I started my company during the U.S. financial collapse of 2008. I'd never envisioned being an entrepreneur, didn't know what I didn't know and had more questions than answers about how to get going. Fifteen years later, my business is still a success because of the advice, mentorship, counsel and insights I gleaned during valuable informational interviews with people I trust. In 2008, I sought informational interviews with anyone who'd ever started a business -- be it a dry cleaner, accountancy, coaching practice, manufacturing company -- no matter the type. While I had a lot of business experience, there was one thing I'd never done before: launched and ran a company.
In those interviews, I learned do's and don'ts, best practices, tips for growth and land mines to avoid. Most of the advice I acted on, but some I rejected because either it didn't apply to my type of business, or it wasn't aligned with my values and brand.
Informational interviews are not job interviews. They are unique and structured conversations, designed to find answers to an issue, question or opportunity. Here are some examples of when an informational interview could be helpful:
- When interviewing for a job at a company, interviews with people who work at that company, used to work for the company or are competitors can help assess culture, protocols and insights about the interview and hiring process.
- Pursuing higher education? Informational interviews with others who've exited the military and balanced life, work and school can help identify risks and challenges so you're better prepared.
- Whether you're curious about working in cybersecurity, project management or the commercial airline industry, interviews with professionals who've successfully navigated careers in these industries can identify opportunities and tips to succeed.
Informational interviews are meetings you request with people who are in jobs, companies, industries or initiatives you are interested in understanding better. These interviews are a powerful way to increase your knowledge, insights and even network.
To succeed at informational interviews:
1. Make a List and Be Specific
What is it you seek to learn or understand? Make a list of people you can connect with to request an interview related to the industry, job or company you're curious about.
2. Research, Research, Research
Before you request the meeting, research everything you can about the industry, company, job and the person you would like to connect with. This empowers you to make the ask, specifically and directly.
3. Be Clear
When you request the interview, be clear that you are interested in learning about their company, industry or career path, and are not looking for a job or trying to sell them something. State briefly who you are, a bit about your background and your career goals.
4. Get Your Questions Ready
Since you'll be leading the discussion, be prepared. Here are some questions you might want to ask:
- How did you get into this field/job?
- Where do you see the industry going over the next 10 years?
- What do you see as the best opportunities for someone like me, with a passion for the work, but limited experience?
- What was your biggest learning when you launched your company?
5. Say, "Thank You"
After the meeting, follow up with a handwritten thank-you note. If that's not practical, then email a note of appreciation. Be specific about how this person helped you and thank them for their time and willingness to share insights with you.
It was through the informational interviews I conducted starting in 2008 that I knew how to set up a company, grow my venture and stay motivated over the years. Most people will offer their time to add value to someone else's career if you are focused, polite and grateful for the experience.
The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty" (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.
A contributing writer for Military.com, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.
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