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Informational Interviews Up and Down the Corporate Ladder

If you are serious about returning to the workforce, you’ve heard of informational interviews. But just in case you’re a little rusty on the concept, this blog post gets into some great tips and nuances of informational interviewing.

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By Kendell Brown

Kendell Brown is a former member of the iRelaunch Career Coaching team. Founder of Ascension Careers and a relauncher herself, She works with clients with to ascertain and achieve their career goals via strategic planning, positioning and branding assessments, identifying transferrable skills and providing counsel for working through challenging work situations.

If you are serious about returning to the workforce, you’ve heard of informational interviews. But just in case you’re a little rusty on the concept, a few reminders:

  • Informational interviewing is meeting a variety of people with a goal of learning about their career experiences, building industry knowledge and familiarizing yourself with different organizations.
  • Informational interviewing is best approached as a conversation, so there is also opportunity for networking (meaning – be prepared to share your own story).
  • Importantly – Informational interviewing is not the time to ask someone for a job!

This post is about understanding the nuances of informational interviewing with people at different levels in their organizations. I’m going to assume that you, the job seeker, are in the enviable position of having the chance to talk with people at various levels all within the same organization. While this scenario isn’t that likely, it helps me to put forth my tips in an easily digestible protocol. However, I think it is easy to extrapolate and make adjustments when you are talking with people at different companies. The following are key points related to preparing for and conducting multi-level informational interviews.

  • Chronologically, schedule conversations to go up the corporate ladder, meaning start with junior employees and work your way up. While there’s no such thing as a stupid question, its best to get those basic questions out of the way with entry level employees. You’d rather ask a junior employee “What’s the Zoom protocol?” While this question will give you a sense of a company’s culture and is a valuable question to ask – you don’t want to waste your time with executives and senior executives on a lesser-quality discussion.
  • Consider each info interview to be a building block for a future conversation. For instance, an answer from a junior level employee may be the catalyst for a question to a senior level manager. Perhaps your junior future colleague tells you that she moved from Position A in Department X to Position B in Department Y because the organization likes people to get early cross functional experience. That can lead to asking a senior manager “What does the organization see as the benefit of multi-function experience at the early stages of a career?” This is a question you likely wouldn’t have known to ask without the earlier conversation with the entry level employee. You will appear informed and well researched to the executive, when in reality all you did was reword an earlier conversational tidbit.
  • A great way to get a sense of an organization’s culture is to ask everyone the same question. While you will definitely get different responses, it’s critical to assess the answers to determine if there’s a common thread. Let’s explore this point a little further. A question like “What makes someone promotable?” is perfect because it is appropriate to ask any level employee. Below, are some points I would expect you to get based on someone’s level within the company.
    • An entry level employee will likely highlight the necessity of having had certain experiences and completing projects that ensure an individual has a set of hard skills so they can capably move up a level.
    • A mid-level employee will probably highlight for her to get promoted she has to leverage those hard skills while also consistently utilizing soft skills to manage both her direct reports and her manager.
    • A senior level executive may share that she needs to showcase vision and foresight, decision making abilities to be positioned for C-suite roles.
    • Note: While each of these answers differs, you as the job seeker need to determine if there’s a cohesiveness to the answers. Whether you decide “yes” or “no”, your assessment will provide incredible organizational insight.
  • On the flip side, there are some questions that aren’t necessarily value adding to ask at each level. These questions require the Goldilocks principal...figure out who is just right to answer the question. Some examples to illustrate my point.
    • Tell me about a typical day. This is a fantastic question to ask someone that is at a level akin to what you are targeting. You’ll get insights about priorities, expectations and responsibilities. However, asking someone that is above or below where you want to be can be illuminating, but isn’t going to have significant bearing on whether you want a particular position.
    • What do you see as the company’s next big bets? Junior employees are bogged down in day-to-day execution that they might not have the most informed response. Mid-level employees will have opinions on the company’s direction, but they are often siloed so their purview is limited. This question is best for senior executives. They have the broad view of resources, cross-functional capabilities and management goals to fully and appropriately answer.
    • Many companies are moving to using XYZ hiring practices. Do you see that happening for your organization? Junior employees typically are not involved in these decisions, so they simply don’t know. Senior managers always want to get top candidates, but they aren’t involved in the minutiae of how that’s achieved. Unless, you are speaking with members of the HR department, your middle management contacts are going to be most heavily involved in recruiting and therefore most informed on this topic.

Best of luck with your informational interviews. When conducted with intentionality and engaged listening, you give yourself a significant edge over other job seekers.

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