The Purpose of Interning

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Each year roughly 300,000 college students participate in some kind of internship.

Recently I got to speak to 772 of them.

Interning can be glorious. My own internships 1) Created a friendship that’s lasted 25 years, 2) Built connections that got me my first job in advertising, 3) Paid dividends years later when I was looking for a new role. But honestly, I could have engaged in the whole experience with much greater skill.

Specifically, I could have realized the true purpose of interning, i.e. Learn how to establish and nurture a network which can help sustain you and your career. Instead, I focused on delivering assignments. Which isn’t necessarily incorrect, just not optimal. Of course an intern should ship their best work. But the real endeavor is relationships. Not just creating them, but experiencing how to create and sustain them. It’s about putting yourself in harms way to see how humans connect in the workplace, how they react to cues and language and context. It’s about realizing you are a social being — your value in employment is often the culture you elicit with others, sometimes more so than the work itself. If they’re lucky, an intern might glimpse the keys to forming trust, conjuring agreement, and proving how 1+1 can sometimes equal so much more.

Of course the subtext of interning is “How can I influence what happens next?” And yes it helps to establish capability, and even better — credibility. Yes preparation matters. I just wish someone had sat me down and explained it so often boils down to luck, by which I mean timing you can’t predict or control. Which does not mean letting go of the handlebars, per se. It means other skills, especially resilience, are muscles worth strengthening.

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Last week I emceed the Discover MSP 2022 Intern Event at the Target Center hosted by the Greater MSP Partnership. It’s weird hearing your voice echo around a basketball stadium as you introduce the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, among other luminaries. In preparing for that event, and my appearance at Roundpeg Consulting’s Intern Summer School, I asked my network:

What one piece of advice would you give an intern?

What follows is their collective wisdom.

But first I want to start with a brilliant insight I did not solicit, via Reshma Saujani who founded Girls Who Code. In this clip, which I hope inspires you (especially if you’re an intern), Saujani makes the case for believing in your ability to lead, regardless of the stories being told around you and about you.

“Be humble, but speak up”

JEFFERY HENSLEY, PRINCIPAL AT MNLEAN CONSULTING

“You got your foot in the door, but to keep it there you need to be observant, willing to go beyond expectations, and be nice to be around. Everyday is an interview both for the company and for the intern. If they don’t like you and view you as unenthusiastic and incapable you are out; if you don’t like them and don’t find joy in working there you shouldn’t go back. Be humble, but speak up.”

“Get to know different parts of the organization”

AUDREY LUCAS, SENIOR PARTNER AT MCKINSEY & COMPANY

“Take advantage of the time to get to know different parts of the organization with which you’re interning. Set up coffee or lunch with people who have interesting roles and ask them about their career path and learnings.”

“It’s about learning what to do when you don’t know what to do”

RJ HECKMAN, PH.D., VICE CHAIRMAN AT KORN FERRY, AUTHOR OF THE TALENT MANIFESTO

“Finding a job is as much about persistence as it is about ability. It’s also about learning agility: Learning what to do when you don’t know what to do — so you can solve any problem you’ll face. That’s the most important trait for people of any age to be successful throughout their career.”

“Opportunities will not always seek you out”

RACHEL MASSA, DIRECTOR — PRODUCTS & TECHNOLOGY AT PWC

1) “Don’t worry about your 3 year plan or your 5 year plan — things change so much in the world, that what we work on in 5 years may not even exist today. Look for opportunities to get diverse experiences and build as many broad skills as you can, so you can find out what your interests and passions are.”

2) “Don’t underestimate the power of relationships. Reach out to people and get to know them personally and professionally. Listen to their stories. You will absolutely reach back out to these relationships for advice in the years to come!”

3) “Opportunities will not always seek you out. If you’re interested in trying something, raise your hand. Proactively volunteer to get involved. Don’t be afraid to try something new.”

4) “Be an infinite learner. Don’t ever stop building new skills and knowledge — that will be your super power.”

“Be the growing leader who is interesting, interested, and can be counted on”

GAYLE FUGUITT, FORMER GLOBAL VP, INSIGHTS AND ANALYTICS, GENERAL MILLS, AND FORMER CEO, THE ADVERTISING RESEARCH FOUNDATION

“First, take a stance of listener/learner and be the growing leader who is interesting, interested, and can be counted on for quick follow-through. In other words, know your role: You’re being given opportunity and access to learn and grow, vs. to ‘consult.’ Second, be humble: listen vs. tell and be curious: ask. And third, always follow through: Thank you, results, outcomes, and next steps.”

“Lean into discomfort over predictable paths”

MARK SILVA, FOUNDER & CEO AT KITE, NUCLA

Mark begins, “Don’t wait until you need to network to network. Build relationships that last for a lifetime.”

Then he offers four distinct perspectives:

“Silva’s advice for an intern that will be retiring around 2067 if not forced to retire sooner:

Never ever take the ‘safe path.’ In an AI future/now, safety is an illusion, a siren call which will leave your career, earning potential and future dashed on the rocks of despair and disrepair. Imagine a boat headed for a treacherous 1000-foot waterfall — you can see it but can’t paddle fast enough to avoid plunging to disaster. That’s every career counselor, recruiter and maybe your parent’s advice.

Instead, optimize your career for experiences over expertise; learn strategic frameworks over earning work titles; lean into discomfort over predictable paths. In a world where we have an infant AI called DALL-E which can generate realistic images from natural language text, future knowledge workers will be rendered redundant, but creative thinkers and problem solvers will command a premium. The most prophylactic strategy for AI-enabled labor is your ability to evolve within your career.

Advice from Silva the investor:

Create side hustles that generate passive income continually throughout your career. When you make more money from your side hustles than your primary career income plus what you need to live off of, you win.

Advice from Silva the founder of ProBrewer:

If you have the opportunity to choose an industry you love with people you would choose as friends in college, go for it. Life and careers have challenges. No need to pile on by working with assholes as teammates and customers.

And finally, some bonus advice on selecting opportunity — the Intelligence/Integrity 2x Framework:

Choose good people with high intelligence and integrity at every stage of your career: where you start; who and where you work mid-career; and for employees and partners as you ascend to leadership.”

“Speak up. We need your voice”

DONNA ROOT, VICE PRESIDENT, CREATIVE AND CONTENT AT SMARTSHEET

“Honor your commitments”

JOE RAASCH, PROJECT DIRECTOR AT MINNESOTA DEPARTMENT OF ADMINISTRATION

“Take Strengths Finder 2.0”

JILL BONHAM, NATIONAL SALES SOLUTIONS MANAGER — DAIRY AT LAND O’LAKES

“Take Strengths Finder 2.0 so you can thoughtfully answer the strengths and weaknesses question. You know it’s coming in every interview, so prepare.”

“You’ll probably get laid off in your career and it likely won’t be your fault”

JON BAUER, SOLUTIONS CONSULTANT, TECHNOLOGY PARTNERSHIPS AT FFW

“This is going to sound defeatist, but one thing I always tell fresh grads is that they will probably get laid off in their career and it likely won’t be their fault. Know that this is not a reflection on your skills or value as a human. Do not be discouraged by this.”

“Pay attention to corporate culture”

FELIPE CARMONA, GLOBAL MARKETING MANAGER AT GOOGLE

“Corporate culture eats knowledge, processes and skills for breakfast. Paying attention to ‘corporate culture’ during your internship will help you to learn what to do / what not to do, but most important: whom do you want to become.”

“You’ll get out the equivalent of what you put into it”

KITTY HART, VP CLIENT BRAND EXPERIENCE AT HEROIC PRODUCTIONS

“Show up early.”

“Leave your phone in your backpack.”

“Ask questions.”

“Smile, get to know people, and have fun with your coworkers.”

“Walk into every day eager to learn.”

“Always remember, you will get out of the internship the equivalent of what you put into it.”

“Better yet, suggest something”

CHRIS WOOSTER, FREELANCE COPYWRITER, CREATIVE DIRECTOR, BUILDER OF THINGS AND BRANDS

“Many interns suffer in silence, waiting for work to be brought to them. Remember the names and faces of people your supervisor introduces you to in the first days, then in downtime circle back to them to ask if there’s anything you can help with. Or better yet, suggest something to them.”

“This is a beginning, but not the only one”

CANIN CARLOS, FOUNDER / SOFTWARE DEVELOPER AT DREAMFREELY

“You got your foot in this door, you’ll get your foot in others too, if need be … this is a beginning, but not the only one … if you’re not enjoying the time spent, go elsewhere.”

Finally, a wonderful bit of tactical advice which I did not solicit but discovered on the platform I assume every intern comprehends as a native: TikTok. In this piece, the Hollywood writer Michael Jamin answers the question: How Do I Break Into Hollywood? which could refer as much to actual Hollywood as any career anywhere today. As Jamin puts it, “I would make a page proving to the world how good I was at my craft.” And that could be any craft, any career focus. The trick, of course, is having the courage to do it and the chutzpah to figure out how to tell your story effectively.

Good luck, interns!

Originally published at Useful Lunacy

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Tim Brunelle

Tim Brunelle

I'm a creative enterprise leader, teacher, and entrepreneur living in Minneapolis.