{Guest Post} How Intercultural Trainers Can Learn to Build their Businesses with 30 Minutes and a Coffee: The Informational Interview

Today’s post is by guest blogger Lindsay McMahon of English and Culture.

What is the field of intercultural training all about? How can you get started building a business as an intercultural trainer or consultant? What steps do you need to take? These are questions that a lot of aspiring interculturalists find themselves asking.

The best way to get the answers is to talk to professionals who are already doing the work that you want to do! Over the past year, I have spoken with a handful of accomplished intercultural trainers and I have learned a ton!

In this post, I will offer some insight that I have gained and I will show you how you can use informational interviews to build your career as an independent professional in the intercultural field.

“An expert knows all the answers — if you ask the right questions.”

Who should you interview?

Where do you want to be? Who is already there? Talk to them. It’s a great idea to interview a variety of professionals of different ages and from different regions to get their unique perspectives on intercultural work. But don’t limit your informational interviews to only intercultural professionals! If you are interested in becoming a consultant, you will also need some insight into the business side of things.

Try interviewing entrepreneurs from a variety of fields. You will find that there are certain business practices that apply to managing a restaurant as much as they apply to becoming an intercultural consultant. By talking to business owners in different fields, you might find their perspective on other issues refreshing and who knows, it could spark a new idea or help you to develop a unique approach!

How can you find the right person to interview?

  • Contacts: One strategy is to reach out to “weak-ties”, as Malcolm Gladwell suggested in The Tipping Point. These are the friends of your friends or contacts of your contacts, who might be working in the intercultural field or a related field and might be willing to sit down and chat.
  • Industry leaders:  Don’t be afraid to think big. Go online and see who the big players are in the field. Contact them directly through their website.  Ask for half an hour of their time. What do you have to lose? They have obviously done something right in their career to get to where they are and I have noticed that those who are the most successful are usually the most willing to share and offer advice openly.
  • Linked In Discussion Participants: Join some of the forums related to intercultural training and see who is participating. Whose ideas catch your eye? Contact that person by email and ask if they would be willing to meet with you.

Tips for approaching people:

  • Silence the inner critic: Try not to be intimidated. Even if the person is very accomplished and well-known, do your best to tune out the voice of the inner critic when you reach out to the person. You might find yourself thinking, “Why would this person bother to speak with me?”  “They don’t have time for me.”  The fact is, a lot of people will make time. People will be honored when you ask them for their advice and will want to help you get started in the field. This is especially true for professionals who are at the end of their careers, so start there!
  • Write a professional but authentic email: Tell them how you found them and mention any mutual contacts or acquaintances.  Let them know that you have spent some time on their website and that you have a clear sense of what they do and how they position themselves in the field. Tell them that you would like to know more.
  • Make it about them: Your primary goal with informational interviews should be to learn. You are not trying to get hired as a consultant for their company or to get a job lead. Make it clear that you are looking to learn from them and that you would like to hear their story. People love to tell their own stories!
  • Be willing to wait: People in this field are busy! They might ask you to contact them a few months later or at a more convenient time. Don’t be surprised if you get this response. However, if you tell them you will get back in touch at a certain time, be sure to do that. Following through says a lot about you as a professional.

What to ask:

  • Their story:  Be sure to do some research ahead of time so that you have an idea of their career path. With that knowledge, you can ask better questions and get better answers. How did they get into the field? Why did they choose to enter the field? How did they bridge from a previous field into this one?
  • Their mistakes: Although we all have to learn from our own mistakes, we can also learn an awful lot from the mistakes of others. Try asking them about this if you feel that you have built enough rapport. Ask them what they would have done differently and listen closely.
  • Book recommendations:  Find out what books guided them and inspired them.
  • Their work: Ask about publications that they have written or journal articles.  If you want to speak with them again, use that as a way to initiate a second conversation. Keep the communication lines open.  You don’t have to limit the exchange to a one-time interview.
  • A connection:  Make this an opportunity to broaden your circle of contacts. Ask the interviewee if he or she knows someone else that you could speak with and ask to be introduced through Linked In or through email.
  • Possibilities for speaking again in the future: Based on the tone of the conversation, you will get a sense of whether or not this person would be interested in setting up another time to chat and maybe becoming a mentor for you. Don’t push this but keep the possibility in the back of your mind if the connection works.

What to keep in mind:                                          

  • The intercultural field has changed a lot: Things like marketing or the use of technology in intercultural training are completely different than they were ten, twenty or thirty years ago. You might speak with a very successful intercultural professional who recommends certain techniques that worked in the nineties but would never work today. Do your own research on business techniques as well as on trends in intercultural training to balance what you hear.
  • Everyone sees the world through their own lens: As interculturalists, we know that we all see the world in a different way.  Don’t be discouraged or put off if someone says that your goal is impossible without a certain degree or type of experience.  Consider their input but don’t let anyone else’s perspective limit what is possible for you!
  • Follow up:  These days, time is scarce. One of the most valuable things that people can give you is their time.  Always write an email the following day to thank them and follow up on any loose ends from the conversation

So if you have been thinking about conducting an informational interview and you have been putting it off because you aren’t sure what to ask, now you have some great ideas! I hope that this article will give you the push you need to get out there and start connecting.

Click here to read Lindsay’s previous guest post about getting started as an intercultural trainer!


Lindsay McMahon is the Founder of English and Culture. Her company offers customized English lessons and cultural competence training in Boston and New York City for international professionals. She recently completed a Master’s degree in Intercultural Relations at Lesley University. She would be happy to connect with other Interculturalists to brainstorm new ideas and possibilities in the field! Feel free to reach out.