A few months ago, I worked with a client (let’s call her Meg) who was in the early stages of planning a move from LA to Denver. At my suggestion, she immediately began reaching out to friends and colleagues in an effort to build a network in Colorado and hopefully, land a job.
Her co-worker put her in touch with his Colorado-based friend, Joe, who was in the same industry as Meg. Meg promptly contacted Joe and scheduled an informational meeting. On the night before she flew to Denver for a round of coffee dates and networking events, including the meeting with Joe, she called her co-worker. “I’m really looking forward to my interview with Joe,” she said. “Thanks again for the introduction.”
Meg could sense her co-worker’s discomfort. “I don’t think Joe is looking at your meeting as an ‘interview,’” he finally said. “He’s just trying to be helpful.”
Meg called me after she got off the phone, mortified and disheartened. I suggested that instead of letting Joe define the scope of the meeting, she should treat it as an interview as she’d originally planned. I told her, “Maybe there’s no job on the line, but what do you have to lose by behaving like there is?” After all, even if Joe didn’t have a job to offer her, an impressive and professional presentation might result in him giving her a stellar introduction to someone who could be a game-changer in her career.
Meg was receptive to that approach, but it bears pointing out that the lack of clarity surrounding informational meetings can be incredibly frustrating. Is it an interview or isn’t it? How much should you prepare? What should you prepare? Are you setting yourself up for a loss if you treat it like an interview?
On the other hand, how many opportunities have been lost by people who treat informal meetings and networking events with the same deference they’d give a casual conversation on the subway?
Successful people will tell you that they treat every conversation as a job interview. They understand that every coffee, every casual encounter with strangers, and every family dinner is planting a seed for the vacancies of tomorrow. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70% of all jobs are found through networking. So if you treat every conversation you have as an interview, you’ll land more actual interviews and, hopefully, job offers.
This doesn’t mean you need to show up to every coffee meeting in a suit, but it does mean you stay receptive to opportunity. Here are a few situations that you should definitely approach with an interview mindset.
1. You’re in an Informational Meeting at a Coffee Shop With Someone You’ve Never Met
You may not be interviewing for a job that’s presently available, but know that you’re always being assessed for future positions. This is even the case when the person meeting you doesn’t realize it. People are always subconsciously sizing others up and thinking of them in the event that a job opens up. In a world in which 80% of jobs do not get posted, being at the top of someone’s list as a referral is key.
2. You’re at a Networking Event
Yes, there are lots of other job seekers, but there are plenty of recruiters, too. You’ve probably been assuming that they’re only there for the free Chardonnay, but they’re actually conducting mini-interviews during every single conversation. Think it of it like speed dating!
Pro tip: Always ask for their card and connect on LinkedIn with a “nice to meet you” note the next morning. LinkedIn is better than email because it hosts your digital resume.
3. You’re Meeting With Someone in a Leadership Position
This person probably has the power to hire, which is a good indication that you’re being casually interviewed. Even if there isn’t a job available at the time of the interview, a favorable impression of your skills and presentation will lead him to put your name at the top of the list for next time.
In fact, this might not be too far in the future: 51% of currently employed individuals are either open to or actively seeking a new job. That includes the person whose position you’ve been coveting.
4. The Meeting Takes Place in His or Her Office
Unless this person is really, really busy, she’s not going to tee up such a formal arrangement. The fact that you’re facing each other over her desk—and not a scratched-up table at Starbucks—suggests that this is a quasi-interview. This probability increases if she also takes the time to introduce you to her colleagues. Without knowing it, you’ve been invited in so that they can assess you on their home turf.
5. You Get a Few Suspect Questions
If you’re being asked about your familiarity with specific software, or if your contact is inquiring about your salary, you’re being interviewed. Always, always be prepared to answer these questions before you go to an informal meeting.
Don’t miss the opportunity to turn a casual meeting into the kind of interview that ensures you will be highly regarded and remembered for job openings. (Here’s how.) Many of my clients struggle with this idea that opportunity is a scarcity, and this self-limiting mindset prevents them from realizing the bigger picture: Opportunity is everywhere, but you need to be open to seeing the abundance and possibility in order for it to serve you!
But you don’t have to take my word for it: Just ask Meg. She starts her job with Joe on Monday.