Informational Interviews and Traditional Job Interviews (page 5)
Putting Your Success Stories to Work
PREPARING FOR A winning interview is all about knowing your strengths and being confident of your accomplishments. Already, you've mastered how to research a job, conduct yourself in an interview, construct effective success stories, and follow through after an interview has ended. Now, the combination of your resume and knowing your success stories should boost your confidence to the degree that you will go into any interview relaxed, energetic, and ready to talk about yourself—instead of feeling that you can hardly wait for it to be over.
However, before you go any further, it is essential to learn the mechanics of various types of interviews in order to do well in each of them. Although it is true that most interviews share the same basic expectations, there are a number of different interview formats and processes. For example, in a panel or group interview, you will be expected to converse with and answer questions from several people over the course of a morning or an afternoon. Or you may be called upon to talk about yourself to a single recruiter during a five-minute campus interview. On the other hand, you may find yourself looking across a restaurant table at an interviewer, while you skillfully blend pleasantries with some of your better success stories.
This chapter provides a thorough understanding of informational and standard interviews and shows how to navigate them for maximum effect. Chapter 6 follows through with all the information, tips, and advice you will need to anticipate every requirement and protocol of off-site, group, panel, and campus interviews, as well as case, recruiter, internal, and second interviews.
The first type of interview to be discussed in this chapter—the informational or networking interview—is different from the others because there may not be an actual job opening. Such interviews will help you research an industry, company, or job category. You will also be discussing your strengths and career aspirations in the hopes that industry professionals know of suitable contacts or open positions for you. In a standard interview, you will be required to ask and respond to questions. However, the objective of an informational interview is to illustrate the strength of your skills, the best qualities of your personality, and the breadth of your accomplishments. This chapter teaches you how to reach that objective through the judicious use of well-crafted anecdotes.
If you're a recent college graduate looking for your first job, you may not be entirely certain about the kind of work you want to do. You will undoubtedly have questions about certain fields or businesses and want information before you launch a job search. Of course, there are many options for researching jobs in the library and on the Internet. Your friends, family, and network are also extremely useful sources of general information and advice. But, if you want inside information, you will need to arrange an informational interview with someone who is already doing the work that you may be interested in doing. There are several advantages to this kind of interviewing:
- You will discover whether or not you want to go into a particular field.
- In the process of gathering information and meeting people, you may be given leads about job openings in the industry.
- You may be referred to specific people at other companies for more information or perhaps job interviews.
- You may be offered a job.
- A job may be created for you.
The ideal person you want to contact and meet for an informational interview should be in a position to hire, but you should take advantage of the opportunity to meet with anyone—at any level—who is willing to talk to you about a particular company or industry. It's important to remember that the primary objective of this kind of interview is to gather information—the likelihood of there being an open job on the day you come for your interview is slim. In addition, the person you are coming to see knows that the main objective of your conversation is to share information, not to "make a sale."
Ideally, you will have obtained the name of this person from someone in your network, but if no one you know has a personal contact in the field that interests you, there are other options:
- Call an alumnus of your university who is in the field that interests you. Although you may not know him or her, you both share the common experience of attending the same university. Most alumni are willing to help recent graduates.
- Write a letter to the senior-level person you would like to meet. Refer to industry directories, either in the library or on the Internet, for names, titles, addresses, and phone numbers. Be sure to call the company to make sure the person still works there and to find out if his or her title has changed. Your letter should be clear about what you want. Here are some tips to follow:
- Explain that you are researching a field (children's book publishing, for example), because you think it might be a career you'd be interested in pursuing.
- Request a short meeting for information gathering.
- Briefly describe your background in terms of education and work experience (if you have any).
- State that you will call in a few days to follow up.
When you make your follow-up call, you may be asked to speak with someone at a lower level in the company or with the human resources department. This is good news: When you call for an appointment, you can mention the name of the senior-level person who referred you. Simply say something like, "I was referred by Eleanor Klein in the research and development department."
On the other hand, some executives and managers are reluctant to meet with people they don't know. Others are simply too busy to take the time for informational interviews. But if you do get through to someone who is willing to talk with you, refer to the letter you wrote and explain again that you would like to meet briefly to gather information and learn more about the field. You don't want to imply that you are looking for a job: You only want information.
What's the Purpose of an Informational Interview?
Some day, you will receive a networking call from a person who wants 15 minutes of your time to learn more information about your company. How would you like to spend those 15 minutes? You'd want the person to be interesting, to ask about you, and to be prepared with thoughtful questions about your company and industry. That's the model.
There are three parts to an informational interview: talking about yourself, learning about your contact, and learning about your contact's company.
You could begin the interview by saying, "Thank you for agreeing to see me. It may be helpful for me to tell you a little bit about myself, and then I'd like to ask you how you got started in your career." At first, when talking about yourself, keep it short. Tell the contact briefly about your background, why you're interested in the field, and then weave in more information as the interview proceeds, looking for ways to link your experiences to what your contact says.
Once you've given some information about yourself, turn your focus on your contact and his or her company or industry. Maximize what you learn in a short period of time by asking some of the questions listed in Exhibit 5–1.
If you know something about the field, industry, or company under discussion, you will make a much stronger impression on your interviewer. Prepare for this interview as you would any other. Bring copies of your resume and make sure that your cover letter has given your interviewer a strong sense of your background and what it is you want to learn about the field. At the interview, take notes.
Next Steps after an Informational Interview
There may be a number of outcomes from an informational interview:
- You get the information you want and you can add one person to your professional network.
- Your interviewer takes an active interest in you and suggests a second meeting.
- Your interviewer suggests that you meet one or more colleagues, who may be in a position to hire.
An important goal of informational interviews is to expand your network. Some experts say that you should leave an informational interview with at least three additional names to add to your network, but this may not always be feasible. It is important to take the initiative to ask all your contacts if they know anyone else with whom you should speak, given your background and career objectives. Remember to send a thank-you note to your contacts and add their names to the list of people you will notify when you secure employment.
If you are fortunate, and your contact refers you to other people in the field, you may use your contact's name when contacting them. You can either phone or write when arranging appointments, but mention the name of the person who referred you. Also, don't forget to mention what you're calling about.
After each meeting, send a thank-you note. Even if the first person to give you an informational interview does not refer you to anyone else, have the courtesy and professionalism to send a thank-you note. At the very least, informational interviewing is an excellent way of getting firsthand knowledge and advice about various career options. At best, you may be offered a job or one may be created for you.
The Traditional Job Interview
When going on a traditional (or "standard") interview with a small company, you will likely meet your interviewer right away. At a larger company, you might be asked to first fill out an application in the human resources department. You will have a copy of your resume handy, so you will be able to complete the application quickly and easily.
It is also common to meet with more than one person, especially at larger companies. You might meet with a human resources professional, and then speak with the hiring manager (i.e. the person for whom you will work if you get the job). The interview with the hiring manager will last longer than the other interviews. (Do remember, though, that no hard and fast rules apply, and interviewing methods vary widely from company to company.)
An interview with a human resources professional will be different from an interview with the hiring manager. This interview will determine whether or not you will be passed on to the hiring department. Part of this interview will be spent acquainting you with the company, in general, and the particular position. You will also be asked some general questions about your skills and experiences. Although human resources personnel do not make final hiring decisions, they are asked for feedback about candidates. So be sure to use your success stories and treat this interview as seriously as you would any other.
Assuming that you've arrived on time, your primary interview with the hiring manager will last 30 minutes to an hour. (Again, there are no hard and fast rules about interviews.) A longer interview should be interpreted as a good sign. But if you come and go in ten minutes, it's likely that something didn't work out—maybe you were the wrong fit, or perhaps the interviewer preferred another candidate.
If things continue to go well, your primary interviewer may ask you to speak to someone else (or several other people), either right then or a little later in the day. This is another good sign. It usually means that your interviewer thinks you are a viable candidate for the job. You will get to know more about the company and hear different points of view.
Sometimes, because of the necessity to fill positions quickly, especially in fast-paced growth sectors, you will meet with more than one person on the same day. If you are perceived as a highly qualified candidate by this kind of company, the interview process will be accelerated to ensure that you don't get hired elsewhere. So, try to be flexible about time. Avoid scheduling interviews back to back, and give yourself plenty of time between appointments to respond to unexpected developments.
Focus on the Ten Success Factors
Most standard interviews generally begin in one of two scenarios: Your interviewer starts off by asking you questions, or the interviewer describes the job first and then asks you questions. Scenario two is the most advantageous because you are given information before any questions are asked. This will give you plenty of time to decide which success story you will use to illustrate one of your skills, strengths, or accomplishments.
As you will remember from Chapter 4, each of your success stories should be built around one of the ten success factors that most employers look for in job candidates:
- Accomplishments/ getting results
- Taking initiative
- Communication skills
- Problem solving
- Teamwork and team leadership
- Project management
- Decision making
- Strategic thinking
- Innovative thinking
- Handling pressure
Telling success stories well is the most effective way to illustrate your accomplishments because it puts each one into a credible—and memorable—context. Long before you go to your first interview, you will have written and rehearsed many success stories for each success factor listed above, and you will be ready to skillfully weave them into your answers. (For more detailed information about success stories, please refer to Chapter 4.)
Answer Questions in Detail
If you start answering questions with a simple "yes" or "no," you're on the wrong track. Other one- or two-word responses won't help you either. For example, if the interviewer asks what your best quality is, and your response is "Analyzing things," you won't be telling the interviewer enough about yourself to understand how you think or the breadth of your experience.
You need to share as much information about yourself as possible, so that your interviewer understands how you think and what your skills and qualifications are. Show off your interpersonal skills, personality, and even your sense of humor.
So, what should you do when your interviewer asks about your best quality? Tell a success story! Consider the following example:
- One of the qualities I can really count on is my ability to analyze and resolve problems, particularly when people are in conflict. When I was in college, I was the Resident Advisor of my floor in the dorm. There were about 24 of us altogether, and I was often called on to arbitrate and settle arguments. It always seemed so clear to me what the answer was, maybe because I'm the oldest of four children in my family.
- One time, two women in the dorm couldn't agree over the use of the telephone—there was only one phone at our end of the hall— which meant that 12 of us were expected to share it. Anyway, one woman accused the other of monopolizing the phone.
- It seemed pretty clear to me that the only way to satisfy both women—and the rest of us, for that matter—would be to agree, as a group, how long each of us should stay on the phone at any given time. Once everyone knew what the "rule" was, there were far fewer conflicts.
Make Sure You Prove Your Claims
When you answer a question with a story, such as the one you just read, you are giving the interviewer two things:
- Proof of claim
Anyone can say that he or she has good conflict management skills and leave it at that, but telling a success story that illustrates your point proves your claim. In the process, you are giving the interviewer other information, such as: You were in a position of leadership, understood it, and rose to the challenge. When there were conflicts in the dorm, you didn't just shut your door or walk away; you actually interceded, which took initiative. And, of course, you solved the problem. So, a simple question, such as "what's your best quality?" can give you a valuable opportunity to give the interviewer a fuller picture of your capabilities.
Remember to Tell Your Success Stories
No matter how you look at it, the heart of an interview is the exchange of information. How you convey information about yourself is what counts: This is why it is so vital to know and tell your success stories effectively.
As mentioned earlier, you can expect a standard interview to open with a question or with a description of the job and the company—and then a few questions. Of course, you will ask a few questions of your own, but any variation of scenarios gives you ample opportunity to use your success stories. If you have a good interviewer who asks open-ended questions, you will be able to tell your stories with that much more facility.
Every interview is different, as you might expect, so you can't predict all the questions an interviewer will ask; because your answers will prompt follow-up questions, the interviewer will likely ask a number of questions that even he or she didn't expect to ask. Some interviewers might begin with questions about your educational background or previous work experiences to determine if you have the skills or training for a particular job, while others may ask general questions about your motivations, goals, accomplishments, and ambitions. If you've worked previously, your interviewer may want to know why you left your last job, how long you were there, and what your position and salary were, and so forth. If you did not go to or finish college, you may be asked questions about why you do not have a degree. If you do have a college degree, you might be asked how you selected your major, what you did during your summers, or how college has prepared you for the job.
Whatever the question, just do your best to answer it completely. Bear in mind that the interviewer's main objective is to determine whether or not you are the right person for the job. Your objective is twofold:
- To answer your interviewer's questions as completely as possible
- To convince your interviewer that you are the right person for the job
The best way to achieve your objective is to use your success stories. Going into an interview, you know that you have at least ten ways to talk about your accomplishments. When asked a question, focus on its meaning. There's usually a word or two in the question, such as accomplishments, goals, or team, that will help you determine which success story is most appropriate.
Exhibit 5–2 will help you anticipate some of the questions that are most frequently asked:
Connecting an Interviewer 's Questions to Your Success Stories
Read the list carefully and think of the experiences you've had that might illustrate your communication skills, for example, or your ability to manage pressure or make difficult decisions. The main objective is to link your special qualities, abilities, and successes to the questions interviewers ask you.
Although you could certainly answer a question such as "How would you describe yourself?" with a few well-chosen words, you wouldn't be telling your interviewer enough about your strengths and abilities. However, if you approach these questions a little differently and link them to one of your success factors such as "initiative" or "problem solving," you would do a far better job of both answering the questions and creating a convincing image of your potential. Now is the time to tell a story.
Here's an example of how you might answer the question, "How would you describe yourself?"
I'm a self-motivated person who is very goal oriented. In my junior year of college, I knew that I wanted an internship at a consulting firm. One of my friends who was a senior told me that a certain firm really valued her experience as president of the campus geology club. I was a business and accounting major, so I ran for treasurer of Future Leaders of America. I gained valuable experience in keeping financial records, and I also got to head our first fundraiser. What a great experience and, as you can see from my resume, I did get to work for that consulting firm.
This success story doesn't take more than a minute to tell, but look at how much it says about financial savvy, innovative thinking, and ability to:
- Lead others
- Make decisions
- Set and meet important goals
- Solve problems
- Communicate well
This story highlights many success factors and gives you the opportunity to share something personal, but not private. This applicant has shown a healthy dose of self-esteem, too. The applicant also highlighted leadership skills as well as technical skills. Remember, the interviewer can read facts about you straight from your resume. The interview is all about conveying your credentials and communicating the hows and the whys of your experience in a cohesive narrative form.
Another Success Story
Even though you might be able to comfortably tell a success story in about one minute, you may not always have the time to tell as many as you'd like. Ideally, you want to tell ten stories that illustrate ten success factors over the course of an interview. But in the real world, interviews are sometimes cut short. Or perhaps the interviewer simply doesn't provide you with enough opportunities to insert more than a few stories. However, you should try to illustrate as many success factors as possible. Therefore, try to write and rehearse stories that demonstrate more than one success factor. The previous story is a good example.
Here's another example of how you might answer the question, "How do you handle pressure?"
My internship at TLS Advertising involved a lot of pressure. I was working for an account executive who was responsible for the firm's cosmetics clients. We had strict deadlines and were often juggling more than one project at a time.
One of my jobs was to help my boss prepare for client pitches and sales calls. In the process of creating all the overheads and ancillary materials she needed, I worked with the art department. I had to figure out how to make our project their top priority when they had so many competing demands.
The art department depended on timely, clear communication, and I did my best to accommodate them. I set up time and action calendars and would talk to them hourly when necessary. In fact, I kept in such close contact with that department that they came to rely on my trafficking skills, which they asked me to demonstrate to the other departments so that their workflow could be managed more efficiently.
The narrator of this success story managed to weave in at least four success factors—each one a highly desirable, marketable skill such as:
- Handling pressure
- Taking initiative
- Team work
- Problem solving
A Short Success Story
There may be times when you want to emphasize a single success factor: Perhaps you want to call attention to a certain skill, or maybe you are running low on time but want to squeeze in one last example.
Here's an example of how you might quickly and briefly answer the question, "Would you say you're a team player?"
I've been very involved in sports at college. I played on the baseball and basketball teams and participated in a number of intramural sports. Last year, our basketball team won the regional championships. We had to compete against eleven other teams. The competition was grueling.
We had excellent coaching, but what really won the day for us was our ability to pull together as a team. We discovered that we each had individual strengths and could learn a lot from each other. For me, that meant learning to pass more often, instead of always taking a shot.
Of course, this story does show more than the speaker's ability to work on a team. For example, it gives you a sense of personal tenacity and an ability to handle pressure well and learn from mistakes.
The possibilities for good storytelling are endless. The trick is to know your experiences, skills, and personal qualities so well that you can adapt them to almost any question or questioning style.
Most important, don't forget to enjoy the interview. Nowhere is it written in an interview has to be cheerless, tense, confrontational, frightening, or boring. Make your stories as interesting as possible— they will invite questions and responses from your interviewer that will open up the conversation even more.
It's a Two-Way Connection with Your Interviewer
The more you and your interviewer know about each other, the easier it will be to determine whether or not you are a good fit for the job. You won't know, however, until you've asked a few questions of your own. Go into an interview with the attitude that you are there to learn about a job, instead of feeling overwhelmed by the idea that you are there to be judged. If you take an investigative, proactive approach, you won't worry as much about your performance or nervously wait for the next baited question to catch you off-guard.
If you concentrate on learning about your interviewer and the company, your energies and attention will be directed outward instead of inward. This will make you feel more in control and, consequently, less nervous. Don't approach your interviewer as an adversary; it will only make your questions sound inquisitorial, instead of friendly and interested. If you've prepared your questions ahead of time, you will feel even more confident and ready to learn.
What Questions Should You Ask?
You've already given yourself a tremendous advantage if you've taken the time to research the company (refer back to Chapter 3 for details). Your interviewer will be favorably impressed if your questions demonstrate knowledge of the company's history, successes, goals, and plans. You might ask about recent events at the company.
For instance, you could ask a recruiter at a law firm: "I read recently that your firm is involved in a major lawsuit regarding patent violations. I'm very interested in intellectual property law. Is this something this firm specializes in?" Or, if you're interviewing at a small publishing company, you might say, "I noticed that you recently published a book on childcare, although most of your previous publications were novels. Is this a new direction you're going in?" But if you ask questions such as "What business is your company in?" or "What are your firm's services?" you will convey how little effort and thought you've put into the interview.
Asking good questions, on the other hand, isn't about showing off. You obviously want to know as much as you can about a company if you're seriously interested in accepting the job (should it be offered to you). And there are some intangible things about a company that are hard to find in the public records, such as information about corporate culture. So, when you are preparing questions either before or during the interview, make sure you consider asking some of the questions listed in Exhibit 5–3.
Ask as many questions as you need to get a complete picture of the job and the company. Again, both you and the interviewer want to be sure of each other. You both have essentially the same goal: to determine whether or not you want to continue your relationship and work together. Your interviewer wants to decide if he or she should invite you back for a second interview, and you want to find out if the company should stay on your list of choice employers.
Make sure you space your questions throughout the interview, so you don't have a long list at the end, and give your interviewer plenty of time to answer. Don't barrage the interviewer with questions.
What You Shouldn't Ask
Finally, keep in mind that there are some topics you should not bring up during the initial interview with the hiring manager.
Depending on the company, you will have a short meeting with a human resources officer either before or after your interview with the hiring manager. In any case, HR should be able to answer all your questions about:
Wait to discuss salary until your interviewer mentions it first. Human resources will give you all the details if your interviewer does not. Also, the hiring manager may tell you about some of the company's benefits, but he or she may not know or remember all the specifics about taxes, health insurance, dental plans, profit sharing, retirement compensation, unemployment compensation, sick days, family leave, or vacations. These are also topics you should discuss with HR—and usually only after the company has made you an offer.
Asking Questions Is a Way of Advertising Your Qualifications
If you don't ask questions, your interviewer will assume that you're not interested in the company—or the job. Moreover, you won't be able to make an informed decision about the job, should it be offered to you. There are other good reasons for asking questions:
- Asking questions demonstrates the value you place on work and your career.
- Asking questions demonstrates your depth of knowledge about the field.
- Asking questions gives you more opportunities to sell yourself to a potential employer.
Just as you were prompted by your interviewer's questions to talk about your accomplishments, the questions you ask your interviewer will reveal information that you can use to further exhibit your skills and qualification for the job. In other words, if you use questions to discover the needs of your prospective employer, you can use your success stories, once again, to illustrate how you can satisfy those needs. Your success stories are the best proof of your accomplishments. And, as we all know, past performance is the best indicator of future performance.
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