Mentorship is critical to success. Informational interviews give us a window into the career and lifestyle that a senior leader embodies. I started doing informational interviews my sophomore year of college, when I reached out to the author of a fascinating article I read in Fast Company. While informational interviews are often thought of as career research and networking, they are also a wonderful way for budding professionals to find mentors who exemplify a grey lifestyle.
One hundred interviews later, I am still using the same fundamentals to gather information. This support has been invaluable and has helped to root my decisions in realistic understandings of the world. These informed decisions are stepping stones to a life in the grey.
Here are seven tips to forge a successful mentorship and get the most out of your informational interviews.
1. Be Bold. Don’t be afraid to reach out to senior level executives. Send an email and then send a follow up a week or two later. The worst thing that can happen is that there will be silence on the other side of that email. Most people are willing to help – you just have to ask.
2. Set Goals before the Call. Once you’ve secured an opportunity to chat with someone, write down two to three goals before each call. Examples of goals could be to: understand the difference between sectors, or to find out what new skills to learn to be a success in the industry. Stay on track during the call by making sure you are moving toward your goals with each follow up question you ask.
The goal should never, ever be to get a job. Informational interviews are about learning and exploring. Jobs are great, but they will come organically as you start to develop a concrete plan for achieving your long-term goals.
3. Approach the Conversation Broadly. Explain who you are in less than 60 seconds and then ask a broad question about this person’s work. By asking a broad question, you will often learn something about their background that you did not find in your research. Starting broadly opens opportunities for learning and establishes common ground.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions. While interviewing does imply asking questions, some questions show off knowledge and others embrace our lack of knowledge. I encourage you to embrace your more vulnerable, less knowledgable side. Admitting you don’t know something is a sign of intelligence and grit. Ask to find out what you do not know.
5. Piggyback Information. You will often hear conflicting opinions from respected leaders in your field; often there are no “right” career answers. Embrace the ambiguity and ask trusted mentors about advice that you have received. Make sure not to attribute any advice to a mentor by name. Keep your notes in one place so that you can more easily synthesize these conflicting opinions to develop a perspective of your own.
6. Don’t Limit Yourself. Take a chance and strike up a conversation with professionals in tangential fields. Learning about work in related industries, sectors or divisions will open your mind to new opportunities. It will also help you to get a big picture understanding of your own industry’s role within the larger ecosystem.
7. Give Back. Be willing to return the favor to your mentor. If you click with a mentor, he/she may give you the chance to get more experience by helping out on an unpaid, freelance basis. I have gotten the chance to proofread subtitles for a national PSA, provide stylistic feedback on a book cover, share my reflections on a business plan, and more. Even if the project is not directly related to your interests, embrace the opportunity to gain a window into various industries, projects and careers. Any experience is good experience and you never know how that project may inspire or inform your next career choice.
One of the keys to living a grey life – whether you start something new or join a company you admire – is exploration. As the Live in the Grey philosophy states, Be Curious. Ask Why. A lot. Informational interviews help you to explore many different career paths within a relatively short amount of time. They open your mind to new possibilities and sometimes even allow you to try out the position through mini projects. The perspective that they give you helps you to make choices and develop a vision that creates a sustains a grey lifestyle.
[Image: Flickr user Steve A Johnson]