Get the Job Feb 25 2010

The Art of the Finance Meet-and-Greet: How to Make Informational Interviews Work for You

In any economy, the majority of available jobs aren't openly advertised but are on the "hidden job market." With so many people unemployed in finance, employers are even more wary of posting positions publicly. One of the best ways to keep apprised of open jobs and make yourself available to firms is by conducting an informational interview.

During an informational interview, a candidate gets to pick the brain of a potential employer in order to get a glimpse into a company's business structure, work culture and the demands of specific positions. Although it isn't the right place to blatantly sell yourself to the employer, with the right preparation you can get on a hiring manager's radar and even land a job.

Talking to the Right People
First, you want to identify the right person to speak with at a prospective employer. Unless you work in human-resources, avoid interviewing with a human-resources representative. For instance, if you work in accounting, ask for an interview with a principal accountant. One of the best ways to land an informational interview is by getting an introduction. Tap your network of friends, families, former colleagues, professional groups and LinkedIn contacts to see what connections they have in companies that interest you.

Take What You Can Get
"Financial services have been so devastated so there's a chance that a lot of the companies out there have gone through reductions in force and may seem a little shy about offering informational interviews," says Julie Kniznik, a senior consultant with outplacement firm ClearRock, based in Boston. With this in mind, she says to accept whatever scenario the interviewee puts forth whether it be a 30-minute in person interview, a 20-minute phone call or email correspondence.

Doing the Work
Once you have a date set, do your due diligence. Research the company similarly to how you'd prepare for an actual interview and also search for references to the company in the news, says Cheryl Yung, a senior vice president at outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison, based in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. You'll also want to be aware of developments happening in the industry which can help lead to a more robust conversation, adds Yung.

Stevie Toepke, recruiting director for boutique mergers and acquisition advisory firm Harris Williams, based in Richmond, Va., says she expects candidates to come well prepared and know recent deals the firm has closed. Prepare between 15 and 20 intelligent questions to ask during the course of the interview. Some appropriate topics include inquiries as to how the firm sources candidates, opportunities of mobility in the organization, and what the corporate culture is like.

Also, research the particular person you will be interviewing, says Kniznik. You'll want to know the person's role in the organization, information about the sector they work in and as much as possible about their career path ahead of the interview. Searching for the person on social networking sites can help you gather information about their education and roles at their current company as well as prior jobs.

Charles Krawitz was laid off from his position at KeyBank in April where he headed up the bank's small balance multifamily lending platform. Upon being laid off, he scheduled two informational interviews after reaching out to his network for referrals. Before meeting with each person, he researched the company and the person's history, and also reached out to the mutual acquaintance to glean whatever information he could.

Dress for Success
Although informational interviews are more casual than a formal interview, the dress code remains the same. "Sometimes people come in right off the street and it can be disconcerting when I'm in front of senior management," says Marietta Bottero, vice president of human resources at BMO Capital Markets, based in Montreal. "Business casual isn't appropriate," she adds.

Be Fashionably Early -- And Ready
Arrive at the interview 10 to 15 minutes early with your questions prepared, but don't ask them in a rapid fire way. Instead, use the questions as a way to develop a back and forth conversation with the interviewee where you can also share your own experiences with the person, says Bottero, who frequently conducts informational interviews.

The Soft Sell
While you shouldn't be overly aggressive in selling yourself during the interview, you will want to prepare vignettes to work into the conversation that show off your strengths and areas of expertise, says Kniznik. "If you want someone to put in a good word for you, you'll have to show them your strengths and interests," she says. Also consider how your attributes could contribute to the company. However, avoid the mistake many candidates make on informational interviews: blatantly asking for a job. Also, be careful not to ask questions that should be reserved for the final rounds of actual interviews such as inquiries surrounding compensation, says Toepke.

Etiquette is Key
Be mindful of the interviewee's time. Bottero says it can be awkward when people overstay their welcome and she has to ask them to leave. In general, don't plan on spending more than 30 minutes with the interviewee. As with a job interview, send a thank you note within three days of your meeting to show that you value the person's time and advice. Also be sure to follow up throughout the year and keep the person apprised of your employment situation, says Kniznik. An easy way to do this, she says, is to send the person relevant articles they may find interesting or holiday cards.

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Depending on how an interview goes, you could land a position with the firm or be contacted by them once jobs open up. One of Krawitz's informational interviews resulted in a job offer although he ultimately turned the offer down.

Even if a company isn't currently hiring, making a good impression during an informational interview can give candidates an edge. "If they are a good match during an informational interview, they will be the first people who get a call when the market starts to turn," says Toepke.

-- Dana Mattioli

Email Dana about this article here. Please make sure to include the title of the article in the email subject line.

Related Content:

-- Nailing Your Finance Interview

-- After the Interview: How to Land a Finance Job

-- Preparing for Behavioral and Case Interviews




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