[ A few thoughts on putting your best foot forward vis-à-vis career coaching, executive coaching, resume writing + professional development ]
Some people seem born knowing exactly what they want to do with their lives. “When I grow up, I want to be a chef” they assert as youth—and then they go out—voila!—and become a chef. If only it were so easy for the rest of us.
The truth is, the career path for a good number of people is roundabout, circuitous, and anything but direct. People experiment, explore, and pivot from industry to industry, from one job function to another, relocating from one geography to another—and sometimes they do all three changes at the same time, which can be thrilling and terrifying all at once.
As a coach, I know that career uncertainty is a common dilemma for professionals out there, and one that often leaves individuals feeling stuck in a rut and unsure about their next professional move. Unfortunately, all too often it keeps them in dead-end or otherwise toxic jobs for months, years, and sometimes even decades.
So, here we have our big, hairy problem: you feel stuck in your career.
You may be disillusioned or detached from the work, and the quality of your performance may suffer, or you may even be working TOO hard and throwing yourself too deeply into your work, all in an effort to avoid wrestling with the bigger question of what you should do next with your (professional) life.
Sadly, there are no secret potions or magic pills to make the problem suddenly disappear. Sometimes time and patience solve the problem, but chances are you’ve been patient long enough, and you’re ready for a change—you just don’t know the specifics about what form that change should take.
Enter the superhero of career exploration: informational interviewing (if you’re rolling your eyes or cringing, I’d love to know why).
What Is Informational Interviewing?
First, let’s quicky define it: what is informational interviewing? In a nutshell, informational interviewing is a very strategic and rather proactive approach to career exploration and networking, and the good news is that it’s not very complicated: at its simplest, informational interviewing involves seeking and conducting interviews with professionals in your field (or fields) of interest to gain insights, advice, and a deeper understanding of the industry. The stakes are usually lower, and the stress is lower too, because unlike in job interviews, the primary goal is not to secure a position but rather to gather information, build connections, and explore potential career paths.
It's a valuable tool for individuals seeking guidance, clarity, and mentorship in their professional journey. You may think it’s only for entry-level professionals who are just starting out, but you’d be wrong. Informational interviewing has proven useful for many of my mid-level and even some senior-level clients. All of which to say, don’t knock it ‘til you try it, even if you have 10 or 20+ years of work experience under your belt.
Unleashing the Power of Informational Interviewing
Imagine possessing a key that unlocks doors to otherwise hidden insights, guidance, and newfound clarity about your career. That key is none other than informational interviewing. If you bring your whole self to the conversation, it's not just a mundane Q&A session; it can be an enjoyable journey of discovery that can clarify and even transform your career trajectory. Feeling lost in your career is like navigating a maze blindfolded. Informational interviewing can act as a valuable guide.
It may not answer all of your questions, certainly not immediately, and it can even beget more questions in some cases, but most of my clients who take up the task find that informational interviews help them start to peel back the layers of uncertainty. It gives them a sense of purpose, action and momentum—a focus where previously there wasn’t one. By connecting with professionals who have walked similar paths, you gain a clearer understanding of industry trends, potential opportunities, and the skills required to thrive.
There is not just one way to informationally interview. Finding what works for you (and is sustainable) is key. Some people do this naturally, keeping tabs on former colleagues and bosses as people disperse into new companies, industries, and locations. For other people, it requires a bit of intentional effort. It is indeed an investment of your time: you have to reach out to people, ask if/when they’re available, and then you have to show up (virtually or in person), have the conversation, and possibly send a thank you/follow up. This all requires energy, yes, but the potential ROI is often worth it. Keep in mind that some conversations will be more enjoyable than others. Some will be energizing, and others may feel draining. That is okay. It's part of the dance. Keep going.
The Surprising Joy of Networking
Networking as a general concept often gets a bad rap for being too formal or intimidating or transactional. Informational interviewing, on the other hand, adds a touch of ease to the process. It may involve having coffee with a mentor who shares similar experiences (or wildly different ones!), sprinkled with anecdotes and laughs and tears (depending on how emotional the person is). The focus is on the other person, so that helps to take the "heat" off of you. You’re there to ask about the other person’s journey, about their career or current company and role, about why they’ve made the career decisions they have.
Sometimes people think of informational interviewing as a selfish act. But, remember, that by being an active listener and lending an ear, you are giving the other person the "gift" of your attention. Most humans love being listened to, and it is indeed a wonderful gift to give someone your undivided time and attention--even if it is for just a few minutes. It's a form of respect, friendship or even love, depending on the relationship.
Sometimes people avoid informational interviews because they don’t know what to talk about. The good news is that you just have to show up… and listen. If it helps, below are a few sample questions you can ask—but make sure you’re listening to the other person, and asking questions customized and based on their responses to demonstrate that you are listening, and that you care:
Sample Informational Interview Questions to Get The Ball Rolling:
Introduction and Background:
Can you tell me a bit about your career journey and how you got to where you are today?
What sparked your interest in industry X?
Industry and Company Insights:
How would you describe the current trends and challenges in our industry?
Can you share your perspective on the company culture in your workplace?
What was your favorite place to work at, and why? And your least favorite place?
What does a typical day or week look like in your role?
How do you prioritize and manage your tasks?
Skill Development and Qualifications:
What skills do you believe are crucial for success in this field?
Are there any certifications or qualifications you would recommend for someone starting in this profession?
If you could give one piece of advice to someone exploring a career in industry/function X, what would it be?
What do you wish you had known when you started your career?
Networking and Professional Growth:
How important do you think networking is in this industry, and do you have any tips for effective networking?
What strategies have you used to continue learning and growing in your career?
Industry Changes and Future Outlook:
How do you see this industry evolving in the next few years?
Are there any emerging trends or technologies that professionals in this field should be aware of?
How do you manage work-life balance in a demanding profession?
What advice do you have for maintaining a healthy work-life integration?
Mentorship and Guidance:
Have you had mentors throughout your career, and how have they influenced your professional development?
How do you think mentorship contributes to success in this field?
Is there anything else you think I should know or any resources you would recommend?
Can you suggest other professionals in the industry who might be open to informational interviews?
These are just some sample questions. As you get into the swing of things, chances are you will get even better at asking thoughtful, powerful questions that engage and maybe even impress the other person.
So, taking all of the above into account, if you find yourself at a career crossroads, feeling a bit lost or unsure about your next career move, consider the (potential) transformative power of informational interviewing. It's not just a professional tool; it can help inject energy, momentum and hope to light the way as you to navigate the often overwhelming maze of career choices.
Consider the value and benefits of taking the plunge, connecting with professionals who inspire and energize you (I repeat: even if some informational interviews are less exciting and feel less useful than others--keep going!), and watching as your career path unfolds with newfound clarity and purpose. Best of luck!
Note: I have coached hundreds of professionals on numerous continents, and the *only* people who have found informational interviewing to be unhelpful are (1) the people who haven’t yet tried it, or (2) those who go into it expecting immediate results. Building relationships and gaining clarity can take time, and patience + persistence are your friends in this equation. So don't wait. Get started, especially if you've felt stuck for far too long. And if you’re feeling rusty and looking for support and guidance around how to network and interview confidently, I am here to help.
Poly-creative and complex human who fills up his days as a career coach, executive coach, resume writer, and personal brand / communications specialist. Conqueror of excuses and doubts. Bakes a mean éclair and snaps thought-provoking photos, but is best known for helping clients achieve personal + professional growth and fulfillment.