Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tips on Informational Interviewing with Delia Christina

Lately, I’ve been fielding calls from recent college grads (or their family friends) for informational interviews and I don’t quite know how to feel about it. Ambivalent about my own professional standing and trajectory, I don’t quite know what insights I’m supposed to give these young people. Sure, I have a solid list of contacts (not as fabulous as some, but it’s still a good one); but informational interviewing should be about more than just a polite way to demand names. I see it as a mini-mentoring opportunity.

And since I’m big on mentoring folks who look like me, I was doubly ambivalent when the two people I spoke with this week didn’t look like me. Their accumulated gender, race and class privilege outweighed any contacts or leads I could give them in a lifetime.

The bitchy thought crossed my mind, “Shit, why should I waste my time and so-called insight on these two when I could be giving them to another woman of color?”

But I tamped down my impatience and made the appointments with them – because that’s what you do when you’re a professional. You realize that the job search is a dance and these sorts of interviews are part of the choreography. Also, there was no way I was going to look bad in front of the people who referred them to me. So on Monday, I met with a very nice college grad who’s earnestly interested in women’s advocacy – or law school – and today I met with a guy who’s been interning at our org at a long-term research position.

The recent grad was a dream. She was prepared. She came with a list of orgs she was interested in; she had already met with a couple other advocates I knew and she had a couple of career trajectories in mind by the time she sat down with me. We spent 30 minutes talking about the non profit sector, women’s advocacy and why direct service in Illinois is not likely to be a good bet for the next 10 years. I gave her a few names of other women to reach out to and shook hands with her on the way out. What a nice girl, I thought.

Then I met with PolicyDude. Unprepared, vague about his plans, unable to say what he wanted or why, he made my head hurt.

“PolicyDude,” I said. “Here’s a tip. When someone asks you what you’re interested in, saying ‘social justice and progressive movements’ isn’t going to cut it. It’s too vague. That could mean anything and everything. You need to be specific enough so that I know how best to recommend you to someone.”

He scribbled in his pad.

“So…let me hear it. Give me your 5 minute pitch: why do you want to be in policy and where do you want to end up?”

“Um…is that really necessary?”

Tip Number 2: When you’re asking someone to help you find a job, don’t be bitchy.

“Ok…who has the job now that you envision having?” In the past, I had always found this exercise to be helpful in focusing me on my own professional ambitions; I thought this would work for him, too. But, no.

He looked at the ceiling. “Um, well….policy think tanks…social movements for women…maybe an international organization…”

Sigh. “What about title? Who has the title you want?”

“Um, well…maybe Director of …policy?” Never let it be said that men don’t dream big.

Tip Number 3: For the love of god, be prepared ... and brief.

We spent an hour trying to eke out what it was he really wanted. Did he want to stay in Chicago or go elsewhere? Did he want to try women’s advocacy or poverty work? Did he want to stay in non profit or had he thought about the private sector? (I gave him the name of a blue chip consulting firm in Chicago with a non profit practice and, swear to god – if he finds a job with them, I will lose my shit.) Which foundations or research orgs was he thinking about? Why was he interested in this work? What did he want to do? How could I refer him to anyone I knew (and foist this disaster on them) when he couldn’t answer any of these questions?

Before you chastise me for losing my patience, I have to say that this guy is a grownup and should know better – in his 30s with a solid academic background, married to a med school student, already thinking about raising kids. He had already done some little work in the field but basically expected me to open my contact list and read off a bunch of names and emails for him.

Tip Number 4: Don’t be so overtly greedy.

When I reviewed his resume, I discovered that this guy had never gone through a traditional job process. Through the kindness of teachers and friends, he’d jumped from this random post to that.

“So you’ve never formally interviewed for any job before? You’ve never had to compete for a job?”

“Not really. Isn’t it …um…all about who you know?” Somehow, he managed to maintain a puzzled look of cluelessness as he said this.

Tip Number 5: Don’t let your white male privilege hit your ass on your way out my office.

Note: Though I was mentally over this conversation halfway through, I stuck with it and gave him some tips on being a little more strategic about his interviewing: stop mumbling, rewrite your resume, have your pitch ready and ask your contact for more than who they know. I gave him some homework and we’ll talk again in two weeks. But jesus on the cross – really??

Note: What’s Tip Number 1? Don’t be lazy!


Dan said...

This would make a great comic book! PolicyDude: Climbing the Ladder of Mediocracy.

Follow the adventures of the Clueless Wonder as he singlehandedly improves the lot of underprivledged women by stealing a job away from a more-deserving woman. And without a sense of irony! Be amazed as he impresses his rich liberal wife with a lofty title while he never actually does any work, all while never missing a 3pm tee time!

Delia Christina said...