you have an informational interview with me and you do not do the right things, I will likely use that time to dissuade you from applying. Or, I’ll call your manager and share perspective that you may not be competitive enough to be in the candidate pool. I will do a lot to keep you from applying because, honestly, it’s a lot of work for me once you apply and are part of a formal interview process.
So I can just mess up the formal interview then?
Well, no. But if you don’t have the best interview and my research on you shows that you are otherwise capable, I will likely still give you an offer. Moreso that I would someone who nails the interview but I’ve never met before.
In summary, the information interview is the most important step because it can make or break whether you get to the next step and, if you do, the degree to which I feel comfortable proceeding with an offer based on that step of the interview process.
Ok, you convinced me. How do I succeed in the informational interview?
There are a lot of good sources out there with formal guidance on informational interviews. The Career site of UC Berkeley has a lot of tips and suggestions.
Here are my thoughts…
Mrs. Type A’s tips on a successful informational interview
1. Do informational interviews on an ongoing basis.
Even if you’re not interested in a move now. You will learn a lot about the requirements for certain roles and have time to demonstrate or develop the skillset required.
My only caveat to doing frequent informational interviews is to not do them within 6 months of taking a new role. It may raise red flags about why you aren’t focusing on being successful with your current role.
2. Prepare as if it were a formal interview
Read about the department, role, company etc before hand. Come prepared with a list of questions (see below). Bring your resume (just in case the manager asks about your experiences). Be prepared to explain your desire for more information.
3. Dress to impress
You don’t need to wear a suit, but I suggest dressing just about as formal as you would for an interview. Perhaps wear a cardigan instead of a blazer.
If you’re looking for advice on attire, see these links:
- How do Fortune’s Most Powerful Women dress for success?
- How do Fortune’s 40 Under 40 Women Dress for Success?
- Pants & Skirts
- Blazers and Cardigans
4. Ask questions to gather information (do not sell yourself)
Examples of questions to ask (assuming you’re meeting with a hiring manager about a specific role)
- What are the key responsibilities of the role? What decisions does this person make?
- Which skills and experiences are you looking for?
- What does good look like in this role?
- What made the last person successful? Why is he / she leaving?
- How do you see this role evolving in the next 1- 2 years?
- What are the best parts of the role? The less desirable ones?
- Where do people who have this role tend to go next?
- What advice would you give someone with my background who may be interested in this role?
- What is the interview process / timeline for the role?
- Is there anyone else you suggest I speak with to learn more?
These questions will allow you to gather key information to determine how to best prepare yourself for the role, or the interview process itself. If you have intelligent dialog about these, you will make a good impression on the hiring manager.
5. Thank you note
Follow up with a thank you note in which you ask to follow up in the future and/or to be updated on any openings. Or, perhaps inform the hiring manager that you have formally applied for the role.
When I reflect back on Shelly’s interview process, she really did seal the deal with her informational interview. She did the same with me a few years ago! I had actually interviewed her before and turned her down because she was too junior.
When I had a spot open up, she set up time to learn more. I was really impressed with her smart questions, and all of the research she had done. However, I still had this impression from 2 years before when she was too junior.
Because she showed up so well to the informational interview, I did a lot of homework. I talked to her current manager, and key partners. Everyone said the same thing: Shelly was amazing, had grown a lot, and everyone else wanted to hire her when they had an opening. I knew then I was likely going to offer her the position. I probably wouldn’t have if she just showed up for an interview.
What are your experiences with the informational interviews? How have you used them to have a successful interview process?