3 Ingredients for Meaningful Informational Interviews

Mario Arthur-Bentil
Mario Arthur-Bentil

Mario Arthur-Bentil is a part-time MBA student at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, with a concentration in Enterprise Risk Management. He is also a senior consultant for EY, working on the U.S. Army Audit Readiness Project. He works on a team that is conducting budget valuations for various helicopters, missiles, and tanks. During his spare time, Mario likes to cook, bake, play flag and fantasy football, and learn how to code.

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I love to bake and cook, and Martha Stewart is one of my patron saints so I am a regular visitor of her website for recipes. I’m also an avid fan of BuzzFeed’s Tasty videos. Baking for the most part is about precision and baked goods cannot exist without all the ingredients. I translate these ingredients into three elements that make the foundation of a good informational interview.

Know Myself

First, you need eggs as protein; they are the strength of the baked good. In the context of informational interviews, the eggs symbolize your values: what you use to determine if a particular job or industry is right for you and if your life’s calling can stem out of it.

Let’s take a look at one of my first few introduction emails that I wrote to a Vassar alumna a year after I graduated in 2011. At the time, I had a contractor position with the Fed Reserve and I wasn’t sure if my contract would get extended or not. Fortunately, I was brought on permanently in 2012, but in 2011, I had to keep my options open.

The email to Ms. Alumna is simple enough:

Ms. Alum replied and rightfully asked what I would like to find out. What was I looking for? By my reply, I obviously didn’t know:

Guess what happened after that? No response. Shocker.

I contacted this alumna because she worked at a prestigious investment firm and I figured a position there would make me look good. It was closely related to my major and the average salary was high. It made sense. But I didn’t truly know if that was what I was built for. I didn’t have a strong love for finance and didn’t know if I had the desire to go through the rigorous lifestyle it may entail. More important, I didn’t know what I could learn from an experience like that and how it would add to my values.

The job search begins with our values. Values define what’s important to us and what’s worth to fight for. Values can be as general as equality, happiness, and solidarity, or they can be as specific as healthy collaboration on a work team or consistent professional development.

Here’s one way I’ve used to determine my values: write down, without hesitation, the times that you’ve been your happiest, most curious, and challenged. Think about classes you’ve taken, club activities you’ve participated in, internships you had. As you write things down, see if there is any overlap between the three categories. Let that be your foundation.

Know My Connection

Ok, now we’re cooking. Next comes the flour. Flour is the binding agent that keeps everything connected. When you reach out to your person of interest, what knowledge does he or she have that you want to learn more about? That’s the basis of your initial connection.

How do you start? Do you have to find common ground beyond the same university? No! But you do have to come prepared with thoughtful questions and comments, and throw your experience back at them as well.

Let’s go back to that email I sent to Ms. Alumna. What is the difference between that email and this next one?

Besides the name change, nothing else. It’s a template. I’m cookie cutting [a baking joke]. I used “diligent,” trying to be slick. Look, all companies would consider their employees “diligent.” I mentioned nothing distinct about the firm, but most important, I mentioned nothing distinct about the alumnus.

Fortunately, Mr. Alumnus responded, probably out of sympathy because I didn’t send a good email. He was very kind.

What can you do to prevent something like this from happening? Start with this cardinal rule: Know As Much As You Can about Your Alumni.

Google them. See if they’ve written any articles. Given any lectures or interviews. Check out their social media feeds (particularly LinkedIn). Are they influencers? If so, follow them. What type of things are they posting about? Read it and engage.

If you can’t find anything about them, you can find plenty about their company and their industry. Ask them what their thoughts on trends in the field are. The constructive and smart questions initiate the conversation. Anything that you can easily find the answer to on the firm’s website (job openings, mission statements, what they do) or on their LinkedIn profile is a wasted question. Like the one I posed earlier. Don’t be the old me.

Think of smart questions as a means to get the low down on what it’s like to work in the said company. Sample questions I’ve used in the past include:

What’s the one important thing you do every day that most people don’t know about?

What type of career development opportunities have you undertaken in your company?

Do you take part in a mentorship program and if so, what is the nature of said program?

Here’s an example of an email I sent to an acquaintance who was a year ahead of me in high school. I hadn’t spoken to her in quite some time. I tried to keep it short and sweet in my email and my plan was to expand during the chat. Plan as if you’ll speak for 15 minutes, but the hope is that the conversation will last longer.

Keep the Spark Alive

Then you have the sugar. It sweetens the baked good and is essential. With the bond you’ve established, you want to keep the relationship on a good note. It doesn’t mean you have to contact the alumni frequently after the initial contact, but you should build up on the subjects discussed in your initial conversation and how they have impacted you.

You had your initial conversation with the alumna. You two hit it off and you feel better informed about the alumna’s career challenges, her foresight into her industry and so on. But what if you feel the conversation ended on a “dot” instead of a “dot dot dot”? How can you pick off where you left off?

There’s no right answer, but I will say that your email to pick up the dialogue should contain something about what you’ve been up to since you two last spoke and some inquiries about the alum’s life. That, my friends, is the sugar. Be sweet. Show you care. Don’t overthink it. You’ve already started the exchange and you can continue it.

You want to have a conversation with your person of interest that has good ebb and flow. That’s the idea of sparking the plug: having a connection that’s dynamic and has warmth. And that is created with knowing what you want, asking engaging questions, and responding to what you learned.

Good luck!

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