The Power of the Lousy Internship

I was heading out to meet a friend for coffee last Wednesday and spied on the counter my daughter’s lunch bag.  Since she’d left 20 minutes ago, I gave it some careful thought. I could easily walk the 2 blocks to school and drop it off for her…it would get me some fresh air and after all, she had a test that day – not ideal on an empty stomach…and mid-thought I realized I was doing a bang up job of justifying what I knew I shouldn’t do.  Prevent her from learning a lesson in responsibility, in a way that would stick.

Undecided on whether to listen to my brain or my heart, I headed out, knowing I’d still have plenty of time upon my return to drop off lunch before noon.  As I sat down for coffee, my friend talked about how glad she was to have her daughter home from college, but worried about the internship she’d started a week earlier which was turning out quite badly.

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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.

I rarely asked my interns to be creative. And always appreciated when they were.

Last week I hosted a book club at our house – a group I look forward to seeing month after month at least in part because there’s no judgment when I’ve not yet started, or only half completed the book by the time we get together.  I asked my husband to grill our dinner – and my daughters appeared to want a role too. So they proposed one: they would be in charge of name tags.

This is NOT a group that needs name tags.  In total we’re roughly 25, and while who attends each month varies somewhat, not only do we know each others’ names, work situations and addresses, many of us know which colleges each others’ kids are applying to, their sports and extracurriculars and so on.

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3 Things Interns Wish They’d Known Before Accepting Their Internship

Reading the news today that our local pool is officially open made me realize that summer is coming soon….and with it summer internships.  Before you (or the student in your life) agree to work for the company of your dreams – or turn down the one that’s not quite so popular – it’s worthwhile hearing what past interns wished they’d known before giving a thumbs up.

We asked a wide variety of interns last August what, after reflecting on their summer experience, they wished they’d known before making their decisions.  The minority were first time interns with the majority having had 2, 3 or more internships previously.

Nearly 90% wished they’d had more insight into the day to day responsibilities of the role.  Seems like that one should be straightforward, but since internships are sort of like food trucks – they pop up for a period of time and can go away just as quickly – even when asking the question directly of the hiring manager, they may tell you it’s not perfectly clear what the need will be once you arrive 3 months from now.  

So what are your options?  First, get clear on what your boss is responsible for since it’s a pretty good bet that your responsibilities will link closely to hers or his.  And if how they’re describing their responsibilities sounds like Greek, you’re not alone. It’s easy for people to adopt the company lingo that makes little sense to an outsider.  It’s OK to ask clarifying questions – to a point. If it’s lingo you think you should know based on the internship you’re interviewing for (bad idea to ask what the 4P’s are if you’re a marketing major), use the alumni network or LinkedIn to see who you’re connected to that does or did work there and ask them your questions.  

You can also ask the hiring manager what past interns have worked on and what separated the great ones from the no-chance-you’re-getting-a-job-offer interns.  This can give you a feel for the type of work that’s given to interns (and help you sniff out if it’s going to be a dry cleaning pickup oriented summer).

Most also wished they’d talked to past interns or employees before they started.  Ditto to above. One additional point on this – sometimes it can take some time and effort to find and get connected to people who can give you the low down.  But it’s well worth the effort to get the inside scoop that someone who’s wooing you might not tell you.

Lastly – past interns wished they’d had clarity on their personal goals for their internship before accepting it.  This one takes a bit more work but can often make the difference between the internship that is right for you and the one that those around you think is the best one.  It starts with getting clear on what you want to learn from the experience.  For instance:

  • What am I hoping to learn about myself?  What beliefs about myself (perhaps what I’m good at, what I’d be lousy at, what lights me up) do I want to test out?
  • What do I want to learn about this type of company? This job function? The environment I’ll be working in and people I’ll be working with?
  • What experiences will help me get clearer on eventual job and career decisions?
  • At the end of my internship, how would I define success?

Most of us only get a few internship opportunities.  Understanding the opportunity and understanding yourself is the best way to make the most of it.

The Difference of One

I packed up my once a year winter coat as I got ready to leave the cold New Jersey weather and headed into Newark Airport to join the long winding line for security.  Despite my ‘Premier’ status – which can only reasonably be explained by obstinance or being a glutton for punishment, the line appeared ridiculously long.

The man behind me was incredulous that this could be Premier.  Despite the sign above his head confirming exactly that, he asked the agent whether this was the Premier line and pleaded his case to get to a faster line, being tight on time.  The employee gave no ground and told him he’d have to wait.  Uncharacteristically, I happened to have plenty of time so offered him the spot ahead of me, suggesting that perhaps others would do the same.  This being New Jersey, he looked at me with a sort of half-smile and said, ‘Thanks, but one person really won’t make a difference.’  At that point, I insisted that he move ahead of me since I knew from the story I’d heard the night before that this simply wasn’t true.

From what could have been to what was

I’d been having dinner with my mom who lives in a retirement community.  Her new neighbor, a kind, jovial and engaging 80-something widower, joined us for dinner.  He beamed with pride talking about his four grandchildren and two sons, one an engineer and one in healthcare.  And his wife of 42 years who went from, when they were first married ‘not even knowing how to cook a burger’ to being something of an accomplished chef.  He worked for a precursor of a company merged many times since for – it seems impossible to believe these days – 37 years.  He keeps at least three of his female friends (ratios being what they are after 80…) laughing and entertained most nights and is a regular at the community ping pong table.

His Hungarian-scented English made me wonder how his journey to becoming an American had come to be, so I asked, why America?  He took a long drink of water and, eyebrows raised, began to share.

Both of his parents owned their own businesses outside of Budapest and he was brought up Christian.  This was the mid-1950s with Communism on the rise so religious leanings and capitalism were no-nos that prevented him from being accepted to secondary school.  Through an eventual loophole he managed to complete high school but by the time he was 21 his uncle was jailed for being part of the wrong party.  So at 21 he decided to leave the country – and his family, as they all agreed there was no future there for him.  Off he went to Austria where he worked for a few months and met two friends, who all decided to move to Switzerland.  They’d packed one bag for all three of their belongings, and as the bus was packed up with travelers, his friends’ names had been called but his hadn’t.  Upon checking with the man in charge, he learned there were 21 names on the list but only 20 seats on the bus.  They boarded alphabetically.  And his name starts with Z.

So off went his friends, his belongings, and his sense of a future to a country where he wasn’t headed.  What must have seemed a heartbreaking setback forced him to figure out a Plan B.  Which was to come to the US just a few months later, despite not knowing a word of English.

To see the pride of the life he created and how fully he’s living it is inspiring.  It’s also a reminder that life, perhaps, happens for us rather than to us.  And clearly it’s a reminder that just one person can in fact make all the difference in the world.

Leadership lessons from Seabiscuit. And Facebook.

Over the long weekend we managed to slip in an extra movie night at home.  As much as our kids love seeing movies, their preference is for seeing the same ones.  Again.  And again.  And again.

So suggestions of new options are met with what could generously be called ‘reluctance’.  My husband is in sales so he managed to convince them to give Seabiscuit a try a couple of months ago, and it stuck.  I’ve now seen it a half dozen times but part of what I love about the story is that depending on what’s going on for me at the time, I take away something different each time.

“He just needs to learn how to be a horse again”

For those who have seen it, you’ll recall that Seabiscuit is the horse that had all the right breeding without the apparent motivation.  Despite others’ early efforts to develop him into a competitive racer, he hadn’t shown the right stuff, so most recently he’d been used as a competitor to top racehorses: he was the one designed to lose the race to give the other horses confidence.  Tom, the trainer saw something in him but despite his early efforts wasn’t getting far.  His lament: “I just can’t help feeling they’ve got him so screwed up running around in circles that he’s forgotten what he was born to do.  He just needs to learn how to be a horse again.”

Amidst the annual performance review process at work, this resonates.  Having navigated different versions of the process for 20 years across different companies, the process is roughly the same: rate and rank the person based on the job requirements and competencies based on their level.  That requires a thorough assessment of the person’s on the job performance.  Good managers will also know what motivates their people.  But most of our colleagues and teams – and we ourselves – leave at least part of ourselves behind when we head to work every day.  For many of us, it’s more than just our pajamas that get discarded when we head to work.  We dust off the messiness that our hobbies and joys create – the dirt from fixing things, the leftover food bits from cooking up a storm, the brush strokes from painting outside of the lines, the thrill of coaching a team to success.

Which makes the recent HBR article authored by Facebook’s Head of People and description of its use of ‘entry’ interviews really interesting.  In addition to the standard role orientation, onboarding includes an entry interview to understand not just a person’s skills but also their interests.  Specifically, (there are) “three key ways that managers can customize experiences for their people: enable them to do work they enjoy, help them play to their strengths, and carve a path for career development that accommodates personal priorities.”  This idea to support people in pursuing their interests isn’t new – it was one of the early goals behind offering employees sabbaticals.  But what is new is the systematic effort to carve out part of an employee’s role that ties to what they enjoy doing.  And clearly it’s needed based on Gallup’s data showing only 30% of the US working population is engaged at work.

The Power of Bringing Our Whole Selves to Work

Imagine a world where leaders encourage their teams to bring their whole selves to work – their skills yes, but also their interests and their values.  Pulling in the manufacturing leader who loves to be the tech troubleshooter at home to man the IT desk at company meetings and help colleagues fix their computer issues.  Giving the contract analyst who coaches her kids’ sports teams responsibility to coach and mentor new hires.  Shifting the paralegal who’s a world traveler with a renowned travel blog to a role in corporate affairs with responsibility to also chronicle the company’s external presence in pictures.

Ernest Hemingway said it well: “When you stop doing things for fun, you may as well be dead.”

It takes a patient and talented leader to see the brilliance of each person on their team – which often requires looking beyond job competencies.  And aligning roles with people’s interests won’t always be easy.  But as we think about employee benefits that are truly meaningful, helping people connect the dots to align their values, interests and strengths with the work they do must be at the top of the list.  After all, as leaders, who wouldn’t want a few Seabiscuits on their team?

A Thanksgiving wish for gray in our black and white world

I was out of town last week and saw the group text from my husband to me and a mom of one of our daughter’s best friends.  He’d read a text message between our daughter and her friend, one of the boys in her class.  The boy was apologizing for causing her to cry from the punch he’d landed on her and my daughter’s response was, ‘It’s OK.’  Upon learning that this same boy had been kicking our other daughter, my husband reached out to let this mom know what had happened and asked for a discussion among the parents.

When I got home, I brought up the situation with my daughter and her response of ‘It’s OK’ and talked about other ways to respond – that accepted the apology but didn’t let him off the hook.  He’s her friend and has been a good friend to her – and at the same time he did something for which there’s no excuse.

This gray area is tough for kids – and it’s tough for many of us too.  There are plenty of inexcusable accusations swirling around us every day over the last few months.  For those of us who don’t know the accused it’s easy to write the person off as an awful human being and good riddance. But when we are friends with or perhaps related to the person, the conflicting emotions can be tough to grapple with.

In case you haven’t seen Sarah Silverman’s monologue on her thoughts about Louis CK, it’s worth a watch.  For the people in our lives who do things we can’t forgive but equally don’t want to expel from our lives, her comments offer food for thought.

For many of us, sometime this week we’ll spend time with family and friends.  Families, based on the sheer length of our history connected to one another, can bring with them complications of all sorts.  Past wrongs can challenge our ability to maintain healthy relationships.  And forgiveness may not be appropriate, realistic or possible.  But perhaps in our own lives we can begin to shift from the very black and white world we live in to some gray.  Perhaps we can begin to separate the person from the behavior.

When my husband and I got together to talk to the boy’s parents with all of us aligned on a no tolerance policy for hitting or kicking, our kids were far ahead of us.  My daughter had already told her friend that he’d better never kick or punch her again.  To which he gave an excuse-free apology.  And then they all played on the trampoline together for the next 2 hours.  It reminded me of the value of letting our kids teach us a thing or two rather than thinking we have all the answers.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

‘Growth and Comfort Don’t Co-Exist’

This week we had our daughters’ parent – teacher conferences.  These are the beginning of the year discussions where teachers provide a quick snapshot of what they’ve observed so far and set goals for the year.  Having sat in a few of these now, I find myself wondering when the goal setting in elementary school started and what in the world my goals would have been had we set some.  And then I remember – my first grade goal would likely have been to learn to tie my shoes instead of relying on anyone around me to help.  To this day, I do love slip-on shoes.  If only I’d had that goal….

At our second conference of the week, my daughter’s teacher suggested as one of her goals to maintain a ‘growth mindset’ – which turns ‘I don’t know how to do this’ into ‘I don’t know how to do this.  Yet.’  One small word that drastically changes the meaning.  When my daughter was asked if she could sign up for this goal, she squirmed a bit in her seat, saying ‘that’s hard for me.’

Her comment made me think of a recent piece I’d read about Ginny Rommety, the CEO of IBM.  Her now famous comment during an interview was, ‘Growth and comfort don’t co-exist’.  And I was equally reminded of that when I recently met with a fellow Burlingame mom, Elizabeth Kendall.

A Shining Example

For those in our neighborhood, Elizabeth’s name may ring a bell.  There are a number of possibilities for why.  She’s a mom of 3 elementary school kids and an active supporter of the school, from PTA meetings, to pushing for removal of the bungalows (aka trailers) that the 3rd graders use as classrooms, to serving as a mentor for the Washington STEM fair.  What you may not know is that she’s a research scientist at Stanford Research Institute who studies the weather effects in the upper atmosphere and oversees a research facility in Greenland.  So yeah, it’s pretty safe to say she’s qualified to oversee the kindergarten STEM fair submission.

It would also seem pretty safe to say that her plate is rather full.  In addition to her very big job, raising 3 kids and managing their myriad activities while supporting the school, she managed to wind her way to the March on Science a few months ago to make sure her voice was heard and support of science seen.  But the other reason her name might ring a bell to locals is that it’s one on the placards in yards around town.  Elizabeth is running for the Burlingame School Board.

Not only is she running, her involvement resulted in a true election.  For the last many cycles, the school board members were appointed unopposed.  There weren’t enough people who wanted to take on this important responsibility to even warrant an election.  Suddenly, people are having to talk about what they stand for, and what’s important for our community.  This after Elizabeth threw her hat in the ring to join the board 3 years ago and was ‘interviewed’ at a public school board meeting.  She didn’t get the spot.  So she returned 2 years later to join the board.  Comfortable?  No way.  Change-maker?  Absolutely.  And with an election – something new this time.  The mayor has weighed in, with an endorsement for Elizabeth.

Growth over Comfort

It’s easy – and comfortable – to stand on the side lines and criticize or second guess the decisions that are made.  It’s far tougher to shake up the system and be willing to embrace growth and eschew comfort.  And now I realize – if I’d had those goals to set way back as my 4th grade self, I’d endeavor to be like Elizabeth – someone who not only believes in the importance of driving change, but is willing to get uncomfortable to see change through.  It’s inspiring to see.

And one final point on inspiration: lest recent elections didn’t make it perfectly clear that every vote matters – consider this.  Our local mayor won the election by….wait for it…a total of 9 votes.  So whatever your views and whoever your candidates may be – make sure you make your voice heard.  It’s a lot easier than a trip to Washington DC to March for Science.

An inspiring story about choosing to lead. With no budget.

A few weeks ago I was dropping my kids off at one of the last weeks of summer camp.  I was trying to do the usual multitasking of a conference call, parenting and watching the clock to make sure I wasn’t late for my next call.  As my kids ran to talk to a friend of theirs who appeared in the hallway, I was left staring at the poster in front of me.  It was a picture of Mother Teresa and the caption, ‘Let no one ever come to you without coming away better and happier.’  I found myself thinking, ‘great sentiment, tough execution’.  But of course, as leaders that’s what we strive for.

A few weeks later I was introduced to another mom at my daughters’ school.  She is a friend of a friend who brought us all together based on a shared interest in figuring out how to empower our elementary school aged daughters to grow up as strong confident women.  The conversation inevitably moved to our own challenges along the way.  My friend, an accomplished girls’ softball head coach, was asked to take the assistant coach role so a male peer, new to coaching, could be the head coach.  Because he wouldn’t accept the assistant role and, the organizers figured, she would.  My new friend is a physician who, after finishing medical school, decided to take a few years off to raise her children.  Dismayed by her decision, her mentors responded as follows.  Her parents, both physicians, begged her to reconsider and were so disappointed in her decision that they had little communication for years afterward.  All but one physician mentor excluded her from discussions and gave up their active support of her.

Since we were meeting as parents and not professionals, I assumed that this was the all too familiar story of a trained professional deciding that for now, raising capable and confident kids needed to be the priority with the return to work potentially later on.  I was wrong.  Yes, she spent early years with her kids.  Then she returned to medicine.  And decided to lead.

The Backstory

Before medicine and kids, she spent her first few years out of college in Teach for America, teaching East Palo Alto middle school kids.  She spoke of the state of the classroom there – scrounging for supplies and cleaning up what the mice had left behind after taking up residence inside overnight.  She also talked about the amazing kids and their fervent desire to learn and what a searing impression the experience had on her.

Med school was in her future though, and she got accepted to Stanford Medical School.  For those less familiar with Bay Area geography, Google maps puts Stanford 3.2 miles away from East Palo Alto.  Economic realities put them a universe apart.  Struck by the vast disparity of resources between her two recent experiences and the clear need for access to good medical care in East Palo Alto, she spent some of her days off back at her old school, translating some of her medical learnings into kid-speak.  And with the realization that some of her charges were sharing some of what they were learning at home, she saw an opportunity.  She realized she could educate these kids as ‘health ambassadors’ to help them teach THEIR families about integrating healthy behaviors – even on a limited income.

Then she got other Stanford medical students and residents to join her.  And then residency programs in other parts of California adopted the approach.  Nearly 5 years after its inception, the Stanford Youth Diabetes Coaches Program has now been adopted by nearly 30 schools across the country.

The Impact

In the first 3 years, she measured the results.  In addition to improving knowledge, self-efficacy, worth and problem solving (and think just about the power of THOSE changes!) 82% of the 200+ students said they were considering making behavior change to improve their own health as a result of the program.  So did they?  That’s tougher to say – partially because funding is increasingly difficult to come by to do the study.  But what if even 1/3 of them did?  Think of the impact.  Healthcare gurus talk incessantly about the power of prevention.  These residents and their high schoolers are making it happen.

I left dinner with a few observations.  First: while scale matters, incremental change typically comes first.  And each of us can make incremental change when we don’t like the state of affairs in front of us.   Second, title isn’t a prerequisite for leadership.  And third, we’re lucky to be surrounded by unsung and potentially untitled leaders who make sure that those around them do in fact come away better and happier.

The power of ‘Why’

Having recently navigated my second corporate merger and been talking with colleagues about company strategy, I was reminded of Simon Sinek’s insightful Ted talk, ‘Start with Why’.  It’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.  His premise is that while most companies focus on WHAT they do – products, processes, competitive differentiation – the way to create a real and lasting connection with customers and employees is to focus relentlessly on WHY you do what you do.  Not surprisingly, that’s often tougher to determine.  Why do you want to make great cell phones or deliver a better MCAT course?  ‘To make money’ isn’t a terribly enduring or motivating why, – and Simon argues this is a result not a why.  But ‘to bring people close’ or ‘to make the practice of medicine accessible’ can be – and can make clear the guiding principles for the WHAT and HOW a company goes about its day to day.

This discussion was fresh in my mind as I was meeting with a woman I used to work with.  She remains at the healthcare company where we worked and you might have noticed a bit of, say, disruption in our industry recently.  Because of this and her uncertain future job prospects, she’d begun thinking about pursuing different roles.  She asked if I’d help connect her with people and I asked what she wanted to do or if she had particular companies in mind.  She instead talked about some of the people we had worked with and asked what they were doing now.  I talked about people’s comings and goings as best I knew them and with each role, she nodded with interest.

Her responses were some version of ‘That would be interesting / I think I’d like that / I could do that!’ As she asked if I’d reconnect her with these folks, I was reminded of the Dr. Seuss book ‘Are you my mother?’  When you’re not sure what your mother looks like it’s hard to tell who she might be.  Similarly, when you don’t know have a great sense of your motivation behind the type of work you want to do, it’s tough to tell what might be the right fit.

‘Why’ in action

Asking her WHAT she wanted to do so I could orient her to the right folks wasn’t getting me far.  So I shifted to an approach more akin to Simon’s – ‘WHY do you want to be in healthcare?’  She paused, then talked around it a bit, then paused again.  And then she told me that her parents had both been doctors and had impressed on her the importance of helping people.  It’s understandable then why she GOT into healthcare but not why she wants to BE in healthcare.  Ultimately, it was the part about ‘helping people’ that resonated for her.  And as we talked, she concluded that she needed to find a role with a more direct line of sight to helping people than her finance role offered.  Which of course opened up numerous possibilities – inside her current company and industry, and out.

I’m struck by the power of this question Why, particularly as jobs move overseas or are lost to technological innovation.  The expansion from WHAT we do and have experience doing to WHY we do what we do beyond the obvious financial benefits can open up an entirely different set of possibilities.  We just have to be open to asking – and perhaps more challenging, answering.