Four tips to network your way to the top

by Sarah Dawson

The informational interview, in my opinion, ranks among the most effective networking strategies a job seeker or potential job seeker can employ. What exactly is an informational interview? Simply put, it's a discussion from which you aim to learn something that will help you reach your goals (typically, a job). I commonly refer to the informational interview as an informational meeting since the word 'interview' brings to mind an ask for a job, and this is definitely not that.

So why is it that an informational meeting is so effective? For starters, having a conversation with a real human being lends itself to building trust and likability, two critical factors that come in to play when someone makes a referral or hiring decision. At the same time, you gain access to highly valuable information about an industry or job that you otherwise would not have. As it turns out, so much of our information about jobs is based on preconceived notions and stereotypes, so relying on information directly from the people doing the work will undoubtedly help you stand out amongst your competitors when it’s incorporated into formal application processes you may encounter.

An informational meeting is suitable regardless of your early, mid or late career status. Perhaps you want to move into a new field and want to know what it takes to succeed, what development gaps you might need to address, or want to learn more about possible career trajectories.

There are many reasons for wanting to reach out to someone. Just keep these four tips in mind, and you’ll be well on your way.

1)   Have a solid understanding of yourself. Before reaching out, have a clear understanding of who you are, what you have done, what your strengths are and what you are looking for. While you will likely spend the bulk of your time asking the questions, it’s only natural that you’ll get a few in return.

2)   Have a targeted list of people you want to speak with. Part of experiencing a successful informational meeting is ensuring that you are taking to the right people. For example, if you want to work for company A, you might first think to connect with someone in their HR department. Unless you’re planning to work directly in HR, you might be better off connecting with someone in a role closer to your interests that can share with you the goals and priorities of their team, valued skill sets and industry challenges. And, if the meeting goes well, a few recommendations for others you can connect with. To find the right people, utilize your already developed network - a warm contact or referral is almost always an easier ask.

LinkedIn can also prove useful. Check out the alumni search feature to find people who not only fit your criteria but have the added bonus of having a shared experience with you.  

3)    Have a clear ask. Advice questions are a solid choice for an informational meeting and keep you from making the biggest mistake in an informational interview, which is making it about you and not your contact. Your job is to listen to what your contact tells you and apply it to your situation. A few examples include: What can I be doing right now to prepare myself for a career in this field? If I got hired, what should I be sure to do within the first 30 days to ensure I get off to the fastest start possible? If you were me, what would you be doing right now to maximize your chance of breaking into this industry?

4)   Be prepared. Remember that any and all interactions with a potential employer or colleague are part of an interview. Ask good questions that you wouldn’t be able to find answers to elsewhere, check out their company website and know what is relevant and important to them.

Looking for more? Check out our website for further supports, resources and opportunities to connect with alumni.  Western Alumni Career Management.