Learn how to leverage your network during a job search without begging for favors.
Q: What is the best way to contact connections and ask them for an informational interview without making it sound like you need a favor? Most people think that the person just wants a job, so they do not reply. —M.R., Claremont, CA
A: I am a big fan of conducting informational interviews as part of any job seeker’s networking strategy, especially if you’re new to the job market or considering a career transition to a new field or industry.
They are a great way to grow your connections, promote your personal brand, learn about the job market in your targeted field and uncover unpublished job leads.
However, they’re not about begging for favors. You should never go into an informational interview expecting to come away with a job lead. As the name suggests, the goal of an informational interview is to gather more information and grow your network so you’re better equipped to navigate the job market. A job lead would be a bonus.
But before we talk about how to reach out to your connections, we first need to discuss who you should be reaching out to.
Take a good look at your current network and prioritize your contacts based on their ability to help you. The first group will be people within your current or desired line of work: former colleagues, vendors, business partners, customers and so forth. Hopefully these are people with whom you’ve maintained a friendly, if not close, relationship. Who in this group is actually in a position to know about industry news and job openings? Target those people.
But there’s also another group of contacts that will be incredibly valuable because of their social reach. They are the social butterflies among your circle of friends. You know the ones – they tend to run in a number of very different social circles and love gathering people together and making introductions. Malcolm Gladwell refers to them as “connectors” in his book, The Tipping Point. Whether in your industry or not, connectors like this can be an important gateway to other valuable connections.
This social butterfly will be able to put you in touch with people you might never meet otherwise — and talking you up to connections could help you secure a phone call or lunch meeting. A social butterfly is good at that.
Now that we’ve identified the right people to target, it’s time to discuss your approach.
When you’ve been out of contact with people you’ve worked with in the past, it can feel very weird reaching out. And you’re right – the assumption will probably be that you’re looking for job leads. To help combat that, I recommend you reconnect before you ask for anything. Send a simple note via email or over one of your social networks saying hi and asking how everything is going. If you’ve noticed they’ve changed companies or passed some career or family milestone, mention it and congratulate them (hint: do a little online research). It’s an easy excuse to reach out.
Subject Line: Catching Up – Amanda Augustine
Long time no speak!
How’s everything at Amgen these days? I was on LinkedIn yesterday and noticed you were recently promoted to Senior Director – congratulations! How’s the new gig treating you?
I’d love to grab lunch with you next week and catch up. Let me know if you’re available.
Please send my hellos to Brennan and the boys!
The fall season is also a great time to reconnect with people you haven’t spoken to in a while. Find out how their summer was, and now that everyone is back to school and their old routines, it’s the perfect time to catch up over lunch or happy hour. There’s no major “ask” on your part, and it won’t appear like you’re begging for job help.
Once you’ve reconnected, then you can pick their brain about their company or industry, and find out if they can help. Don’t ask for a job. Most people you meet with won’t be able to offer that type of help. And if they have to say no, it makes them less likely to help you in other ways. What you can ask for is a job reference, an introduction to another contact or some insight into the industry.
If it’s an acquaintance that one of your friends or colleagues knows well and has recommended you speak with, the best thing to do is ask your contact to send an email of introduction to you and the acquaintance. This works well because your friend will most likely speak to the person individually before sending an email, already advocating on your behalf (always a good thing!). When you respond, it’s best to reply-all to the message, leaving your mutual contact copied on your email response, so it will be clear that you replied.
In some cases, your friend will simply speak to the acquaintance over the phone on your behalf and you will be tasked with sending a note to the person first. If you find yourself in this situation, ask your friend for the person’s email address and send a message referencing the mutual friend’s name in the subject line. Clearly explain why you’re reaching out (hint: don’t say you want them to help you find a job) and end with a call to action. Here’s a sample message you can use as a starting point:
Subject: Hello from Sarah Brinker’s friend
Our mutual friend Sarah Brinker recommended I reach out to you, as I’m exploring different career options and am very interested in learning more about the healthcare field (specifically pharmaceuticals). From what Sarah has said, it sounds like you’ve had quite an amazing career at Johnson & Johnson! I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee next week and pick your brain. Please let me know if you’d be open to meeting. I look forward to hearing from you.
Pay it forward
When connecting with either type of contact in your network, look for ways where you can provide value or offer help. During your job search, you’ll learn a ton about the job market that the average professional doesn’t know. Share information you’ve learned along the way that is relevant to your contact – this could be in the form of industry news, a recruiter recommendation or a job opening that is a good fit for that person.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to provide value that’s strictly job-related. Perhaps your contact is a major sports fan and you heard about some great documentary that’s coming out about a favorite team – send the link to let him know you thought of him. Perhaps during lunch the person mentions that her family is planning a trip to Bermuda and you’ve been there before. Offer to email her a few restaurant recommendations.
Approach networking and informational interviews as a give-and-take relationship where you will gain as well as provide value, and you will find it much easier to reach out to people without turning into a beggar.
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Amanda Augustine is the Job Search Expert for TheLadders. She provides job search and career guidance for professionals looking to make their next career move. Have a question for Amanda? Submit your question here for a chance to have it answered in her weekly column, and be sure to follow her at @JobSearchAmanda on Twitter and “Like” her on Facebook for up-to-the-minute job-search advice.