Starting a new career or business can feel like a shot in the dark. But there is a technique which can greatly increase your chance of success.
As part of a magazine feature, I met with professional photographer Sean Malyon to have my picture taken. Sean is very easy to talk to, and the hour spent being snapped among autumn leaves flew past.
We talked about career paths and Sean told me he is sometimes contacted for advice by aspiring portrait photographers. Many of them focus on the technical side of photography such as lighting. They want tips to help grow their expertise in this area.
But in reality, the portrait photography business is all about people. If you are not comfortable relating to different types of people and putting them at their ease quickly, then you are unlikely to be commercially successful.
This example demonstrates the importance of doing your research when choosing or changing careers. It’s easy to build up an idea in your mind about a particular line of work, but you may find the reality is far removed from what you imagine. And the best way to get a true picture of a line of work is to talk to people already doing the job.
The process of deliberately speaking with an existing professional about their career path and working life is known as “informational interviewing”,
Do some initial research before seeking out people to interview. Do you believe a career within a specific profession or sector could be a real possibility for you? And have you discovered enough background information to prepare well for the conversation? You will get the best value from someone’s precious time by hearing about their personal experience. How did they get to be where they are? What are the most important skills and qualities needed for success? What challenges and drawbacks have they experienced? What are the downsides to the job? What advice can they give you?
Don’t try and use an informational interview to pitch for a job. The purpose is to discover more about a line of work and if it might suit you. It can help you figure out career paths, and to identify ways into an industry or section. Sometimes a conversation may result in job leads or opportunities, but don’t expect this and certainly don’t push for it. At the end of the conversation, ask your interviewee if they can suggest anyone else you could speak to. Getting different viewpoints is invaluable.
The first port of call is your existing network. Work out the type of people you need to speak to and reach out through friends, former colleagues and contacts for a friendly introduction. Don’t do this too soon, you don’t want to waste your best contacts by rushing in before you’ve done your research. But nor should you be shy about approaching contacts. Explain briefly what are looking to do, and ask if they know anyone who might be able to help. They can always say ‘no”, and that’s fine – not every request will get a positive response.
You can also approach people “cold” by writing a friendly email, explaining your situation, or by picking up the phone. Twitter and Linked In are good places to find relevant people. You might ask for a specified amount of time, perhaps 20 minutes. If you don’t hear back, you could consider sending a polite follow up email (but not more than one!)
If you are receiving a warm introduction via someone you know then you might ask for a face to face interview. My tip from being on the receiving end of requests for a interview is that if you’re approaching someone cold, ask for a telephone conversation. In all honesty, I’m unlikely to want to take time for a face to face meeting with a stranger. But I have been happy in the past to spend a few minutes speaking on the phone.
Do follow up with a thank you message. Don’t send your CV unless you’ve been asked for it – nobody wants to receive an unsolicited CV.
Investing time in research will make it far more likely that you make the right career choice, based on reality not fantasy. And when you go in with your eyes open you are much more likely to be successful. There comes a time however when you need to take action. You can only know for sure that a job is right for you once you start doing it.