Making Meaning From Internship and Summer Job Lessons

A few weeks ago we had the softball season-ending barbecue for one of my daughter’s teams. She and her sister had entered the next division this year – where the players had considerably more skill than they did last year. Case in point, one of the opposing team’s star pitchers was clocked at 44 MPH. She’s 10.

It started out as a tough season for my daughter – a couple of strikeouts in multiple at bats resulted in fits of tears, the silent treatment and slammed doors when we got home. Her frustrating experience isn’t all that uncommon. But the approach her coaches took was. They cheered her on after every attempt and spent as much time as she wanted in the batting cage. Despite no particular natural talent, she was willing to work hard and they gave her as much time and attention as their very best player. At some point, something clicked. Half way through the season, she got her first hit. And then another. And then a few foul balls off the toughest pitcher in the league.

After her first couple of games with a hit, when it was arguably beginning to be a trend, her coaches took her aside and went beyond congratulating her. They helped her connect the dots. They talked about where she’d been, what she’d done about it, her response when she’d stumbled and the outcome. And they let her know that this was a great learning for handling challenges on AND off the field.

A Special Leader

This experience was fresh in my memory when I was introduced to a friend of a friend who runs a summer camp. I was interested in her perspective on the support that young adults need and get in navigating job and career decisions. I knew she’d be a good resource as she employs a raft of college students to be camp counselors, some of whom have returned each college summer. She bemoaned her own frustration about well educated students coming out of school and working in hourly wage jobs because they couldn’t find the types of roles they sought. She’d heard the frustrations of friends who interviewed college grads but left these conversations underwhelmed by their qualifications. So she decided to take matters for her team into her own hands.

At the end of the summer she sits down with EACH of her nearly 100 counselors and she asks them about their summer responsibilities. Managing the campers’ variety show, dividing up and overseeing campers’ kitchen chores, serving as swimming instructors or a shoulder to cry on for the homesick campers, you name it. And then she asks which soft skills they used. She said that when she started having these discussions, she initially got blank stares from them. But as word got around, they began to understand what these are, and when they’re using them.

Variety show manager? She learned about teamwork and collaboration as well as dealing with conflict when multiple campers pursued the same part in the show. Campers’ kitchen chore coordinator? He learned about work ethic, seeing firsthand the impact of the campers who missed their shifts, and problem solving, when recipes had to be adapted when the needed ingredients didn’t show up. Moral support for the homesick camper? She learned critical thinking skills, thoughtfully weighing the severity of the situation to decide whether or not to get in touch with the camper’s parents.

What lucky counselors these folks are to have someone who spends her own time late into evening to help them connect the dots between what they’ve learned and its meaning in the work world. My daughter and her whole team were equally lucky for their great coaches. Emily Carpenter put this beautifully, in the words of a valued mentor: “You don’t learn from the experience, you learn from the meaning you make of the experience.” As leaders, managers and coaches, what a difference we can all make when we help our future leaders not just learn from the experience, but learn from the meaning they make of the experience.

PS – What if your manager isn’t Sarah, offering this up proactively? Put your thoughts together on which skills you’ve learned and tell your manager you want her/his input. Doing so also gives you the chance to practice two more soft skills – initiative and career management.

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