Leveraging Informational Interviews for Your Employees’ Development

Leveraging Informational Interviews for Your Employees’ Development

Informational interviewing can give you or your employees the opportunity to gain perspective and hear tips and advice when at a career crossroads. So why isn’t it talked about more, and why aren’t employers actively encouraging their employees to interview or be interviewed themselves more often? Lacey Halpern, Sr. HR Business Partner at Xenium, joins Brandon Laws in a discussion of the do’s and don’t’s of informational interviewing and a walkthrough of how to get started getting the most out of this key professional development strategy.

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MP3 File | Run Time: 24:22

Brandon: Welcome to the HR for Small Business Podcast, this is your host Brandon Laws. I’m back with Lacey Halpern today. Lacey, it’s so good to have you.

Lacey: Thanks for having me!

Brandon: Before we start, I want to encourage our listeners—I know you’re out there since we have a lot of loyal listeners from what I can tell—you’ve given a lot of great feedback about Lacey and we love having her back on the podcast. She will continue to be on, especially as we make it to 100 episodes. We’re almost there, and Lacey, I’m going to have you on for that 100th episode!

But I want to say thank you for downloading our podcast on a regular basis. For those of you that have reached out to us and said how much you like the podcast, we appreciate that as well. And for those of you who maybe haven’t given us feedback and have some thoughts, we would love to hear your feedback. We’re on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, and you can also find us on our blog with the full transcript and all the extra resources.

If you want to give us a review, it could be positive, negative, it could be about how I’m doing as a host, how Lacey is doing as a guest, some of our other guests—it doesn’t matter. We would love to hear from you. We would love to boost up our ratings a little bit and get more feedback from everybody.

With that, we’re going to jump into today’s topic, which is informational interviews. This is something that I’m so fascinated by. I feel like a lot of people aren’t utilizing informational interviewing as a professional development tool. To take it to the business side, I don’t feel like many employers are necessarily encouraging their employees to conduct informational interviews from the perspective of encouraging their specialists in a particular role or an internal HR person to do so. Why wouldn’t they go and conduct an informational interview to an HR director? Or somebody that you want to become in three, four, five years. So let me first ask you, Lacey, what’s an informational interview, for those that don’t really know what it is?

Lacey: I would define it as an opportunity for two, three—you could probably have multiple people in it—to get together and provide a relaxed way of engaging, asking questions, learning a little bit more about a certain topic. It could be an area of expertise, it could be a certain profession, or it could be a university that you’re interested in attending. It’s just a way for somebody to gain firsthand knowledge from somebody who is doing it, living it, in it every day.

Brandon: Do you feel like informational interviewing is off-limits to like senior leaders and is more for entry level or mid-level professionals or do you think that everybody should be doing it?

Lacey: I think anybody could do it. I think when you get into the senior level type roles, oftentimes it may be referred to less as an informational level and more like a peer-to-peer support.

Brandon: Yeah, like networking.

Lacey: Right, like a mentorship type thing. Usually when I think of an informational interview or conversation, there’s some level of difference between the two folks that are having the conversation, and I really believe there’s value on both ends—for both the person that is being interviewed and then the person gaining that information.

Brandon: How do you go about setting something like this up?

Lacey: I think networking is a big part of it. People use lots of different avenues for that. There are professional groups, right? I’m an HR person, so belonging to the Portland Human Resource Management Association is helpful in case I wanted to gain some skills from somebody who’s in a higher-level HR position or maybe they’ve got a specialty that I haven’t done a lot of work in, I might attend some of those meetings. LinkedIn, subscribing to newsletters and being involved in the community of that specialty—

Brandon: A similar type of role. Yeah, yeah.

Lacey: Right, right. I think that’s how you do it.

Brandon: When you’re seeking an informational interview, does it make more sense to connect with somebody you know who knows that person or is it appropriate to just reach out to somebody cold and say, Hey, I would love the opportunity to interview you?

Lacey: I think if you feel confident and can do that, I think that’s great. I’ve had people reach out to me directly that are interested in working at Xenium or getting into HR, and I love that. I’ve also had it be the other way around where they know someone that I also know, mutual friend, and we’re connected that way.

Brandon: I know that, for me, I would be flattered if somebody reached out out of the blue, even if I didn’t know the person, to say, Hey, I’m interested in marketing. I look up to you and I would love to interview you. I’d be like, Yeah, absolutely! I will carve out the time for that.

Lacey: Right.

Brandon: I interviewed Lee Caraher, she’s the author of Millennials and Management. A few weeks back and we just released that podcast. But she had talked about early on in her book that she has allowed people to interview her about 1,000 to 2,000 times. She’s an owner of this business and she makes it a priority to give back in that way because people want to develop professionally and this is a great way to do it. It’s just her way of paying it forward or paying it back to the community.

Lacey: I think that’s great! I think when you’re the person that’s providing that information, you gain from it too. I don’t think I’ve ever had one where there wasn’t a moment as I walked away of realizing I’d learned something new. It also just makes me feel good about the work that we do and how we contribute back to the community. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t had the opportunity to speak to people at Xenium or other HR professionals in the Portland area about what it means to be an HR practitioner.

Brandon: When you’re talking about self-development, I think it has to be this intentional thing. Like, I want to get this out of it, or there’s some sort of purpose to going through the exercise. For example, you just did your SHRM SCP certifications. You did that and the purpose was you wanted to get certified so that you could make more money and have more opportunity and obviously have that on your business card because people oftentimes take you more seriously when you have credentials.

So when you talk about informational interview and its purpose, what do you think those purpose statements would be like for wanting to do them?

Lacey: I think the first thing that stands out to me is that there’s only so much that you can gain from reading books, reading articles, even listening to podcasts, right? So when we’re doing this pre-recorded podcast, the listeners don’t have the opportunity live to ask follow-up questions.

I think there’s just so much value in being able to talk with somebody one-on-one and depending on how they respond to your questions, being able to probe a little bit deeper. There’s just a ton of value in that and for me, face-to-face conversations, I love that. So if there are local listeners who are interested in chatting about HR, I would be super interested in doing that!

Brandon: That’s such a great point. I didn’t even really think about that, I listen to a lot of podcasts and read a lot of books, but it’s such a one-way information stream. I’m just absorbing it as much as I can. Not all of it applies to me and I will kind of tune that out when it doesn’t. But when you interview somebody or you’re being interviewed, it’s a two-way conversation. You can mold the conversation to that person.

Lacey: Right. And thinking about when you’re reading a book, we talk about this all the time with our Xenium Book Club, but the value is not just in the book—it’s in the discussion.

Brandon: Yes!

Lacey: I really believe the discussion that you can have with a like-minded person, who cares about their professional development, it fills you up. There’s a huge amount of value in that.

Brandon: Something just popped in my head—so informational interviews are nice kind of one-and-done situations. Like Hey, I don’t know you Lacey, but I’m an HR professional and I want to interview you and learn from you. It’s usually just a one-time thing, right? But if you take it a little further, it’s almost like a coaching relationship.

Lacey: It could turn into a mentorship and that has happened for me before with someone who’s interested in dabbling in the HR world and they were doing some recruiting and staffing. We just really connected that first time and so decided – hey, you know, why don’t we meet once a month for a while? And that person, a few months down the road, ended up transitioning out of staffing and recruiting and into an HR position.

There’s just a lot of value in being able to talk with somebody about what it is that they’re doing, especially if you’re at a pivotal point in your career or your education where you’re trying to decide what road you want to take. Talking with somebody who’s doing that work can be of huge value.

Brandon: Especially if you hear it firsthand from somebody who’s like 20, 30 years down the road in that type of role and they’re like, Man, I would have done things a lot differently—like, whoa! These are all the things I was unaware of, thank you for shedding some light on what could have been a rocky career ahead or something.

Lacey: And because the world is changing so fast and for example, in marketing, there are so many specialties within that field now. Same with HR. If I had a conversation with somebody about HR ten years ago, it would have been very different. Now it’s just so deep and wide, the discussion can be boundless and really fun, a lot of fun.

Brandon: When you think about our listeners who are mostly HR professionals and small business leaders. How do informational interviews play a role in the development of their people? An HR manager is focused on developing resources and programs and processes for their people. Where do informational interviews play a role in development and how do you roll something like this out, whether it’s formal or informal? How do you communicate like, here’s your permission. Go do it.

Lacey: I think if I’m an HR person internally or a business owner and I want to allow my employees to go out and seek information, I think the initial response for a business owner might be, Oh, that feels a little bit strange. Why can’t they get that information here? But I would encourage folks to think strategically and critically about it because there are some roles where they may not get the mentorship or the development they want because there’s no one in a higher level position in the same department or same role. Being able to seek out information elsewhere is important. I think, too, it broadens people’s perspectives and you learn a lot. Plus, information can be taken back to the company, implemented, and could be a benefit to the organization.

On the flipside, to allow your employees to be the ones that are being interviewed, that has a huge impact on a lot of things like employer value proposition, your brand. If I’m out talking about what it’s like to work at Xenium, I’m talking about how great it is! I know that the more that we do that, the more we become a place where an HR person wants to go to work. So people think, when I graduate with my HR degree, that’s the place I want to land.

Brandon: Yeah. When I think about the times I’ve done informational interviews, I’ve done them in a bunch of different ways. I’ve had phone calls with people, if the distance was too far. I’ve taken people to coffee, lunch, happy hour. What has worked best for you either on the receiving end of an informational interview or when giving one?

Lacey: I think both phone and face to face work just fine. I don’t know that it would work too well over some type of electronic media email or some type of chat thing.

Brandon: Yeah. It’s hard to focus.

Lacey: But the face-to-face or the phone, Skype too, the abilities that we have now to do video conferencing, I think any of that is fine. You want it to be casual, relaxed. Sometimes it’s nice to, depending on the type of position that you’re in, maybe you’d want to bring them into your operations so they can see what the building is like. I’m thinking like a manufacturing facility, being able to walk the floor, do a tour. Those types of things might be helpful, too.

Brandon: I want to provide listeners with some tools for either rolling this out to their people or if they themselves are thinking, Hey, I have not really thought about doing informational interviews. What should I do?

What are the landmines that you run into in giving one? What things irritate you the most with people who maybe come unprepared or ask the wrong questions? What sticks out to you?

Lacey: Making sure that if you’re going to allow your employees to be the one being interviewed, make sure that they’re aware of what types of information wouldn’t be appropriate to share, confidential things, trademark stuff. I think most people that would be doing these types of interviews would have the sense to know what not to share, but making sure that that’s clear, making sure that you’ve communicated to employees how frequent they’re allowed to do this is important. Are they allowed to leave the building to do it, for instance?

All those types of little detail things are important to outline. For me, when I have been interviewed, I can’t think of a time where I’ve had a bad experience.

Brandon: That’s interesting!

Lacey: But just like a job interview, if someone came unprepared, if they weren’t taking it seriously, if it felt like they were doing it to check something off a box, those would be the things that might get under my skin. I take this stuff really seriously and I care a lot about paying it forward and helping develop other people. So if somebody weren’t taking it seriously, I might feel disrespected or might not want to do it again.

Brandon: What’s going through my head right now is that if someone is aware of what it is and how powerful it can be, they do come prepared. They ask the right questions. They don’t ask, Is there a job available for me? at the very end of the interview or something like that, which would be super awkward. But for those who are unaware of it, I don’t know this for a fact, but I feel like if they were likely pushed into it by some external force.

Lacey: Yeah. They may have been encouraged.

Brandon: Friends, family, or even if they do have a job, maybe their manager said, Hey, go do an informational interview. I think somebody has to start that way, but I think for most people, they probably are not aware of what it is or how powerful it can be. What do you think about that notion?

Lacey: I do think that there probably comes a point for some people where maybe they’re frustrated in their current job, they’re at some crossroads or turning point, or they have to make some type of decision about their future, so they seek out some additional information. Maybe it’s a referral. For me, it was trying to figure out what is it that I want to do – did I want to keep doing what I was doing or did I want to do something different? I think back and wish that I would have done this while I was in school, because it may have changed some of the classes that I chose to take.

Brandon: I bet it would have a huge influence on what classes you took.

Lacey: I do think so! But hindsight is 20/20.

Brandon: I think it’s also a snapshot of the time, too, because if you talk to certain people – like if I was talking to a college student right now, I would say, Get into marketing right now because it’s fast-paced. Technology is changing and the money can be there, later on in your career. But that’s a snapshot in time, something may completely change economically. So what if you got swayed in college by somebody you do an informational interview with and they tell you good advice for the time but ten years later when you’re in your profession, it actually hurts you?

Lacey: It could have totally changed the trajectory of your career. So yeah, when looking back on decisions, I didn’t have a lot of people who were working professionals that I was talking to. I was working in college but certainly not in a professional-type setting. Could it have changed things? Maybe, I’m really happy with where I’m at and what I did, but I think it could be really valuable and maybe valuable for folks who aren’t even in college, who are in high school, in really trying to decide what they want to do with their life.

Brandon: When I gave my first informational interview, I will never forget this. It was a situation where I was sort of encouraged by somebody else to go interview this particular person. Super smart in his area, good with data and whatnot. I remember prepping so much – I had all my questions lined up, I brought a notepad. I even asked at the time, I took him to lunch and said, Is it OK if I take notes?

Now we have tablets and whatnot, but this was probably 6, 7 years ago and I was handwriting everything at lunch. It was really hard to do, and it made it kind of awkward! What have you seen work? If people who want to take notes or come with sort of a plan, a schedule, what works?

Lacey: I think that works great to use technology, use a tablet. Maybe you even get their permission to record them so that you can go back later and take notes. When you were talking, it was making me think about a few weeks ago I was at a Starbucks working in between client appointments and there was this young gentleman that was sitting there. He was probably in his early 20s and he just looked really nervous and he looked like he had kind of dressed up and he had a notebook and I thought, I wonder if he’s doing a job interview or something.

This gentleman, older gentleman, kind of walks in, was probably in his mid-50s. Sits down, shakes his hand, and it was totally an informational interview. What ended up happening, I could kind of overhear that he was in school for accounting and part of his curriculum in one of the classes was that he had to interview a small business owner about how they do their accounting. Do you outsource it? Do you work with a bookkeeper? I was so impressed with the man that he was interviewing because he was so patient and some of the questions that this younger gentleman was asking could have seemed really basic for this business owner who was successful and had this large construction company in the northwest.

I was just so impressed with the care that he took in answering all of his questions and the young guy was taking notes and was really detailed and I’m sure went back to his class and his team, whatever project they were working on, and felt filled up and learned 10 times what he might have learned reading a book about how to do accounting in a small business. This man was really open with him and thoughtful and I was super impressed.

Brandon: What’s interesting, just taking a marketing spin, like I always do, now that that college student probably has a really great impression of that business and that business owner. Like, oh, all business owners aren’t evil! You know, there’s a weird stigma around like CEOs and what not. These people want to give back and if you just ask them, they probably would give back in a great way and provide you with a lot of knowledge that you cannot get in college. It’s a great supplement and you have to just ask.

Lacey: Yes, just ask!

Brandon: It’s so great to hear a story like that. If I was in his shoes, I would be so nervous too. But he came prepared as you’ve alluded to and I’m sure it went fine.

Lacey: Yeah, it went well and he learned a ton. It was fun to sit there and kind of overhear their conversation.

Brandon: If you’re talking about organizations saying, Hey, this is a tool. We encourage you as employees to do this and we support that, do you think that’s on paid time? Is it outside of work? I could see it being both. But have you seen any employers doing things a certain way?

Lacey: I haven’t seen any employers use it as some type of formal program.

Brandon: Like a benefit program?

Lacey: Yeah, certainly nothing that they advertise. But I think it rolls up into the perks of being an employee where an employer cares about professional development.

Brandon: Absolutely.

Lacey: I think it can be something that gets talked about when managers are having one-on-ones with employees. When you realize as a leader that there’s a gap in what it is that you’re able to give this employee or maybe you could do it, but sometimes it’s nice to just hear it from somebody else, right? It’s like how your kids go over to your parents’ house and they listen really well and take the feedback that they don’t always with you. I think that can happen in the workplace too. So with a different perspective and different voice, the same information can be valuable.

I think it’s a tool for a leader to have in their back pocket, for owners to start to get comfortable with, for their employees to give them and then for employees to go out and seek that information too.

Brandon: As we wrap this up, I did want to say that much like a mentor relationship or a coaching relationship, there may be private things shared in an interview like this, especially if you want to get a lot out of it. I think you need to be vulnerable. You’re like this, you’re very vulnerable at times and you get a lot out of that because now the other person can open up and share.

I think in these informational interviews, it’s no different. It’s like hey look, I’m scared. I don’t know where my career is going to go, etc. I think if you’re able to do that, the other person can open up as well and really be authentic about hey, here’s my experience. See, I went through the same thing. But how important it is after the fact to not share that information? I don’t think it’s fair to share it. What do you think about that?

Lacey: I agree. It’s out of respect.

Brandon: It should be confidential.

Lacey: I think they’re coming to the conversation to get feedback from you and I always think treat people how you want to be treated. So yeah, it’s a respectful relationship where you’re not going to share, on either part, the information. You may take some of the tips and tools and things you learn and implement those, but we want to be respectful of things that are confidential or where people are being really vulnerable.

Brandon: Who’s your biggest idol right now?

Lacey: Hm. Michelle Obama.

Brandon: Ok. If you had an informational interview with her and you can only ask two questions, what do you ask her?

Lacey: I think I would ask her, when you were in school, either undergrad or graduate school, what would you have done differently? Looking back now at how your career has gone, what would you have done differently then?

I would probably also ask her something around what tips or tools do you have for balancing the responsibilities that you have as a mother of two young girls and also being a professional with a career that you spent a lot of time and money and energy developing. How do you balance that?

Who would you interview, Brandon?

Brandon: I don’t know who I would! But I know the question I would ask.

Lacey: Ok.

Brandon: Especially somebody who was maybe at the top of their game and is very successful. I would probably ask, in your darkest and worst times, what got you out of the hard times?

Lacey: That’s a good one.

Brandon: What drove you to keep going to get over that hurdle and know that you’re at your bottom and now there’s only up to go? Everybody has a different answer for that. It may be luck. It may be I just …

Lacey: You didn’t have a choice.

Brandon: You didn’t have a choice! You were going to starve. You were living in your car. I don’t know what it was. But that would be a very powerful question, I think, for the right person.

Lacey: Yeah, that’s great.

Brandon: Anyway, this was a fun discussion, Lacey! I appreciate it.

Lacey: Yeah, thanks for having me!

Brandon: Our guest today was Lacey Halpern. She has been on probably 15 episodes by now and we will have her back for more.

Definitely give us feedback if you can, iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play. You can get the transcript and take a couple of surveys on our blog for this podcast episode. So again, thanks for the download today and Lacey, thanks for being a part of the podcast.

Lacey: Thanks!

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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