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.

Her boss hadn’t given her any clear direction on what he expected of her beyond what was in the original posting, then was out of the office for a week, had made no introductions to colleagues and had connected her with IT to get her email account set up but neglected to provide key permissions, delaying her system access.  Days were dragging as she didn’t know what to do or who to ask despite everyone around her seeming to be in a constant state of flurry. Her mom was working on finding her a better setup elsewhere by calling in a few favors from friends.

Lemonade Out of Lemons?

Fresh on the heels of putting together some content on how college students can gain the soft skills that employers find so elusive in today’s millennials, I asked her to hold up a minute.  Without a doubt, it can physically hurt as a parent to see our kids struggling. But what her daughter had in front of her was an opportunity to demonstrate a raft of soft skills.

For example:

  • Problem solving.  She had a problem in front of her: no clear set of job responsibilities, along with access to people who could help her solve it: others on her team, her boss’s peers, and her own power of observation.  By asking a few key people what they were working on and where they might need some help, she had a chance to get busy on a project that could add value to a colleague – or perhaps someone more senior.
  • Professionalism: In introducing herself to others, it would be unwise to bash her boss to his colleagues, so she needed to think carefully about how to explain her predicament in a way that gave him the benefit of the doubt while also offering up her availability until she got a better sense of her designated responsibilities.
  • Initiative: Rather than just waiting around for her boss to return, she had the chance to take matters into her own hands and find opportunities to contribute, even if different than originally intended.  And who knows, she might just learn a lot more about the organization than she would have if she’d stayed within the scope of the original job description.
  • Creativity: What if no one needed any extra help?  Using keen powers of observation and knowing her own skills and interests, she could recommend a project that would add value.  Worst case scenario – the person she runs it by says no. She’s still demonstrated that she’s hungry to contribute and learn and might well be the person tapped when a more important responsibility arises.
  • Networking: With some extra free time on her hands, she had the opportunity to connect with people in the organization she wanted to learn from.  Back to professionalism for a moment – bad idea to be the intern who’s seen ONLY having coffee chats, or nearly as bad, showing up for them without any clear goals in mind.  But thoughtful preparation and scheduling had the chance to offer tremendous benefit.

My friend looked off into the distance for a minute or two and then recounted one of her own high school jobs – a mind numbing data entry gig in a dark office where she did the exact same thing day after day.  She talked about all that she’d learned about what she didn’t want to do with her career based on that one job. And was clearly torn by which type of help to offer her daughter: the help that her daughter wanted or the help that she knew would provide the greatest impact.

As I returned home, I walked into the kitchen.  And decided on the type of help I was going to offer my own daughter.  I let her lunch bag remain exactly where it was.

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