537: Rethinking Informational Interviews: Stop Doing Them & Start Test Driving Conversations

Uncover why informational interviews may hinder, not help, your career change. Discover the game-changing alternative: Test Drive Conversations. Your fulfilling career awaits!


on this episode

If your goal is to get a job, sure, you can stick with informational interviews. But if you’re after a fulfilling career that pays really well, then you must be willing to do things differently than the rest of the world.

The internet and self-proclaimed job experts have been chanting the mantra of informational interviews as the go-to solution for career change. But over the years, we’ve discovered that these interviews can actually throw up more roadblocks than solutions.

In general, we’ve never been big fans of following the crowd, and that remains the same when it comes to informational interviews. In this episode, Scott dives into why we’re not big proponents of this approach. Instead, he’ll introduce you to a game-changer that will bring you much closer to your career goals: test driving conversations.

Dive deep into the difference between test driving conversations and informational interviews, and learn how to pave your unique path to fulfilling work. 

What you’ll learn

  • The limitations of informational interviews
  • The importance of experimenting and staying open to self-discovery
  • Why test-driving conversations is a more effective and authentic approach than informational interviews
  • The step-by-step process of test-driving conversations

Success Stories

The role is meeting my expectations… totally owning the marketing function. And luckily the founder/president is always forward-looking – he just presented us a huge strategy doc for the next year. So there will be an opportunity for us to grow beyond our initial audience, which is great. I applied (against conventional wisdom!) and went through a lengthy interview process. I did use the resume/cover letter chapter quite a bit to customize what I used to respond to the ad. I also found that using the Interview chapter was super helpful in formulating “SBO” oriented responses, and I even used some of them in the interview. Having those “case study” type responses was really helpful and I believe cemented my candidacy. BTW – they hired me completely over Skype and phone! I never met anyone from my company (in person) until last week at a conference.

Erica Fourrette, Marketing Director

After working many years in aerospace as a Manufacturing Engineer, I wanted to move into a Program Manager role without ever holding a PM title or certification. Scott and HTYC helped me to showcase my relevant strengths and made me feel confident and prepared for the interview stage. I landed the Project Manager job I was seeking even though there were qualified internal candidates available. I was able to avoid a disruptive family move and am loving my new position.

Andrew Gagnon, Project Manager, United States/Canada

Scott Anthony Barlow 00:01

Look, if your goal is to get a job, fine, go ahead, do your informational interviews. But if you have a different goal, say, to have a fulfilling career that also pays very well, well, that requires you to do things very differently.

Introduction 00:21

This is the Happen To Your Career podcast with Scott Anthony Barlow. We hope you stop doing work that doesn't fit you. Figure out what does and make it happen. We help you define the work that is unapologetically you, and then go get it. If you feel like you were meant for more, and you're ready to make a change, keep listening. Here's Scott. Here's Scott. Here's Scott.

Scott Anthony Barlow 00:46

When I recently searched informational interviews on Google, I found, guess how many– 890 million results. Just a few, right? It's also pretty interesting that searches for questions to ask on informational interviews continue to trend steadily upwards ever since 2015. For some reason, the internet, job experts, bloggers and the media, well, everyone is pretty successfully convincing us that informational interviews are the answer whenever we want to make a career change. And honestly, it's pretty easy to see why the definition for informational interview, and this comes compliments of the career onestop says, "An informational interview is a meeting to learn about the real life experience of someone working in a field or company that interests you." Which sounds pretty good on the surface, right? So why does doing informational interviews actually create obstacles when you're trying to make a career pivot or simply to find a role that fits you? I'm so glad you asked. Well, here's just a couple of the reasons. It turns out that when you say, when you do an informational interview with me, even though you're asking for information, even though you're trying to learn about the real life experience, many people are going to perceive this as you're asking for a job. And if you're asking for a job, that triggers a lot of responses that you probably don't want, like, being transferred to HR or being told, "I'm sorry, we're not hiring anytime soon." Also, what about when you're an executive? What about when you're in senior leadership? Many people have this perception about informational interviews that are intended to be for younger or less senior people, or people that don't have it all figured out. So what happens if you're looking to leverage your experience? Now we could argue whether or not it is right in the world to have those perceptions and implications that come along with informational interviews. But honestly, I prefer to help you understand that, in general, we don't recommend doing what the rest of the world tells you to do, especially informational interviews. And that's exactly what we're going to talk about in this episode. Plus, what you can do instead of informational interviews, and how to have it lead toward a career that fits you. We've already talked about a small number of the reasons that info interviews can be less effective. But I haven't told you what we recommend instead, in most situations. Here at HTYC, we recommend what we call Test Drive Conversations, which at first glance sounds just like an informational interview. But it turns out, it's a lot more than just semantics. Test Drive Conversations are one tiny tactical part of a much bigger picture when it comes to finding and doing fulfilling work. And if you've already read the Happen To Your Career book or listened to the audiobook, then you know that the path of fulfilling work that also pays you well, well, it only becomes possible when you move through four main milestones. And yes, we cover those in the book, but I'll just share them briefly for you right here. So number one is what we call "setting the stage". And that's allocating time and resources and support, basically setting yourself up for success through the entire process to actually hit your goals as opposed to just jump in and go. And then number two is what we call "profiling your ideal career". And this is creating and essentially proposing a hypothesis of what you believe will create an extraordinary career for you next steps and beyond. Okay, well, that leads into what we call "experimentation" Experimentation, the whole purpose of it is to reduce risk while finding out if you're on the right path for you. And then number four is all about "making it happen". Once you validate that you are in fact on the right path, then it's building the most effective plan to get you there. Test Drive Conversations are one way, just one way, to experiment, to find the right career fit for you. More importantly, it's about testing that hypothesis that we just mentioned, or testing what we call the Ideal Career Profile or ICP, you've heard about this in other episodes, we've mentioned it a lot. This is important because, almost always, what we first believe is the right path for us is usually not the right path. And to find that right path usually is going to require experimentation, getting feedback from your experiments and adjusting the ideal career profile with new information. For example, if you go to listen to episode 128 with Eric, he was absolutely convinced that he would best fit into a career change to the solar industry. Spoiler alert, after doing roughly 20 Test Drive Conversations, he learned it was not the right industry for him. Same thing for Nancy Franco in episodes, much more recent episodes, 532 and 533, where she shifted away from her executive role, which she originally thought would be right for her. And what was actually right for her were two totally different things that she experimented with and tested and learned along the way. So here's the deal. As a psychologist and Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert points out in his book, "Stumbling on Happiness", we are usually wrong when we imagine what would make us happy in the future. That's the human tendency. And this is because the imagination, well, useful for creative projects and dreaming big has multiple shortcomings when predicting the future about how we will feel after those dreams come true. Okay, so this means that finding fulfilling work is partially a detective process with a dash of science, and a whole lot of action around your cultivated self awareness. The real question, though, is how does that tie into the difference between Test Drive Conversations and informational interviews? Well, I'm so glad you asked. Let's review a few of the differences. Just a few. Okay, first of all, for a Test Drive Conversation, the goal is part of the intentional process, it fits. Part of the intentional process to find fulfilling work, and in the key milestones that I talked about earlier. Where informational interviews, the goal is, it's part of internet recommended job search tactics. Test Drive Conversations, the intent is to test a hypothesis and gain rapid exposure to new information and build relationships at the same time. Informational interviews, the intent, to learn information about a role to get a job. Test Drive Conversations, well, they take about roughly 15 minutes per conversation unless you want to spend more. And informational interviews often take 30 plus minutes, and it's a struggle to get info interviews. What do I mean? Well, for Test Drive Conversations, usually what we find, and over the last roughly 10 years, as I'm recording this episode, right now, we've seen about a 30 to 70% success rate for people to say "yes" to a requested conversation or interaction. Okay. And then for informational interviews, we have seen in the past about it roughly a 10 to 40% success rate. So that's been our experience, overall. And we've seen that in a variety of different ways. Okay, as a bonus though, for Test Drive Conversations, the structure we recommend, which we'll talk about here in a little bit, allows you to develop relationships quickly where people want to help you, and when they want to help you, also, they see that they potentially want to hire you too. And I would say that for informational interviews, if and only if you're personable, and you're already good at interviews, then it may cause people to recognize that you're a good candidate, but it's a far different structure. And that is more difficult for all the reasons we've talked about up till this point plus many more.

Scott Anthony Barlow 08:51

Okay, what I'd like to do in the rest of this episode is take you through how to think about and how to actually perform Test Driving Conversations, but also preparing for those conversations to make sure it's authentic, enjoyable and helpful. So how do you prepare for these conversations to make sure they are authentic? Well, we're going to talk about that here in a second. But I just want to take you through the process or the steps that we talked about internally when we talked about Test Drive Conversations as a whole. So it starts with number one, identifying the person. Identifying the person that you want to talk to that is either a fit because you can learn something from them, or you're interested in their organization or role, or something else in particular, but most importantly, we mentioned earlier that it has to be a part of testing your hypothesis. So that means, of course, that Test Drive Conversations don't work because it's difficult to find those people if you don't have an idea already of what you want to do. And that is in the form of a tool that we use, called the Ideal Career Profile. So without that, it becomes really difficult to do effective Test Drive Conversations. So know that upfront. However, if you already have an idea of what you're trying to go after, if you know what you're running to, as we say, then it becomes much more possible. Then you can, of course, find that person, identify that person, focus on the people who can help you or hire you. If you're focused on roles in particular, for example, a director of strategy, you want to talk to people who are currently holding that role, or people who work with people in that role, or even people who manage or lead directors of strategy. If you're focused on organizations, talk to the people at the level you want to be at or above that level. If the organization continues to be a fit, then you want to talk to people at all levels. And what I mean by that, so you can learn up and down the organization, if it's really truly the right fit for you, versus just having one or two interactions and making the judgment based on that. By the way, where to find these people? Well, some places are obvious, like LinkedIn, or the company website or social media, but maybe some less obvious things might be like googling related keywords, for example, you could Google John Smith, ABC Corp, of course, and see what pops up. Or if you're looking to find other organizations in particular, you can search things like organizations like ABC Corp. There's also plenty of other tools out there for contact information like hunter.io, or BeenVerified, those are the two of the ones that we use in order to find email addresses, phone numbers, many other types of contact information as well, it's not that hard. It's not as hard as people think it might be. Okay, two is the pre-ask, yes, we have a pre-ask. Figuring out the best way to ask that particular individual to get them to say yes to the conversation itself. Even having that type of test drive interaction. Okay, so this is very different. And we could do many episodes just on this piece alone. So I'm not going to go deep into this right here. But basically, this means, how do you assess the best way to contact that individual once you've determined the individual and the best modality, and even the best angle, if you will? So best modality, it means, should I call them? Should I text them? Should I email them? Should I arrange a chance meeting? Reach out on social media. Contact through a friend, get an introduction. Should I fax them? Should I send a carrier pigeon? What should I do? Page their beeper? All the things, mostly joking on the carrier pigeon, but not entirely. And then what's the best angle? Well, you found out with a few Google searches that maybe you grew up in the same small town and have mutual acquaintances. That could be a wonderful way to create some instant rapport if you say, "Hey, I found out that you and I both know John Smith." So those are the things to consider. This is all part of the pre-ask. And then the ask in itself, again, I'm not gonna go deep into this here, but I want you to know that the asking itself often is crafting the best way to allow them to say yes. And the point that I want to make here is, we often leverage a lot of psychology when we're working with our clients on this. Because it seems like, it really seems like, I should jam all of this information into one email. But instead, I really shouldn't. Often we split it into multiple emails, or multiple interactions, or multiple messages, or even multiple phone calls, depending on what the modality is. And what that means is we'll often separate the ask for the scheduling from the ask for "Are you willing to have a conversation?" So part of the email in itself might, let's say, it was an email, then part of that might sound like, just off the top of my head, it might sound like, "Hey, are you willing to spend 15 minutes with me so that I can ask you a few questions about what you love about your organization and what has made you successful in your particular role? Just drop me a yes if you're willing to do that. And I'll send you some options as far as time and we can figure out all the rest afterwards." My goal is just to get a yes. Because we are humans. And if we have too much cognitive overload, or too many decisions at one time, then that has a tendency to overwhelm us. And then we just don't do anything with it– that email or that message or whatever, will just sit there even if I want to say yes. So two separate asks, which is counterintuitive, but so much more on that into just the psychology of the ask itself. And so just to give you a taste. Step number four is scheduling. Scheduling the freaking conversation, right? Okay. So after they say yes, after they say "Yes, I'd love to meet with you. I'd love to be able to spend a little bit of time with you." Then it's getting it on the calendar. Again, we're not going deep here at the present moment, I just want to give you an idea of what this process looks like so that we can talk about prepping for it. And then number five, is planning your conversation. That's the part we're going to talk about here in just a moment. How do you prepare for that conversation? And most importantly, when you're prepping a series of questions, how do you go in open minded? How do you ask questions that are gonna be both valuable for you and them? How do you ask questions about their answers? Learn as much as you can. Okay. Number six, part of the process, doing the thing. Actually, having that conversation. What I find is that if you prepare well, having the conversation is just fun. It's just really fun. Part seven, yes, there is still more. Seven is a follow up from that conversation. And I'll tell you right now that a big portion of that follow up is sending them "Thank you." But it's not just about the thank you in itself, it's partially about having that continued contact with them. Now that you've begun a relationship in any way whatsoever, I want you to continue that relationship and multiple interactions, however small, are really what can build that relationship from both sides. So being able to send them a thank you email, or even better a written thank you because you got their address when you were at that Test Drive Conversation with them, or you're on the call with them, or you're on the video chat with them, whatever it is, then that allows you to stand out even differently. Where on a daily basis, we're competing for people's attention. Okay, those are the steps of the process. We're going to focus mostly on step five, planning your conversation, preparing your conversation. Again, we want to make sure that this is authentic, enjoyable for them, and comes off as helpful. I mentioned earlier that we want you to prepare a series of questions. But also more importantly, I want you to go in open minded so that you can ask questions, so you don't get focused on, "I want a job or I want an outcome", you have to be able to give up the attachment to an outcome here. The idea is to explore, the idea is to be curious. And we all have built in BS meters as humans. So they will know if you're faking it, they will know. I promise you they will know. And I want you to learn as much as you can out of this conversation, just having that mindset is going to allow you to be able to get more out of it. But more importantly, they will get more out of it too. They're going to be thrilled to answer because it's going to be about them or something that they care about, right? And by the way, here's an interesting misnomer here. I usually haven't heard anybody talk about this anyplace. But it's been my observation over the years that people said over and over, people love to talk about themselves. But I don't think that's actually true. I think people love to talk about what they care about, and what they spend their time doing. And yes, people care about themselves. So sometimes that is true. Sometimes they love to talk about themselves, but sometimes they care about things other than themselves too, or care about other things more than themselves. So I find that that's a more true or more accurate way to think about it. Which means that if you can focus the conversation on things that they care about, that's actually really helpful for them and you, because they'll have more fun, you'll have more fun, all the things we mentioned earlier. Right?

Scott Anthony Barlow 18:41

Okay, so step one, to be able to get these conversations to go well prepare for these conversations. It's researching prior to building a conversation plan. I want you to find your potential areas of rapport. Rapport– meaning what areas do you have in common. What areas are going to create familiarity. I personally always do a quick research to look for things that I have in common, I do that on almost every conversation that I have with someone who I haven't met before, or I have my team actually helped me prepare that in advance, in one way or another to look for those things and have them stand out. I'll glance at social media, I'll glance at places like LinkedIn, Instagram, their company's website, I also Google their name, I see where they're mentioned. And I'll often go back into, you know, a couple of pages of Google results, because that's where you can often find the good stuff, you can find like, here's the charity that they're involved with, they were mentioned on the minutes. And that charity happens to be all about something that you care about, too. So you're going to have to look a little bit deeper than what most people will in order to find that. Sometimes it'll be immediate, but most of the time it's going to take a little bit of extensive effort. There's four particular areas that I often will look for, if I'm unsure as a first set of options. Either want to find commonality and where they're from, or where they've spent time, find commonality and what they do for work. Sometimes these might be organizations that we've worked at or familiar with in the past. And sometimes it might be commonality in terms of systems or industries or roles. There's a lot of different ways where you might have commonality and what they do for work. Family– tons of commonality that can happen through family or kids or kids ages or things like that. Passions, or hobbies or things that they get excited about. For me, travel or volunteering, or playing instruments, like all those are things that I have in common with a lot of people. Like, I love ice hockey. Ice hockey is not the most popular sport in the world, as it turns out, you know, far, far, far cry from soccer. So for other people that like hockey, it's like an instant connection, sometimes, because it's so much smaller. And those are often the things that I'm looking for, the things that are common to every single person in the entire world, where it can create a little bit of a deeper connection. Travel is a big one for other people that love travel too, often has had a profound impact on their life. So they love talking about it, which then changes the experience when we're actually talking about it. And obviously, I enjoyed talking about that, too. We literally have a whole separate podcast called Family Passport on travel. So, you know, clearly it's something that I enjoy. And I think that just to give you some guidance, when you're doing this research here, look for things that you feel confident about being able to express legitimate, authentic interest in them. Because when you do, and we'll talk about how to do that in conversation here in a moment, a few things will happen. One, they're going to be flattered, and they're going to want to know more about you. Often people feel compelled to reciprocate. And that can take a 15 minute conversation and turn it into a 45 or hour and a half long conversation that both of you are having a great time with. And certainly be respectful of their time. Once you go past that 15 minutes, check in and everything. But it's crazy how many times that will happen, when you are expressing authentic interest in them. And then two, it helps them like and trust you and feel like they know you. And once that's all in place, it puts you well on your way to a great impression. But I think what's more important than impressing them is it actually helps you get better information. When they like and trust you, they're more willing to give you more real information versus just face value information that is going to be more helpful to you in deciding, "Is this an area or an industry or a role or a company that I'm actually interested in?" Because, remember, the point here is not to convince them that you're amazing. The point here is to learn and test about your hypothesis about what you think you want so you can determine if it's something that you actually want, and then dive deeper into those areas that you've confirmed that you actually want. Like and trust goes a long way to do that. Okay, let's talk about how to plan your conversation. Getting an outline of your conversation down on paper or on a Google doc may seem unnecessary, but I promise it will help you feel more confident and more comfortable once it is time to have that conversation. There's some really great research out there too, that even if you go one step further, and you have vocalized out loud or practiced that conversation and you've said it out loud, then once that time it comes time for the conversation itself, then even if you didn't do a great job in practicing, even if you feel like you did a terrible job in practicing, you'll still, when it comes to the actual event, feel much more confident, much more at ease, compared to not having done that, by longshot. Let's run through a couple of, not basics but must haves: Greet them. Don't forget to smile, particularly if you're in the United States. You know, there are other cultures, other countries where it might not necessarily function the same way. But let's just pretend that we're here in the US. So greet them. Don't forget to smile, begin building rapport, that common ground that we just talked about, now's the time to use that. Go ahead and mention what you found, but make sure it's an actual connection to you. So I mean, you can be blatant like "Hey, as I was doing my research, I saw that you're a huge Cardinals fan. I saw them play when I was visiting St. Louis last season. Have you gone to many games?" And that actually shows two things: like it shows that I was doing my research which is kind of flattering. And then and also at the same time has that connection right away? Pretty cool, right? Or "I saw that you were a fashion major at NYU and how did you make the switch from that to corporate finance?" And then from there, set your expectations for the meeting, this can be as simple as saying you're excited to learn a little more about their role, or company. And then this is where you get to ask the questions, ask them the deep questions that will show what it's like to look at their roles. I'm gonna give you some examples of questions: "What's your favorite thing you get to do in your role? What are some of the strengths that make you great at what you do? What should every new employee know about working here? What do you like best about the company? What do you like least about the company? What type of people do you think will best fit at this organization?" Okay, I want to give you one more thing to think about. Respect the meeting time, don't go overtime. If you've asked for 15 minutes and be respectful of their time, watch the clock and call out when it's getting close to the time requested. As you get close to that anytime, ask them for permission to contact them again, or to keep going or ask for suggestions on who else they might recommend for you to talk to. And then if they have some suggestions, ask if they'd be willing to make an introduction. That way, it becomes the gift that keeps on giving. Biggest thing for you to remember in the case of looking into roles and organizations, and using test driving conversations, I mentioned earlier, you're not asking for a job or even an interview. After all, you're not even sure if you want to work there yet. The point of these conversations is to gauge whether or not you're interested in their role, or organization. Anything you'll find out will be helpful as you continue to pinpoint your ideal career.

Scott Anthony Barlow 26:42

Hey, if you've been thinking about making a change for a while now, and you don't really know how to best take the first step or get started, here's what I would suggest. Just open your email app on your phone right now. And I'm going to give you my personal email address, Scott@happentoyourcareer.com just email me and put 'Conversation' in the subject line. Tell me a little bit about your situation. And I'll connect you with the right person on our team where we can figure out the very best way that we can help you. Scott@happentoyourcareer.com drop me an email. Here's a sneak peek into what we have coming up in store for you next week.

Speaker 2 27:24

Along the way, in your life, you are told no. Or you are forced to do certain things that then close the door over time towards what it is you really wanted.

Scott Anthony Barlow 27:41

Here's one for you. What does a thriving network mean to you? This should be a simple question. But we find that most people are basing their answers off of what they don't want, or something that is better than where they're at now. An example. Well, I don't want all the office politics at work or I want more flexibility. Those sound reasonable, right? But even if you achieve them, you're probably far from thriving. This means that the biggest thing holding you back is that you aren't allowing yourself to dream big enough or specifically enough.

Scott Anthony Barlow 28:18

All that and plenty more next week right here on Happen To Your Career. Make sure that you don't miss it. And if you haven't already, click Subscribe on your podcast player so that you can download this podcast in your sleep, and you get it automatically, even the bonus episodes every single week, sometimes multiple times a week. Until next week. Adios. I'm out.

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