Exploratory Interviews: How to Land Them and Make Them Work for You

Exploratory Interviews

Question: When is a job interview not a job interview?
Answer: When it is an exploratory (or informational) interview.

Exploratory interviews are a high-value way to network, obtain information and leave a good impression in a workplace that might interest you. Whether you seek a position, or desire a transition, an IEJI can bridge the distance between where you are in your career and where you want to be.

Even without a current job opening, company management often welcomes these conversations with high-caliber talent as a proactive way to procure talent for the next open position. You can access their expertise and investigate your options by arranging an exploratory or informational executive job interview (IEJI).

Advantages of informational interviews for executive job-seekers

An exploratory interview and a job interview are both ways to explore opportunities and build relationships. During a job interview, however, the hiring manager, or recruiter, structures the meeting as an assessment. At an IEJI, your curiosity, questions and behavior drive the conversation.

Some key advantages of the informal nature of an exploratory interview include the following:

• An information resource: An exploratory interview gives you a chance to learn and understand the critical current issues of an industry or position. Publicly available information about a company or enterprise is important, but lacks the immediacy of an inside view. Because there is no hiring pressure, you can thoughtfully tailor your questions to achieve a candid industry perspective not otherwise available to you.

• Career and social networking: Creating opportunity is an essential element of a job search plan. Executive positions are not always publicized or, by the time they are, a candidate is already under consideration. An IEJI enables you to meet and greet influential stakeholders in a company or field of interest. Because you are not positioning yourself as a job candidate, you and your contact can naturally explore the questions and answers that arise during the meeting. This informal repartee—and the relationship that results—can be a powerful networking tool. Not only may you be able to add a contact to your professional network, but you could receive a call when a new or existing position opens up.

• Gaining direction: Informational interviews are an effective tool for executives, whether or not they are looking for a position. When transition looms, or a job is ending, stabilizing steps are vital. During a period of employment instability, you can regain your bearings through an exploratory interview. The meeting can reaffirm your current direction, help you analyze your skill set, or lead to serendipitous discovery and opportunity.

Tips for setting up an informational interview

Once you identify a company and industry you want to explore, the next step is to cultivate contacts.

While you may personally know an individual you wish to interview, there is a good chance you do not yet have that connection. There are at least two paths to an exploratory interview: a referral from an associate or a cold call.

When thinking about referrals, consider who you know in groups such as:

• Professional associations and service organizations
• Social, personal and professional networks like LinkedIn
• Friends and other contacts

The awkwardness of asking a friend or colleague for an interview referral is somewhat relieved by the purpose of your request. You are not asking for a job—you are expressing curiosity about something outside your realm of expertise.

A cold call can lead to a surprisingly useful experience. When cold calling for an IEJI, keep these tips in mind:

• Research the companies and individuals you wish to speak with before you call.

• The CEO of any company is often heavily scheduled. Consider targeting a different contact. When you approach the company, ask to speak with the CFO or COO. Or, during a short telephone conversation with an executive assistant, or secretary, ask for a referral within the appropriate company department.

• Informational interviews that result from a cold call are often genuinely exploratory. Your interviewee is not doing a favor for a friend, and you are not asking for a job. You are free to ask for and exchange information that could potentially lead to a new professional relationship.

A letter is often the best way to reach out to a potential contact. You can use these sample letters as inspiration to customize them to fit what you need:

Cold call

Dear Mr./Ms. X,

I found your December article about security applications and wireless sensor networks in the Journal of Telecommunications compelling. I am writing to ask whether I could schedule an informational interview with you to learn more. I am researching the telecommunications industry to explore career options and found your article to compelling.

My background is in cybersecurity, with extensive experience with the U.S. Air Force as an Intelligence Officer and in private industry in corporate risk management. I agree with your point about a critical shortfall in qualified information security professionals to combat the widening array of cyber attacks on domestic telecommunications networks.

I will be in the Austin area next month and hope to schedule a meeting with you. I look forward to hearing your perspective on the direction of the industry. My telephone number is (xxx) xxx-xxxx, and my email address is [email protected].

Thank you for your time and consideration.

[Your name]

Referral from a mutual friend

Hello Ms./Mr. X,

A mutual acquaintance, Jason XXXX, gave me your name as a possible contact for an informational interview. In doing some research, I read your post on mobile marketing for healthcare providers on LinkedIn. I thought your app ideas were interesting and would welcome the opportunity to chat further.

My background is in strategic business marketing and consumer communications. I am interested in exploring positions in marketing strategy and technology in the healthcare industry. I implemented a somewhat similar marketing effort last year. From research and in speaking with Jason, I feel that speaking with you provide a mutual benefit as I investigate the field.

I wonder if you might have time to meet with me next week? I appreciate any time you might have to meet or talk over lunch. My phone is (xxx) xxx.xxxx and I will follow up on Monday.

Thanks and best regards,

[Your name]

Four steps toward a successful IEJI

Prepare for your IEJI as you would a job interview, but remember your responsibility to drive the experience with curiosity and courtesy. Reflect on these points:

1. Let your research be your guide: Learn about who you are interviewing and try to find a relevant professional or personal background connection.

2. Ask smart questions: Establish rapport at the outset and ask your most important questions first. Customize your questions to your interviewee and the industry. Suggest solutions to collaboratively identified issues. Do not ask for a job.

3. Keep it short: Informational interviews occur over lunch or during the only 30 minutes someone has to spare during their busy work day. Arrive on time, stay focused, and leave a good impression.

4. Follow up: Send a thank-you note. Consider sending an interesting article or news item about a topic you discussed during the meeting as a means of later follow through. Ask if you can add your interviewee as a LinkedIn contact.

Making a personal connection through an informational executive job interview just may lead to the professional position you want.

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