Category Archives: It was already said…

Informational interviews: why and how?

 A career specialist’s guide to securing a meeting—and making the most of it

by Magdalena Mot

Interview originally published at http://www.sfu.ca/continuing-studies/career-help/blog

Why are informational interviews so important during your career planning process?

Real resources are always human, so interviewing an industry professional is most likely the best way to learn about a specific role or an organizational culture. You gain information otherwise unavailable while growing your professional network. Informational interviews are perfect for those who want to enter a new industry, relocate, change careers, or even progress in their careers with another employer in the same field. I usually advise job seekers or career changers to use this tool after completing a full labour market research, just so they feel comfortable with the theoretical knowledge they’ve acquired on a certain position or role.

I am intimidated by cold-calling. Is it realistic to get an informational interview via an email or social media request?

The best way to get your first informational interview is via someone who knows the person you need to talk to. Social media channels, especially LinkedIn, work very well with these third-degree connections. Yet when you send a direct message to someone, mentioning the person who has referred you can make a huge difference. Yes, some may reject your invitation for various reasons, but don’t take it personally and never stop trying; move on to someone else. In a cold-call situation, my advice is to avoid leaving a voice message and instead try your call at a different time.

How can I successfully set up a meeting with a person who doesn’t seem interested in meeting with me?

Practise your introduction (remember that elevator pitch you’ve been working on?) and have ready an articulate reason for your meeting request. Don’t babble. Be flexible in terms of time and mention from the outset that you’re open to a short meeting over a coffee break, during the next two to four weeks. Just move on to someone else if the person does not respond or seems to be too busy. There are tens or hundreds of professionals you can approach, so don’t get stuck just because someone says no. Be prepared to thank them politely and move down your list.

What are the must-do’s of a successful informational interview?

Do your research, be professional and be concise. Find out as much as you can about that specific organization and write down 12 to 14 questions. Ponder them well and bring them to the interview. This will help you focus and keep the meeting short. Respect the time frame agreed upon (time is a very sensitive matter, so don’t risk making a poor impression and ruining your networking chance). Make some of your questions specific to the role and some to the organization. But don’t ask “lazy” questions, i.e., don’t request answers you can typically find online. Not only will you fail at making a good impression, but people may think you’re wasting their time.

What is inappropriate to ask during an informational interview?

As long as you don’t mention you’re looking for a job and don’t take out your résumé, everything else should pass. Those two faux pas are incurable mistakes. Emphasize that this is your research time. You are gathering information in order to be able to make a good decision later on. You’re analyzing your options. Ask about the workplace culture, benefits, turnover rate, the background of the two latest hires, and so on. But remember, you only have 12 to 14 questions.

What are the right ways to keep in touch after the interview?

Have a networking business card on you and ensure you exchange cards at the end of your meeting. Send a thank-you note (or card) and use the occasion to reiterate a point from your discussion or mention how something you’ve just learned may change your perspective for good. Connect on LinkedIn. Offer your help if you can, i.e., contribute ideas to an ongoing project, volunteer with a task, or help facilitate the completion of a project. Show that you also have something to give, as everything involving people is a two-way experience.

 

An Era of Cultural Relativism?

10I grew up in a communist country, a child learning to accept that her religion and ethnic background were not validated by the society. Occasionally, in small family circles, we would talk about our culture or religion, my grandmother would tell us stories from her past, but outside this narrow circle we would keep quiet. We were taught not to bring it up. People’s understanding around what’s acceptable and what’s not is mostly uneven and it bends with the majority. I have moved on and left all that behind. It feels like it happened in a different life, yet that’s a luggage I carry. I’ve learned to understand and love the place I call home today. It’s a place where we embrace harmony. It’s a safe place. A land of equal opportunities. A land where several different cultures and traditions coexist and share their values. A land that encourages an open dialogue between cultures.

But do we live in an era of cultural relativism? If yes, all we need is to know and understand the culture of a people and that will help us understand what the people are doing and why do they do it. It applies to any cultural or ethnic group. If we agree to this, does this make the truth relative and reliant on everyone’s cultural environment? For example, if a woman does not have a say in deciding her own path in life, because that is the traditional way in her culture, than the truth is that she isn’t deprived of any human rights, but merely following her traditions. Of course, many argue that the truth will always be absolute and, while cultural diversity is a beautiful thing to have and enjoy, certain practices are dangerous and quite frequently they have a hard time to co-exist with those belonging to other cultures or religions. And then we turn to the universal declaration of human rights. I’m always amazed by the number of people who never read it.

All around the world, most issues connected to culture are relative. This makes cultural and religious diversity a slippery and difficult to handle matter. Rooted in a certain culture or religion, traditions are sometimes interfering with basic human rights or basic safety issues. Or politics. Certain dangerous practices may, on occasion, hide behind a cultural or religious tradition. There are issues we don’t even discuss, or talk about, because it would be ‘culturally’ wrong.

We are usually very careful when it comes to accommodating people belonging to other cultures, refugees, new immigrants, foreign workers, international students. We want them to feel accepted and included; we make sure they are exposed to a number of supporting services and they have a fair shot at learning about our Canadian culture and our life values. But what about people who live here? Do they have access to support? To something that would help them understand the process their newcomer neighbours are going through while trying to integrate? The effort cannot be the same on both sides, by all means, there are certain proportions and the big lap has to be covered by the newcomers, but…

How many workshops on “The Cultures and Religions of the World” have you seen around here? Any community college teaches this course? We live in an era mildly ignorant when it comes to the study of culture or anthropology, the study of first nations’ arts and history, the study of world’s mythology. I don’t mean to ignore those who are actually involved in this at an academic level. But there’s only a handful of people doing it, and they don’t ride the bus.

What do we know about legends and traditions of other people? Not much. This is quite understandable when you think that a degree in arts or history won’t pay someone’s mortgage and people know better than that. We cannot afford to waste time and money on unnecessary cultural or mythological nonsense. And that begs many other questions, but I will stick to this one: if we see ourselves as a tolerant people, and agree that other cultures are not ‘wrong’, but ‘different’ then isn’t it time that we start improving our understanding of these ‘other’ cultures?

Bristle at Prejudices

More often than not, prejudice takes in several aspects at both individual and group levels, making it rather difficult to determine what causes it. Are we prejudiced? Yes, naturally. Most of us will not be too enthusiastic about revealing their prejudices, let aside the reasons for them. Some of us may have become prejudiced through some hurtful events experienced in the past, but more often we become prejudiced while trying really hard to meet the requirements of the society we live in.

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Gordon Allport, one of the first American psychologists to focus on the study of human personality, often referred to the fact that all societies have experienced prejudice in some form and to some degree (The Nature of Prejudice, 1954). It’s been always there. According to Allport, prejudice emerges, to some extent, as a result of normal human thinking. When we try to make sense of the world around us, we apparently sort information into mental categories and once we form those categories, they are the basis for normal prejudgment. Allport affirms that it is impossible to avoid this process.

However, there should be a way to improve our ability to avoid negative prejudgment. How can we bristle at prejudices? Perhaps try harder at educating ourselves and our children while the above mentioned categories are forming? In a book I totally love, Jane Eyre, I’ve read something that triggered this whole idea of starting a “Bristle at Prejudices” online battle and it wasn’t long before this became my personal branding message. Because everything evolves and circles around our prejudices. They shape us. Yet, of course, it should be us shaping whom we want to become, while enjoying this unique journey of transformation and crescendo that we call life. Unfolding and running under our eyes us just like a pianist’s hands dazzled by Chopin’s Nocturne.
This is what Charlotte Brontë wrote back in 1840s: “Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.” When I first read this book in my early twenties I didn’t stop along those lines to ponder their heaviness. But many years later, when I took Brontë’s book in my hands again, I came across these lines and I suddenly paused. It got me thinking. What is a prejudice? It’s an opinion we form about something or someone without having any evidence, it’s an unreasonable bias. If you would like to look into more dictionary definitions, you’ll find that common features of prejudice include most often negative feelings, stereotyped beliefs, and a tendency to discriminate against others. And it seems so ordinary to humans, naturally driven by pride and vanity, to cultivate opinions and grow them into deeply rooted prejudices. Some consider that the lack of self-confidence is yet another reason for prejudice cultivation.

Being an incurable optimist – I actually believe that knowledge, self-learning, and our undivided willingness, are capable of successfully shaping us away from negative prejudices. And here I go again, one has to try it: bristle at prejudices! Not only will we get hurt in the long run, but we will feel constantly drained, our energy moving in all wrong directions. Just think about it for a moment, try to envision a powerful you, someone with a purpose, someone who has a map to follow towards pursuing their own happiness. Someone whose energy is completely focused towards shaping a world we all see with our mind’s eye.

6 Questions You Need to Answer When Starting Over in a New Country

A friend recently told me that any decent person would have a list of questions or would follow some kind of checklist when they decide to make a big change, any change. What about you? Big changes dig at our own being, they sculpt and model us, but we must understand how much of this sculpting work can be controlled and we must have the necessary tools.

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Starting over in a new country has harsh ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ and no matter how ready we thought we were, it will give us a bit of a shake down the road. In a blog article I was reading just yesterday, 30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself, I came across a topic we have discussed in several group training sessions: being yourself. The impact this has on someone who is moving and starting over in a new country is huge, for one of the biggest challenges in life is bearing to be yourself. Because it is so much easier to pretend to be this or that, to ignore those thoughts knocking at you from time to time, to pretend this doesn’t matter or that doesn’t count. Yet standing up for what we are, acknowledging what we are not, passionately offering what we can give, taking responsibility for the promises we make – are all steps that only seem to be simple. These promises are the result of extensive research and realistic assessments, but what we don’t take into account during the planning stage is the new perspective we will gain after. Yes, after spending up to one year in the new country. And this new perspective will override some of our initial assessments and will require a new start.

It is challenging to determine exactly what one should expect once in a new country. Let’s call it Canada this time. Looking at the questions below, I thought this is far from being a comprehensive list, but it is meant to be an organic one. A living one – the kind that should get inside you and change itself according to your own needs, living behind a natural instinct of what needs to be done.

These steps are mainly focused on your career development, on how to obtain relevant employment faster and are barely meant to provide more terrain for your further research.

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1. Are you ready to start your life in Canada from a settlement point of view? This may translate as well into “are you ready to focus on your career?” Allow time for settlement specific issues and do not rush through it. Those who are taking their time to settle and learn more about their new environment have proved to be more successful in their next steps. The allotted time and financial needs for this period should be planned in advance and given the required importance. Several websites, including those made available by the Citizenship and Immigration, provide extensive resources and links that take you through the medical care system, planning of finances, getting to know the taxation system, finding a place to live, enrolling your children in school or daycare and other tips on adjusting to your new life in Canada. When you can honestly check-mark as “done” all the issues in this chapter, you are ready to focus on your career path.

2. Have you assessed your language skills against your profession and the level you wish to work at? Many times, as newcomers, we assess our technical skills, we evaluate our credentials, but we forget to look at what are the industry / professional communication and language requirements or norms for our specific occupation or a specific position that we are interested in. While an excellent IELTS score is good to have, all it means is that you can communicate at a certain level. What are the accepted norms (these may vary from one province to another)? And most importantly, what do we do if we are not there yet? Planning how to overcome this barrier includes talking to professionals in your own field of expertise. Relying purely on the advice of your relatives and friends will show a lack of initiative and poor research skills.

3. Have you met with a career / employment professional to start shaping out your career path? This involves extensive labour market research on your side, with professional help and advice. Understanding what the labour market projections are for the next 10 to 15 years is really important and you need to have a long term plan that encompasses your international experience and education and is pointing towards a “dream” job. Yes, you are allowed to be bold… in a realistic and humble way. This is not always easy to achieve, but if you believe in it, if this is what you are really good at, you will certainly get there. Receiving professional help in assessing your strong transferable skills and setting certain steps to help you move forward is quite important. Make sure to take into consideration alternative careers that make sense from the point of view of accumulating the much required local work experience as well as acquiring new skills and broadening your professional network.

4. Do you feel comfortable and confident when taking about your profession, experience, and skills? Writing a decent Resume and Cover Letter is crucial, yet only one of the first steps. Once done, you will need to take it to the next level and work out a way to talk about your work experiences. Make sure you are using specific professional terms (relevant to your industry) and adequate communication skills – to nail that right first impression. Tell your story in a beautiful way. Do your research and be ready to make pertinent comments when it comes to compare how the same occupation is seen in different industries, or in different countries, or when it comes to compare credentials obtained internationally with those current in your new country. Provide specific examples. Make sure you know the licensing process well and do not complain or use negative comments during your conversation with a local professional. Someone comes across as confident and qualified, when they manage to be positive about their career path, no matter how difficult or long this path may look at the present time.

5. Have you met with at least five professionals working in the occupation you target? Having a diverse and real perspective on the future of your chosen career is crucial. No matter how much you read about it, not matter how precise the statistics in one or the other area might be, no matter the test you just passed successfully, you will not be able to have a good grasp on the profession you are getting ready to practice in your new country unless you talk to people who are in that same position for at least 5 years. They will provide you with examples and unique stories, therefore, the more people you are able to interview on this topic, the better. Again, in order to be able to complete this task successfully, you will have to undergo some training on how to successfully set up, conduct, and follow up on an Informational Interview.

6. What will a potential employer say about your online presence? There is so much talk going on about the Personal Branding, many of us are quite in the fog thinking what exactly this is and why is there so much expected of us? We are just individuals, not companies. We don’t have a marketing consultant on hand to come up with branding statements. The short answer is, whether you agree or disagree, with the intoxicating raise of various social media platforms – your online presence matters more than you think. Employers will eventually look at your personal brand as being a matching part of their own brand, and that is based on the fact that a company is shaped by its people, by its employees. It happened many times that a change at the management level, followed by a change in the hiring process, brought vital changes in the workplace culture of a company, which in the end ceased to be what it used to be. Therefore, when it comes to hiring a new employee, most employers are now considering several aspects they didn’t have to worry about a decade ago.

Published by Magdalena Mot on http://skillsconnect.wordpress.com

Workplace Culture & Team Dynamics

Canadian employers mention in almost every job description a preference towards someone who is a ‘team player.’ In turn, this is mentioned so often in a resume, that it got moved to a few buzzword lists in 2013. However, that doesn’t mean that we should stop displaying our ‘team player’ abilities in our job applications; it only means we should describe these abilities via specific examples or explicit results. In Henry Ford’s words, “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success”. In a classic definition, successful teams are made up of effective individuals, who are open to address various problems and are action oriented. Now, for a team to be successful, its members have to be able to give and receive feedback in a comfortable environment where they can communicate honestly and openly. Sounds a bit like a fairy tale, eh? Well, don’t be so surprised, this theory is applied and actually functioning well in many work environments. For that reason, when we are new to a workplace culture, the best way to spend our time would be by learning and adding to our knowledge of that local workplace culture. Ideally, we should get to the point where we can actually understand the dynamics of a team working in its specific culture. Yet many of us just take things for granted, thinking about what we know already, about all the countries we visited so far, about all of the experiences we’ve had, and so forth. Instead, we should really ponder the missing pieces of this puzzle. A successful team player is focused on the future steps, on what was omitted, on what needs to be done to cover the gaps. In contrast, nostalgic team members will usually focus on the past. It is said that teams are often divided into high performers and low performs – see more on this topic in Mark Murphy’s book Hiring for Attitude1231

By now, my cherished reader, you’ll be ready to argue that the entire philosophy is coming down to the leadership style. By all means, an effective team leadership will ensure a collaborative climate and will build confidence of team members, managing performance through relevant, constructive feedback. Many times, team members will need to learn more about the team dynamics. Or as new members they will need to quickly integrate into the existing team and team building activities will come into play to help it move from the ‘storming’ phase back to its ‘performing’ stage (Bruce Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development may provide more context into this topic). Western workplace culture loves these activities and they are meant to improve how the team works together. Team building is not the equivalent of ‘team recreation’ (which consists of activities that are purely recreational) and should be regarded as a set of activities that will benefit team members’ self-development, positive communication, and the ability to work closely together as a team to solve a problem. To learn more about team building activities specific to our west coast workplace culture run a Google search and I promise you’ll have plenty to learn about. You may also take a look at Lawrence G. Fine’s book on Team Building.
How can a newcomer learn more about a new workplace culture? Volunteer. Participate in all kinds of events. Conduct Informational Interviews. Make friends outside your close circles/ communities. Bristle at prejudices. We’ve heard many times people mentioning the ‘Catch 22′ situation, where job seekers have a hard time to obtain that very first job because of the lack of local work experience, and how are they supposed to get that local experience if nobody gives them a chance. Yet experience tells us that all of us did eventually get into that first job. Some sooner, some latter. Some will move up fast, some will do it slowly, and some will just stay there. And again, experience tells us that this usually comes down to preparation levels. Commitment. Consistency. It comes down to “are you really ready to perform in this job?” A combination of good knowledge of Canadian workplace culture + excellent presentation skills + self-confidence + unpretentiousness will eventually get you that first professional position. It is well known that many newcomers think it takes technical skills + knowledge + intelligence to secure that position and they bid everything on this particular skill set. Unfortunately it is not the card we want to play. With all the excitement that follows an interview invitation, we forget that this is a meeting where 10 or 5 other people (the number is irrelevant, since there is just one position) are invited to, and they have the exact same technical skills (or very similar). We forget that the interview will primarily assess our soft skills, our ability to be part of a team – a team we don’t know anything about. Because we did not consider taking the time to do the research or because we did not know it was available to us. And this is why, with a poor knowledge of the local workplace culture, with the habit of making assumptions, when a candidate has the unique chance to meet with an employer, instead of selling apples (which is what the employer expects), s/he will sell oranges. Beautiful, shiny, ripe ones. Only it is not what the employer is looking for.

(by Magdalena Mot – initially published on http://skillsconnect.wordpress.com)