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“Let’s Grab Coffee”: Informational Interviews & Tools to Broaden Your Network

Craig Zelizer

February 26, 2020

Note: Although this event took place several years ago and a number of the panelists have switched positions, the recommendations are still very relevant for job seekers in the 2020s.

On June 24, 2015 I was fortunate to attend a wonderful panel at the Annual Interaction Forum , one of the key annual events in the International Development Community,  entitled “Let’s Grab Coffee”: Informational Interviews and Tools to Broaden Your Network.

The session featured several excellent speakers who shared their wisdom and experience with the participants (mostly young professionals) including:

  • Elizabeth J.C. Cutler,  Young Professionals in Foreign Policy
  • Kate Warren, Careers and Recruiting, Devex 
  • Marc St. Hilaire, Career Advisor, School of International Service, American University Career Center.
  • The session was moderated by Julie Montgomery, Director of Innovation and Learning, Interaction

Each panelist briefly discussed their respective career paths, the work of their respective organizations and offered concrete tips for how to best advance one's career and network. Key themes that were discussed include:

1) Networking can be Fun - Elizabeth commented that many people see networking at an professional event as something that can generate stress. To manage this potential challenge, adapting a mindset where one starts with a small group and can be easier and more effective than striving to meet everyone at an event.

Kate emphasized that networking doesn’t need to be a scary thing, as it can be done in a wide variety of environments such as a professional event, with work or school colleagues, and in informal settings.

Marc worked to demystify networking as a foreign concept and clearly stated if you can make friends, then you can network. He suggested seeing networking as making "professional friend" and not to overcomplicate things. The same skills and process for making friends can often be applied in networking situations. It is equally important to not only talk about what one does at work (which is a common theme in many DC events) but to explore shared interest and experiences. For example if you studied abroad, have a passion for a sport, artistic activity or related events this can be a great way to connect.

I can add a concrete example here is one of my former students was a competitive archer. He got into a conversation with a stranger (I believe on a public bus) about archery. The conservation expanded and through this contact, the student was eventually offered a paid part-time position which was a great start to his career.  Often not focusing on work  but instead on common interests and experiences can be the best way to build more authentic connections.

2) Networking can take place at all levels –  Many people see networking as something that takes place with people who are more senior. But it is equally vital to network with people at your peer level. As many of these colleagues will be peers for life and play a critical role in advancing your career.

3) Build an Strong Online Presence - Many employers are increasingly relying on online platforms to find or screen candidates. Kate stressed the importance of having a compelling online presence in the 21st century. Uploading a resume  (she suggested as well to always review a platform's privacy policies)on sites such as Devex, having a strong profile and being actively engaged  LinkedIn, and leveraging the power of Twitter, are all essential

Moreover ensuring that one's info is up to date with current activities is important, as having a stale profile can turn off potential employers. She also stressed the importance of having a professional headshot for one's LinkedIn profile.

4) Ethical Networking - There is a real danger in focusing on transactional networking (to only get something for oneself).  As one develops a network keeping in regular contact with them (even if it is only an update once a year) is important. Approaching networking as a giver (of what you can contribute or share) and not being a taker is essential.

As Kate commented, “Don't network just for the sake of networking as that doesn't work. Pay it forward. It is a two way street.”

5) Informational Interviews- All three panelists see informational interviews as a potentially valuable tool in expanding a network and career.  Marc suggested approaching  informational interviews as a way of gathering information. He offered a tip of imagining that one is researcher or journalist who is trying to put together the pieces of a career puzzle.

An informational interview is also a great opportunity to demonstrate one is prepared and engaged. Putting in time to do one's research, have a set goal and potential questions is very important.  In many cases, an informational interview can be seen as a potential  soft interview where one is  being evaluated to some degree.  If the informational interview goes well or one develops a connection with the person, this can sometimes help open up future career possibilities at the organization.

6) Mentors & Sponsors  -  Having mentors is a critical means to advance one's career.  There was some disagreement among the panelists if formally asking someone to be your mentor is the right step or to let it be a more organic process.

There is an important difference between mentors and sponsors that was the subject of some discussion. A sponsor is typically a person of stature within an organization where one is already working or interning. As Marc commented, "It is the person who is walking your papers into an important meeting where you aren't present."  The sponsor advocates on your behalf. A sponsor is someone internal who has your back and often helps advance one's career path.


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