What is a "learning interview" in sports, and why is it so important?

by max kozinn - career & talent development manager at the university of texas at austin | May 28, 2019

Grow your network through learning!

It’s one of the most important decisions you will make in your life: “Where do I work?” Now, more than ever, we are flooded with information overload on social media and other outlets. Discovering the best organization and position in sports for you is not an easy task and certainly requires a great deal of thought and consideration.

Thankfully there is an amazing tool to help you! THE LEARNING INTERVIEW! Like many of you reading this, when I began my career exploration of the sports industry, I didn’t know exactly where to begin. I found myself wondering, where do I look for jobs? How do I know what job is for me? What do I talk to? Who do I learn from?

Thankfully, one of my mentors shared with me the power of the informational interview, which I now call the Learning Interview.

So what exactly is a Learning Interview?

It is a LEARNING discussion that takes place over the phone or in-person where you learn and seek advice about a job function, company, really any topic from someone who is in a position/at an organization of interest to you and/or has a career path/experience you are interested in learning more about. To clarify, this is NOT an “ask for a job session.” It is all about learning. Yes, these can lead to job offers, but we will get it to that later.

Is this the same as an Informational Interview?

Yes, in theory. But the language we use matters! I don’t like the term informational interview. It sounds transactional in nature. The learning interview is a conversation, where more than just “information” is exchanged. You should be learning so much more than “information,” and it should feel more interesting to both parties than boring “information.” Therefore, I call it a leaning interview.

Why is it important?

We all know how important it is to build our network. I believe people by nature are good and want to help others. Many of these people have the knowledge, skills, insights, and experiences you want to gain for your future. What better way to discover a career path, learn about a company culture, role, etc. than by going directly to the source? The ultimate resource is resourcefulness, and success leaves clues. In fact, not doing learning interviews is frankly a missed opportunity to learn more and provide you an edge in your career.

Throughout my career, learning interviews have helped me understand so many different types of companies and career paths. When I was seeking my first internship in sports, I conducted learning interviews with different organizations in Michigan and learned so much about their best practices, cultures, training, and programs. During my internships at the Detroit Pistons, I conducted learning interviews with teams all over the nation to compare what I was learning in Detroit with what other organizations were doing. Not only did I build a robust network, but I learned which organizations would be a great fit for me, and which may not be. During my time as an intern at the Dallas Cowboys, I made sure to do learning interviews with as many leaders in the organization as possible—this led to my first full-time job offer after grad school. Learning interviews not only help you learn, but they build your network and can lead to job offers!

Who should I learn from?

ANY professional you want to learn from who has a career path that is interesting to you or works at an organization/ in a job function you are interested in. A great place to start is alumni from your school, simply because you have an instant connection with them. You may be amazed to discover you probably have alumni from your college doing the job you want or working for the organization you wish to join. The next best place is LinkedIn. LinkedIn has become the hub for networking in business and the people you want to learn from are on there. You have the opportunity to directly connect with them and arrange a learning interview!

How do I ask for a learning Interview?

Reach out via email or direct message (LinkedIn). You can certainly call if you somehow don’t have success with these options. Your intro message should be brief, introduce yourself, mention your connection to them/your interest in their background or role, and ask for time to connect on the phone for a brief call. It could look something like this.

Hi Bob,

My name is Max Kozinn, and I am a senior at the University of Arizona, majoring in Sports Management. I saw you are a Wildcat as well and we share the same major!

I am trying to learn more about careers in sports sales. You have a tremendous amount of industry experience and a very exciting career path – your insights would be really helpful.

I am sure you are quite busy, but I would be grateful to connect on the phone. May I have 20 minutes of your time in the next week or two to learn from you?

What would work best for you?

Thank you and GO WILDCATS!

All The Best,

Max

Notice, I built rapport with Bob simply by pointing out our Arizona connection. You can build rapport by finding something in common through a number of ways. If you are having trouble finding this connection in your initial outreach, simply congratulate them on their successes or reference something about the work they have done, an award they won, an article they wrote etc. This will catch their attention and they will appreciate you for it. Also, notice how I shared what I am hoping to learn from time with Bob on this call so he knows what to expect in advance of our call. Finally, notice, I did not mention or ask for help with a job anywhere! Save that discussion for once you have built the relationship!

How do I conduct a learning Interview?

First off, prepare for it like a normal interview! You want to learn don’t you? So make sure you do some research on Bob and his organization before you connect on the phone. Take some time to think and write down questions to ask Bob about exciting parts of his job, success factors, projects he is working on, trends in the industry, skills in demand, and his career path. Your goal here is to learn as much as you can about Bob, his job, and his industry while also showing your knowledge and fit for the company.

Once you connect with Bob on the phone, it is important to follow a framework that allows for a smooth, but efficient conversation. Remember, they are making time for you, so let’s be respectful of that.

Part 1: Opening. Start off with casual and broad opening. Ask questions such as “How did you begin your career? Share with me about your role? What area of the organization do you spend most of your time?”

Part 2: Learning Center. This is more the meat and potatoes where you learn what you want. Questions like “Why did you select your organization and connect to it? What strengths, skills, and experience does your company look for? How did you leverage your network to connect to key targets?

Note: Let Bob do most of the talking, at least 80%. Remember this every time you are speaking, you are not listening, and therefore not learning. However, in order to show alignment and connection with Bob and his company and keep it conversational, make sure to use I/MY statements wherever possible to show alignment with and connection with both Bob and his company. If Bob tells you his company looks for coachable employees who love to learn, that is a great opportunity to share about how coachable you are and your passion for learning.

You may be wondering how/when I can ask Bob for help with a job. Answer, YOU DON’T. However, you can ask for ADVICE! One of your questions in this part may look something like this: “Bob, it sounds like XYZ Company is a great place to work and I may be a fit with your culture. Do you have any advice you can provide me on putting myself in the best situation to work/explore opportunities there? Is there anyone else you recommend I connect with?” In sum, this puts the ball in Bob’s court as to how much he is willing to help you and you don’t come off as aggressive. You will be pleasantly surprised in using this approach, many people are willing to help and fully connect you to opportunities the best they can.

Part 3: Closure and Gratitude. Thank Bob for his time. Discuss any network connections you can provide for each other (offer to help and you will likely be helped in return). Send a handwritten thank you note — this is a lost art but it goes a long way.

Part 4: Follow Up and Grow. You have now created a relationship with Bob and he is now part of your network. But, like any relationship, it will only grow if you invest in it. After your learning interview, check in with Bob periodically to see how he is doing. Wish him a Happy Birthday. Send Bob an article about his company or of relevancy to your discussion. Harvest that relationship!

Want proof this works? One of my informational interviews from 2013, Karl Miller, a truly amazing guy, just served as a reference and endorsement for me for my current position. This was six years after our learning interview! I never worked for Karl or his company. So why did he help me? We connected on our learning interview. When I visited Austin for vacation a few months after our learning interview, we met for coffee. When I got my first job in Austin, I made sure to visit with Karl frequently just to catch up. We stayed in touch ever since. Karl is now one of my mentors, someone I can and will lean on. I learned so much from him and am forever grateful for his help in growing my knowledge and my career!

What not to do during the Learning Interview?

1. Do not discuss salary

2. Do not ask if they can help you get a job (see above)

3. Do not ask about confidential or protected information

Final Points

1. Set goals and hold yourself accountable. Make sure you are conducting enough of interviews to grow your network. How many will you commit yourself to per week/month to ensure you learn enough? Think about how a small investment of your time in 20-minute blocks will exponentially grow your career.

2. Have Fun!If you truly approach learning interviews as an opportunity to learn, you will really enjoy and look forward to them. Learning and growing enriches life. Don’t stress over them, have fun with them!

3. Pay it forward. Isn’t it great someone took time out of their busy schedule to teach you with no expectation of anything in return? Always remember the feeling of gratitude you have for that individual.

The Learning Interview can be one of the greatest vehicles to grow your network and career. It is a fantastic way to learn about industries, companies, career paths, job functions, and culture. By using the strategies above and truly treating it as an opportunity to learn, this will be one of your most valuable resources.

I hope you learned from this! Now go out and LEARN some more and pass it on!

Max

Max Kozinn is a regular Clubhouse contributor and is a 10+ year sports industry executive. He has worked at some of the biggest brands in sports such as the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns, and San Antonio Spurs. He's currently the Career & Talent Development Consultant at UT Austin and has a passion to give back and develop the next generation of young sports and business professionals. You can learn more about Max by visiting his LinkedIN profile here