Skip the Job Boards. Go on Informational Interviews
The first time I ever met my friend Bruce, I was sitting in his office in downtown Indianapolis. Bruce Hetrick owned the biggest PR agency in the city, with more than 30 employees and clients all over the country, and he had invited me to his office to talk with him.
I had reached out to Bruce because he wrote a regular column in the Indianapolis Business Journal. We were both writers, and we shared some of the same ideas, so I wanted to learn more about/from him.
I had reached out to Bruce because I wanted to learn more about the marketing and PR landscape in Indianapolis, because I didn't know anything about it.
I had reached out to Bruce while I was working at a job in state government that I detested and I was desperate to get out of. My hope was that he could help me crack the seemingly impenetrable wall the rest of the agency world lived behind.
We talked for well over an hour, just about things we both enjoyed, our writing processes, column writing, the city, our families, and the industry. When we were nearly done, Bruce told me why he agreed to meet with me.
"When I moved to Indiana in the '80s, I didn't have a job, didn't have any freelance work, and I didn't know anyone in the industry. So I started having coffee meetings with people. I would ask them about the city and about the local agency scene. We would chat and learn more about each other. And at the end, I would ask them if there was anyone else I should talk to. They always had someone in mind, so I would ask them for an introduction.
"After three months of this, I had enough offers for 40 hours a week of freelance work, and I had three job offers, including running the PR department at a small hospital [which has turned into the state's largest hospital network. — Erik]. I took that job for several years, and left to start this company.
"I was able to do all that, because I spent three months having informational interviews with influential people I didn't know. So when you asked to meet with me, I knew I had to do the same for you."
It was such a simple secret, but it had such a profound impact on Bruce's career, and ultimately on the entire city. It also shaped the way I looked for jobs, clients, and work opportunities.
So I stole it. (With his blessing, of course.)
The Big Secret to Job Searching Success
The problem with most job searches is that people spend all their time on the job boards. I've heard newly-unemployed people say they're going to dedicate their old 40-hour work week to spending that time on the job boards looking for a new job.
This is a waste of time.
First of all, you need to know that 85% of all jobs are filled through networking.
Not job boards. Not filling out applications on someone's website. Not Indeed, Monster, CareerBuilder, or ZipRecruiter. Not the careers section of a major corporation.
It's an old cliché, but a job search really is a matter of "it's not who you know, it's who knows you." And networking is all about getting people to know you.
If 85% of jobs are filled through networking, the other 15% are found through job boards. So why would you spend 100% of your work week on something that only has a 15% return?
Be strategic about your job search instead, and spend 85% of your time networking with real people over coffee, over lunch, at networking meetings, or at special events. (Save the remaining six hours for writing blog posts to impress people when they check out your website.)
Some networking can happen online, but I'm a firm believer in sitting across from someone, talking with them face-to-face, and hearing their voice. If that doesn't work for logistical reasons, then a video call is an acceptable substitute.
How to Get an Informational Interview
Let me tell you a secret about job searching: Nobody wants to talk to someone looking for a job.
No one wants to talk to a job seeker. They've got Proper Channels for that. If you send someone your résumé out of the blue, chances are they're going to forward it on to their HR department, because that's where the Proper Channels are. (I capitalized it to make it sound sinister. Like Roz from Monsters, Inc. Roz is Proper Channels.)
Even if you are the Chosen One, and your very presence will save a company from the brink of disaster and make it a global powerhouse, and the CEO will grow all his (or her) hair back, they don't want to talk to you.
If you're a freelancer, and you want to talk to a department manager about doing some project work, they may want to talk to you. (Read June's column about starting your own business when you lose your job.)
But people will fall all over themselves when you ask them to talk about their most favoritest subject in the whole world: themselves.
All you have to do is call or email them and say, "I would like to learn more about the [insert your industry] here in [insert your city], and how you got your start. I was wondering if we could meet for coffee at [insert your favorite independent coffee shop; support your local merchants!]."
After you buy their coffee (always buy their coffee), ask them all kinds of questions. Ask where they went to school. Ask about their first job. Ask how they ended up in their current position.
Take lots of notes. Write everything down. It makes you look like you're listening, but more importantly, it helps you build an encyclopedia of important people you'll meet over the next several years, because you'll want to make referrals and connections back to them. (Read May's article on how to make a proper email introduction.)
Then, just as the meeting is ending, ask them, "is there anyone else you think I should talk to?" When they say yes, you say, "Great. Could you introduce me to them?" (Make sure they read May's article on proper email introductions too.) Don't accept a "just call them and tell them I sent you." That's not a proper referral. But if that's all they do, then plow ahead and call the other person.
When you get that introduction, be the first to follow up. Don't wait for the other person, and don't take a non-response as an answer; follow up again a week later if you haven't heard anything. Remember, you're offering them a chance to talk about themselves, so if they haven't written to you, it's because they're busy, not because they're not interested.
Go on as many of these interviews as you can, meet as many people as possible, but never, ever ask for a job. You'll have a chance to talk about your job search and the kind of work you're looking for, but don't ask. It's bad form.
What will most likely happen instead is, the other person will be so impressed by your intelligence (because they'll do all the talking, and we seem smarter the more we listen), and have a warm fuzzy feeling, they'll volunteer the names of people who need someone like you.
This is how Bruce got those job and freelance offers during his three month journey. He listened, he shared what he knew, and people were more than happy to help him out. I've known other people who have had similar successes, and it's worked for me as well. This advice ultimately led me to owning my own business, co-authoring four social media books, starting a speaking career, and even getting a monthly column here on Networking For Nice People.
That's the power of the informational interview, and the power of networking. If there is only one tool you can pack in your job search toolbox, this is it.
I've counseled hundreds of people to follow this advice in my talks, and it is one of the cornerstones of the new edition of Branding Yourself (due out at the end of this month). I've heard stories from readers and audience members who have landed projects, clients, internships, and full-time jobs this way, and I'm convinced of its power.
So if you're looking for a job, find someone who works in the industry you'd like to join/rejoin, and reach out to them. Invite them to sit with you for an hour and tell you their life story. Then ask if they know anyone else you could talk to, and start the whole process all over again. Repeat until you achieve the desired result. And then, in a few years, be prepared to meet with someone who comes knocking on your door, asking if they could meet with you.
Because your whole life, and theirs, could change over a single cup of coffee.
Erik Deckers is the president of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing agency with clients throughout the United States. He is also the co-author of Branding Yourself, No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine. Erik has been blogging since 1997, and a newspaper humor columnist since 1994. He has written several radio and stage plays, and numerous business articles. Erik was the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL, and now serves on their board of directors.
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