Informational Interviews Can Be Key in Job Hunt

Transitioning out of the Army after five years of active duty, I was completely unprepared for how to land a civilian job commensurate with my military experience. Oh sure, I could put together a resume that outlined my Army duties and blast it to dozens of unknown companies for positions I knew nothing about. But of the 100 or more resumes I sent, I landed only one interview.

Meanwhile, simply by talking with people I knew, I got several informational interviews that helped build my professional network and increase my knowledge of the corporate world. Reflecting back some 12 years later, this networking process became one of my most valuable lessons while transitioning out of the military.

The process is remarkably simple, but takes perseverance and patience. Unlike posting resumes with virtually no human contact, face-to-face networking builds relationships, which is the key to getting your foot in the door.

The process starts with just one personal contact in the corporate world. This person could be anyone you know or someone your family or friends connect you with. The call goes something like this: "Hey, I'm transitioning out of the military soon, and I was wondering if I could buy you a cup of coffee sometime and ask you some questions about your industry and your career." That's it. Nothing threatening. No major investment on either end. You simply give the person an opportunity to talk about himself or herself and get a free cup of coffee as a bonus. Note that asking for a job is not part of the pitch. You only want to get a foot in the door, learn what you can and develop a relationship. Directly asking for a job can put too much pressure on the interview and can be a roadblock to your objectives.

With coffees in hand, be prepared to listen, ask thoughtful questions and take notes to help demonstrate that, indeed, you are really listening. This is your chance to learn about these people, their jobs, the companies they work for and the overall industry they're in. How did they come to work at the company? What positions have they held? What are their professional goals? Ask advice on what skills are required in their field and how you might craft your resume to pique their company's interest. Of course, you'll have a copy with you, and this gives you a chance to share your experience and talk briefly about your career.

After you've established a rapport and are close to wrapping up the meeting, ask for two or three additional contacts from the same company or elsewhere. Reiterate that you're not asking for a job, but are seeking information to help prepare for your transition out of the military. If your meeting went well, your contacts won't hesitate to refer you to other people they know and trust. Often, they'll facilitate an introduction for you, making it that much easier to set up another interview. As you finish up your coffees, be sure to get a business card so you can follow up with a handwritten thank-you note. Taking time to send a note will go a long way toward cementing the positive impressions you've made.

Once you're done -- repeat. The objective is to build as broad a network as possible. If each meeting allows you to set up two or three other meetings, your networking web and your knowledge will expand rapidly. All it takes is one of your contacts to remember you when a position becomes available. Of course, employers have varying hiring processes, and you'll still probably need to forward a current resume and go through the interview process. But getting to know a company and its people before you interview may give you a competitive advantage over numerous resumes they may receive for the position.

This process takes time and patience. Expect to be at it for several months. But in contrast to the passive process of posting and emailing resumes, attending informational interviews is active, ultimately exposing you to more people, positions, companies and industries. And coming from the fast-paced, take-charge military atmosphere, this active process to networking will put you in greater control of your future and give you an edge during your transition.

Maj. Alan Brown is an active-duty Army public affairs officer, currently serving at USAA on a one-year Training-with-Industry fellowship in Corporate Communications. This is the second in a series of three blogs in which Brown shares lessons learned during his 2001 military-to-civilian transition.

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USAA, a diversified financial services organization, is the leading provider of competitively priced financial planning, insurance, investments, and banking products to members of the U.S. military and their eligible families. Rated among the highest among financial services companies for customer advocacy in a Forrester Research survey, USAA provides convenient and accessible financial products to its more than 9 million members. For more information about USAA, or to learn more about membership, visit usaa.com
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