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Career opportunity in the time of COVID-19: How to maximize exploratory conversations

Improve the effectiveness of your informational interviews.

We are living in an unprecedented time, one that is impacting our livelihood, how our children learn, how we connect with others, the future of our planet and the human race.

With all the elements that feel out of control and at risk, it is also an unprecedented time of opportunity to cultivate a new chapter of your professional life as you incubate a future pivot. If you came into 2020 hoping that this would be the year that your career finally became more meaningful, impactful or fulfilling, the good news is that you can draw upon several points of leverage, to make progress toward your goal. It starts with fostering a sense of curiosity about yourself, what you want for your professional life, and what you can learn from others to help you along your way. 

One of the most underutilized tools on this journey is an intentionally conducted informational interview to explore new career roles, industries, or organizations. An informational interview is not the same as a job interview; it has the opportunity to be much lighter. Although you must still prepare, the most important trait is to show up with what I call “responsible curiosity.”

“Curiosity” invites others to engage with you and share a treasure trove of information. People love to talk about themselves, and truly want to be of service to help others (especially now, when people are socially distanced and craving connection). Allowing curiosity to pervade your conversations allows you to welcome this energy in others. 

Being “responsible” means having clarity about what is important to you and using carefully crafted questions to make the conversation count. 

Design your questions to get the other person talking. The most successful way is to use open-ended questions, which start with “how,” “what” or “explain.” Open-ended questions assume a “yes” answer allowing the person you are interviewing to expand. Here is an example to show the contrast between the two styles of questioning:  

If “ongoing learning” is one of your key priorities for your career, instead of asking: “Do you learn new things each day on the job?” Ask: “How is ongoing learning baked into this job? Or: “What kind of ongoing learning experiences does this role encounter?”

The first question can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no, closing the dialogue down; by contrast, the second and third questions assume that learning happens on the job but curious to what degree and in what form.

To get even more out of informational interviews, incorporate behavioral interviewing techniques into your questioning format to get your interviewee to share stories about actual events. It is a disarming technique that nets a more honest, forthcoming and detailed answer. 

For example, if you desire “regular recognition” for excellent work as part of your job, instead of asking, “How are people recognized in your organization?” ask, “Tell me about a time when someone went above and beyond on the job and was recognized. What did leadership do?” Although the original question is a solid, open-ended one, the revised question makes the person really stop and think. The resulting story shared will provide more insight into how the company really works and how leadership values recognition.  

To make this technique even more powerful, consider pre-answering what you hope to learn from your question. Continuing the above example: in answer to the question about recognition, you might tease out the following answer you hope they will say: “At our monthly All Hands virtual meeting, Chris’ name was called out by leadership, his accomplishment shared in detail to the other employees, he received a virtual standing ovation, was written up in the monthly company newsletter and received a spot bonus.”

Now, whether or not they answer exactly that way is not the point; instead, pre-thinking the answer you hope to hear lets you know you are on the right track and that area is a likely fit for you. Even if the answer is different, it may “smell” like the one you laid out, giving you more energy about a potential career change. In contrast, if there is no compelling story shared, you can probe more to determine if recognition is truly NOT a company value or maybe just sporadically implemented. 

Using these techniques will improve the effectiveness of informational interviewing equipping you with key information that can help you make informed decisions toward your career goals.

This article also appeared on the Merideth Mehlberg Group website.

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