Give your career the inside edge with an informational interview
October 16, 2013
Palms sweating, heart beating fast, sudden inability to remember one’s name: all common symptoms of someone heading for a job interview. But there is one interview that puts the unemployed at the helm: the informational interview.
Adam Park, freelance broadcast and digital production coordinator, has landed many freelance contracts thanks to these interviews. “It’s given me access to a wealth of knowledge that’s helped shape my career,” he says. “On a personal level, it’s given me the opportunity to form bonds with some very incredible people.”
Informational interviews offer a great opportunity to make connections, learn more about a position or company you’re interested in, and get advice on how to get there. It’s a valuable way for those who are unemployed—or employed but looking for a new role—to get closer to their dream job.
How to get the interview
Find someone who has a role you’re interested in or who is the hiring manager for that role. It helps to get introduced through someone in both your networks, but this isn’t necessary.
Email is the ideal approach, with LinkedIn being another useful method. “Best not to put them on the spot by calling,” says Human Resources Consultant and Career Coach Sari Friedman.
As for what to say in your message, keep it simple. Introduce yourself and politely ask if they’d be willing to meet for 20 minutes at their convenience to discuss their job and how they got there.
“Definitely position it as gathering insight and NOT about finding a job,” warns Friedman.
It’s common advice says not to mention the j-word, but Giorgina Bigioni, publisher of The Kit and someone who gives 6 to 10 informational interviews a year, says even that wouldn’t deter her: “I usually say yes regardless. I think it’s a very important thing to do, to inspire, guide and assist people to join our field.”
During the interview
Do your research on the company and the person you’re interviewing beforehand. “Come in with 5 to 10 questions,” Friedman suggests, “not a list too long that may seem overwhelming.” She recommends aiming for the 20-minute mark, at which point you should check to see if the person you’re interviewing would like to wrap up or keep going.
“DO NOT bring a resume,” Friedman advises. And, of course, “Be professional.”
After the interview
Follow up with a thank you note, be it by email or mail. Friedman says it’s at this point that you can attach your resume.
Maybe the biggest mistake candidates make? Not following up. Bigioni always invites candidates to let her know where they end up but “Very few do this. They should. You never know.”
Summertime: Rest and recharge, or learn career skills?
The Globe and Mail
Last summer, Carolyn Poole, an associate with Calgary-based Cenera, a human resource consulting firm, decided to buff up her skills. She acquired a new certification in career management coaching by taking a 12-week daytime course given online.
“At first, I felt like a child who says, ‘I don’t want to go to school in the summer.’ But in my world, business does slow down during the summer. My big corporate clients often put things off until the fall. So in many ways this is an ideal time to do some learning.”
It’s so ideal that when the Academies, the course provider, offered a summer bonus – free courses on social media to enhance marketability – Ms. Poole signed up for those, too.
“I did them while I was on holiday, and didn’t lose any billable hours,” she says. “I was able to sit on my patio in mid-afternoon and do the courses in a relaxed environment. I’d rather that than wait until the fall and try to squeeze in courses in the evening when I’m tired.”
As Ms. Poole notes, it’s a matter of personal preference whether employees should make summer a season of learning, a season of revivifying vacation – or perhaps a combination of both.
Professional development in the summer doesn’t have to mean acquiring more formal education, says Sari Friedman, a Toronto human resources consultant. In fact, upgrading your certification in the summer may be more difficult because a smaller selection of courses is offered by post-secondary institutions.
“Instead,” she says, “it’s a good time to catch up on the more informal ways of upgrading skills, like following the groups on LinkedIn more closely and participating more, as well as reading more articles and business-related books that you didn’t have time for during the rest of the year.” These methods have the advantage of low cost, too.
The summer is a good season for employers to offer their staff in-house training, says Ms. Friedman. “Not everyone slows down in the summer, obviously. It depends on the industry, the company and what sort of business cycle they have. But [to the extent that the pace of work is slower,] people are more likely to be focused, less distracted by tight deadlines, so it’s a good time to be learning.”
The only downside, she says, is that by offering the training in, say, early July, the employer “might be worried the employees wouldn’t have a chance to apply the learning until the fall. Optimally, you want people to apply what they’ve learned right away.”
Gregg Taylor, senior workplace consultant with Family Services Employee Assistance Program in Vancouver, says it’s important for employees to take vacations in order to re-energize themselves.
“I’m an advocate of making the holiday truly that – a time away. You’ll be more creative and productive by having the split from the work. So leave it at the office,” Mr. Taylor says. “Don’t feel like you’re going to miss out on opportunities if you’re not on your smartphone 24/7.”
That said, he believes summer may be the right time for employees to upgrade their skills by doing special projects for which there isn’t time during the rest of the year, or by filling in for colleagues who are off on vacation. Rather than “lifelong learning,” he says the goal should be “right time, right type training,” in which employees step on and off the training treadmill as their career path dictates.
For example, says Mr. Taylor, “when the head of sales tells you that, to move into the sales division, you would need more sales skills, does that mean you need an MBA, a six-month business diploma, or that you just need to learn the contact management software in a two-day workshop? It’s a matter of better assessing the skill-build that you need to do.”
Lawyers, doctors and accountants, among others, have the opportunity to combine professional development with a vacation by attending the annual conferences run by their associations.
Alexander De Zordo, a commercial litigation partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Montreal, makes a point of arriving a few days before and staying a few days after the conferences that he attends. “It gives me more quality downtime,” he says. “The conferences usually have suggestions for what to do in the city, and by the time the conference is over, I’m already acclimatized.”
This August, Mr. De Zordo plans to bring his wife and children with him when he attends the Canadian Bar Association’s annual gathering in Vancouver. They will spend two weeks in total on the Pacific Coast. “I want to see more than just the hotel room, the conference room and the airport lounge,” he says.
While Mr. De Zordo looks forward to the family time, he also expects to benefit from the CBA’s panel discussions. “I find the learning is most rewarding when I go outside my comfort zone,” he says. He finds it useful to learn how issues are handled in other jurisdictions, and what in-house lawyers expect of their external law firms. “You don’t always have the chance to get that insight elsewhere,” he says.
HR consultants and career c oaches offer no absolutes on the best summer dispensation.
“It depends on who you are and what makes you tick,” says Ms. Poole. “Personally, I would rather structure my life so that I have a steady flow of work and learning and play than peaks where I’m firing on 120 per cent and then I’m doing nothing.”
Tyler refuses to submit weekly progress reports, assuring you he'll “get the project done on time.” Mindy gets in after 9 most mornings, and often cuts out early. Kevin frequently chit-chats about his after-work activities with co-workers, loud enough for everyone to hear. Dana always “forgets” to fill out her time card. Chris texts during meetings and regularly takes personal phone calls at work.
You've got an employee who seems smart and capable, and generally does a great job with the tasks you assign them. But even though you feel you’ve given them plenty of guidance and leadership, they still aren't doing things the way you want them to. How do you handle an employee when their work is good, but their behaviour is a problem?
David Zweig, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto Scarborough, says the first step in dealing with problem behaviour is to determine why it's happening.
“The challenge of a leader is to find out what is motivating this negative behaviour, or lack of behaviour, and get to the bottom of that,” he says. “You really need to sit down with someone and say, 'What's the issue? Explain to me what's going on. Why is it you're having difficulties with these aspects of your job and what can we do to resolve the situation?’”
Although irritating habits might make you think someone is being defiant or lazy or just has a bad attitude, something else might be at play, says Cissy Pau, principal consultant for Vancouver's Clear HR Consulting.
“Sometimes it could be a generational thing – if this is someone who's new to the workforce, or just out of school, they may need more explanation of what it's like in the work world,” she says. “A lot of times it has to do with communication, the explanation of what's important – here are the tasks you need to perform, but also how you need to perform them.”
Ms. Pau points out that sometimes the bad behaviour could have been picked up from others in the office environment, perhaps even the boss.
“If you are saying to employees, 'You've got to be on time to meetings, and don't be texting or tweeting,' but then the manager that's leading the meeting takes a phone call, you're setting the example that it's okay,” she says. “Look at yourself, what are you doing or not doing that's contributing to the behaviour?”
Employees could have personal reasons for things such as lateness or leaving early, says Toronto-based HR consultant Sari Friedman.
“Find out what's behind this need to leave,” she says. “Maybe they have to take their ailing parent for a treatment, or it's because of something they are passionate about that isn't work, like they teach spinning class.”
Both Ms. Pau and Ms. Friedman agree the key to keeping bad habits in check is regular, consistent feedback – not just a once-a-year performance review.
“If a person came late for a meeting, tell them today, don't wait for two weeks,” says Ms. Pau. “Give them specific examples, convey the consequences of what impact the behaviour has on co-workers, the project, the client,” she said.
“It's not realistic that every work relationship is going to come easily,” says Ms. Friedman. “I have a lot of managers who say, 'That's going to take a lot of my time.' But I have to remind them that's why you're called manager, that's what a lot of your time is going to be taken up by. You're not meant to be the ‘do-er’ 100 per cent of the time; at least 20 per cent of the time you've got to be managing people and that means talking to them and giving them feedback in a timely way.”
Ms. Friedman also warns against the “off-the-cuff” admonishment.
“If they're leaving early and you say, ‘Oh, big date tonight?’ – you think you've told them that it bothers you, but you haven't,” she says. “So how seriously have you conveyed that message? You can't expect that they know what you're talking about.”
But if you've determined what's behind the behaviour, given the employee direct feedback and the behaviour stills persists, the question becomes – what can you do to change that behaviour? Is it better to take the carrot or the stick approach?
“Definitely carrot,” says Mr. Zweig. “We know from research that punishment doesn't often work. The problem with the stick is if you're not there to apply the stick, the person is going to revert back to their old habits. And they're also going to blame you for using the stick. When you use punishment, you're teaching them what they're not supposed to do, but you're not teaching them what they're supposed to do. The carrot takes a little longer, but it's much more effective in producing long-term behaviour change.”
Mr. Zweig believes the easiest incentive you can use is simple praise: “Praise is a very effective and underused motivator.”
Ms. Pau suggests that incentives can also be used to encourage good performance. “You pay a person a wage to do a job and if they do their job, they get the wage,” she says. “But if you want someone to do something above and beyond, if you want them to stretch a little bit, that's when you can incent them. That value differs from person to person – it might be money for one, time off for another, a trip to Hawaii to another.”
You can also use performance objectives to communicate to your employee that their bad behaviour might affect advancement, perks and remuneration, suggests Ms. Friedman.
“If you tie it to performance and are doing reviews properly throughout the year, not just a one-hit wonder at the end, you can say ‘You're not trending well in this area, you have been coming late, leaving early, you're only getting 6 per cent on that and not 10 per cent and that affects your bonus,’” she says.
If an employee's behaviour is affecting your bottom line or company morale, that's when it's time to consider termination, says Ms. Pau.
“For example, we have a client who said, 'We have employees who don't fill out time sheets,’ she says. “They're a service company, so the company bills their clients based on the hours employees work. If it's the only way you can invoice a client, at some point it's a really big issue.”
“If you've given the explanation, you've set up the expectations, you've given them feedback, you've given them a reward or the discipline and it doesn't work and you don't see a way out, then maybe that person doesn't fit,” says Ms. Pau.
On the other hand, says Ms. Friedman, it could be that the employee's strengths outweigh the behavioural weaknesses.
“Sometimes you'll say, 'This person's worth it, they're quirky, they're creative,' she said. “I also think that you have to pick and choose – you're not going to be able to change everything about everyone ...You decide which things you can more casually approach and which you need to put your foot down about. There's something about everyone that might not be ideal in a business context, so are you maximizing the good stuff?”
If you find an employee is worth holding on to despite their negative habits, you may need to alter your policies to accommodate them.
For most people, losing their job is the biggest threat posed by tough economic times. Should you be worried?
Before a corporate squall, there are usually warning signs. One of them is a spike in meetings. If private gatherings or quiet tête-à-têtes have grown more frequent at work, it’s likely change is brewing, according to Alan Kearns, head of Toronto-based consulting company Career Joy and author of Get the Right Job Right Now! “You should also look out for managers or leaders at the company acting cooler or under obvious stress.”
Kearns also suggests talking to the company’s salespeople, who are “usually upstream on what’s happening in the organization.” If they’re not hitting their numbers, it could be a sign that cost savings will have to come from somewhere else in the company. Lost contracts or failed bids can also precede cuts.
When fellow staffers are being shown the door, you might have to work harder, or it might be time to look beyond your own firm or even industry for opportunity, says Sari Friedman, a human-resources coach and consultant. “You might decide that ultimately you don’t want to slug it out in this industry doing two people’s jobs at once. There are other industries that are more financially secure and my skills are transferable.” If you were working in finance for a media company, perhaps a move to pharmaceuticals or resources would be beneficial.
Claude Balthazard, a vice-president at the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario, suggests looking for the industries that are growing. “For example, in Ontario you can go to the Job Futures website and it will tell you what the prospects are,” he says. “Health care, with the aging population, is a good place to be. Manufacturing, maybe less so.”
If you decide to stay put, Balthazard advises, “don’t be deadwood.” The easiest way to ensure your security is to be the best at what you do. “Both internally and externally, everyone has a reputation, and the best will be the last to go, and will land quickly in other roles if they find themselves laid off,” Kearns adds.
If the company conducts regular performance reviews, take a second look at those to make sure you’re approaching your objectives. Even if you’re not the company’s star employee, there are other ways to increase your odds of success. “One good way to build stickiness in an organization is by building relationships in different divisions of the company. People with deeper relationships are harder to let go,” he says.
Employees should also look for ways to add value to the company, either by increasing revenue or saving money. Through all this, Kearns notes, being a positive influence on the team can save hard-working people with average skills. “Having a resilient attitude and keeping the team upbeat and motivated is extremely valuable in times of flux and uncertainty.”