‘Why do I have an intern?’ Learning from the most junior person in the room

What did you learn from your intern this fall? That is the question. If an answer doesn’t come quickly to mind, you may want to ask ‘Why do I have an intern?’ before you hire a new one for spring.

One of the most disappointing, dispiriting experiences of my time mentoring university students employed as interns came at the end of the semester when we asked employers to submit an evaluation of the intern’s performance. Most had to be tracked down via text,  email, and voice mail before a perfunctory form was returned with a checkmark for ‘exceptional’, ‘good’ or ‘needs improvement’. It was the rare manager (1 in 50) who would actually take the time to share valuable, actionable feedback.

At the beginning of each semester, concurrent with the start of a new internship, you could illuminate a major city with the energy emanating from students about to embark on a new experience. As the weeks went by, the lights dimmed, as one by one, intern’s dreams fell short when tested in practice. In many cases it seemed that the intern was a ‘vanity’ addition to one’s entourage vs. a potential contributor to a strategic mission.

Here’s the thing. Most of these students were committing 10-15 hours of ‘unpaid’ time to their internship. In the majority of cases interns were balancing a full course load of 16-18 credits and a part-time paid position. Social life was the first casualty, but a worthy trade-off for the opportunity to gain valuable, ‘career related’ work experience.

With this level of commitment, why is there such a major disconnect in expectations between employers and interns?

In many cases the ‘unpaid’ label results in a lack of respect. Little thought goes into anticipating and planning the internship assignments.

A successful internship program/relationship is built on clearly communicated expectations and on-going follow-up/ feedback.

Why do you hire an intern? Perhaps to breathe some fresh air into the room. Maybe to keep you aligned with your values. Most important, to help you connect with your emerging customer cohort.

Victor Ho, C.E.O. of FiveStars was interviewed by Adam Bryant for his weekly ‘Corner Office’ column in The New York Times. Reflecting back on his experience, he shared

“…the strongest lesson I learned at McKinsey that I now share with every single new hire is what they call the “obligation to dissent.” It means that the youngest, most junior person in any given meeting is the most capable to disagree with the most senior person in the room.

So if I hire an intern, that intern is the most qualified person in the company to say, “Victor, I heard this was your mission, your values, and these things are off.” That’s just because the more removed you are, the less you drink the Kool-Aid. You have a fresh perspective.”

Before your fall intern departs, skip the cake, and use the the time for a face to face conversation about what you both learned over the past four months. Offer feedback that will guide your intern through to the next step in their career.

When you are interviewing your spring candidates, look for the most qualified person with “the obligation to dissent”.  Ask yourself ‘How can I structure the experience to maximize individual contribution and encourage interaction?’

Why do I hire an intern? To learn, and reconnect to the core aspirational organization values.

 

“Dignify the outsider” & other lessons from Carolyn See

When we talk about mentors, we often confine ourselves within the walls of our chosen profession. Carolyn See, professor and writer, was also a ‘world class’ mentor to those who were ‘outsiders’ to the world of New York publishing, the purveyors of taste in American storytelling.

I met Carolyn after a panel at the 2003 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, when she was signing copies of ‘Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers’. We had a brief conversation and I followed up with an email a few days later to thank her for taking the time to chat. Her response was immediate, gracious and filled with humor.

At the time I was not a writer, but a ‘dreamer’, considering a literary life, while pursuing a passion working with college students. Carolyn encouraged me to explore the writing life, and taught me what it truly means to be a mentor.

Carolyn died last week in Santa Monica, California. Many of her students and friends have shared their memories in published obituaries and tweets. In all there is the common thread of the ‘insider’ welcoming the ‘outsider’.

“…I believe, with a patriotic sincerity that would make a Legionnaire blush, that American literature is owned by everybody in America and that world lit is owned by everyone in the world and that we all get to have a say in it, not just a comparatively few men and women in the Northeast, no matter how decent and talented they may be.”

LA Times columnist, former book critic and writer, David Ulin described his relationship with Carolyn in 2014.

“Carolyn taught me how to be a writer in California. For her, that meant a three-dimensional literary life: writing, teaching and reviewing, all of them inextricable from the whole. As a critic, I have tried to follow her model that reviews should be part of an ongoing conversation with one’s readers, and should explicate something essential — not only whether or not we like a book, but also how it connects to, or reflects, our aesthetics, our world view. Carolyn has always regarded reading as an act of engagement . . . and reviewing, too.”

What is a mentor? What can we learn from the life of a writer if we have followed a completely different career path?

A mentor teaches you to be the three-dimensional human in your workplace vision of success.

In ‘Making a Literary Life, Carolyn offers two menu items: ‘Carolyn’s 18 Minute Chili’ and ‘Carolyn’s 18 Hour Chili’.  For the writer, the two step (18 minute) is “a thousand words a day or two hours of revision” and “a charming note to a writer, editor or agent you admire – five days a week for the rest of your life”.

This is what a mentor does, unselfishly shares their recipe for success with measurable, accountable advice. And the part about ‘charming notes’? It’s universal in its application. This is not about ‘sucking up’, but genuinely expressing gratitude or professional admiration, tied to a specific circumstance.

The ’18 hour chili alternative’ includes suggestions to “take an outside excursion once a week”, “pretend- in your mind – to be…”, and “make a list of what a … like you might want”.

We need to get outside our ‘comfort zone’ to stay creative. It’s essential to visualize what you would be like in your dream job, and equally important, to hold an image of what success looks like to you.

“You can go a surprisingly long time without figuring out the kind of person you are and in what direction your life is taking you.”

It’s why I will always be grateful for my encounter with Carolyn See, and why we all, outsiders included, need a mentor who keeps us honest and on track toward success.

 

 

 

 

 

The Saturday Read ‘Max Perkins: Editor of Genius’ by A.Scott Berg

How many of you have turned your senior thesis into a career?

In 1971, recent Princeton graduate, A. Scott Berg began the seven-year process of expanding his college research into the biography of book editor Max Perkins. Earlier this month, a 38 year long journey, from the first film option of the 1978 National Book Award winning biography, ended with the opening of ‘Genius’ in theaters.

The Saturday Read this week is ‘Max Perkins:Editor of Genius’, a story that defines the role of a professional mentor as the narrative unfolds.

Allison Silver interviewed the author in 1981 for an article on the relationships between biographers and their subjects.

“Scott Berg’s biography ”Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” grew out of a fascination, bordering on fixation, for F. Scott Fitzgerald. At Princeton, Mr. Berg wrote his senior thesis on Perkins’s relations with Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe and Fitzgerald during the 1920’s. Mr. Berg realized there was a book in the life of the Scribner’s editor, and felt he was the one to write it. On graduation day, 1971, he told his roommate, ”I’ll take three months to research it, three months to write it and then another three months to get it published.” Mr. Berg remembers this philosophically. ”I was only six years off.”

Berg introduces Perkins at age sixty-one, in 1946, as he enters a storefront on Forty-third street in Manhattan, to speak to a group of students enrolled in an extension course on book publishing. “All were eager to find a foothold publishing and were attending the weekly seminars to increase their chances.”

“Maxwell Everts Perkins was unknown to the general public, but to people in the world of books he was a major figure, a kind of hero. For he was the consummate editor. As a young man he had discovered great new talents – such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe – and he had staked his career on them, defying the established tastes of the earlier generation and revolutionizing American literature. He had been associated with one firm, Charles Scribner’s Sons, for thirty-six years, and during that time, no editor at any house even approached his record for finding gifted authors and getting them into print.”

For many years this biography has been a ‘bible’ for aspiring editors. In this time of book publishing ‘disruption’, when editors have become an endangered species, it’s worth the readers’ time to travel to post WWI New York, when a different type of disruption was taking place as the novels of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wolfe began to appear on book shelves.

Let’s return to the 1946 extension class, as Berg continues his first chapter.

‘”The first thing you must remember,” he said, without quite facing his audience: “An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. Don’t ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing…A writers best work…comes entirely from himself…Because in the end an editor can get only as much out of an author as the author has in him.”‘

This advice, shared with folks pursuing a career in publishing, could be edited for any contemporary management text to define the modern day mentoring relationship.

“Beginning with Fitzgerald and continuing with each new writer he took on, he slowly altered the traditional notion of the editor’s role. He sought out authors who were not just “safe”, conventional in style and bland in content, but who spoke in a new voice about the values of the postwar world. In this way, as an editor he did more than reflect the standards of his age; he consciously influenced and changed them by the new talents he published…

The successful editor is one who is constantly finding new writers, nurturing their talents, and publishing them with critical and financial success. The thrill of developing fresh writing makes the search worthwhile, even when the waiting and working becomes months, sometimes years, of drudgery and frequent disappointment.”

The biography offers a chronological timeline of relationships with the icons of early twentieth century American literature: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe and Ring Lardner. It also includes his nurturing of emerging women writers in the 1930s: Marcia Davenport, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Taylor Caldwell. In the final chapter, we meet two of the last authors Perkins edits in 1946 and 1947: James Jones, author of ‘From Here to Eternity’ and Alan Paton, author of ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’. Max Perkins died on June 17, 1947.

How do you turn you senior thesis into a career? In the 1981 interview with Allison Silver, Berg shared his secret.

“During his first months of research, the scope of his work broadened every day until, by the end of that summer, he says, ”I made a private pact with myself then that I would work on the book until I finished it.” Mr. Berg remembers deciding ”that I was not going to be a slave to arbitrary dates; because, in truth, I owed Max Perkins more than that. Suddenly I went into twilight-zone time.”

This attitude toward deadlines has remained with Mr. Berg. He recommends that anyone involved in a long project should ”move to Los Angeles, because the seasons don’t change and you’re not aware of the passage of time. To this day I cannot account for three months between May and September, 1974.”

Can ‘YouTube’ be a mentor?

If YouTube videos can teach us how to wire a smoke detector, can they also teach us how to lead? That may seem like a ridiculous question, but in our evolving ‘conversation adverse’ culture, are we turning to videos to provide guidance in the workplace?

Think about your first job, your first day at work. Aside from the anticipation, you might as well have been visiting another planet. Perceptions collided with reality as you navigated your way through the first days; an amateur anthropologist alert to  any clue to success in this new society you had joined. Who could you trust to advise you on your journey?

That is the question we all ask at some point in our first weeks at work. All is new and colleagues seem equal. Then the sorting begins as you filter conversations and observe interactions among colleagues and the leadership team. A picture begins to emerge of the culture, the influencers and the business problems to be solved. For most of us, we wing it. We take our experience, as limited as it may be, and experiment. We offer solutions. Find they are not well constructed. Go back and revise and then venture back with the edited proposal. It’s a process of trial and error as we independently craft an answer.

We find ourselves at a turning point. We need help. Where do we go to find it?

There are thousands of articles that define the role of mentors, how to find one, how to manage the relationship, but it was the first paragraph of an article I read a few weeks ago that introduced a significant hybrid approach to how we learn to work.

In early August, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times on the topic of servant leadership, putting others first and leading from the heart.

“From the earliest days of Starbucks, I’ve been captivated by the art of leadership. I was mentored over three decades by Warren G. Bennis, the eminent professor and scholar on leadership. I’ve gathered insights from peers, and I’ve drawn inspiration from our 300,000 employees. But nothing I’ve read or heard in the past few years has rivaled the power of the image I viewed on my cellphone a few years ago: Pope Francis, shortly after his election, kneeling and washing the feet of a dozen prisoners in Rome, one of them a young Muslim woman, in a pre-Easter ritual.”

In one short paragraph, the CEO describes a combination of activities that build upon each other to form his leadership style. He relies on a mentor from outside his business, gathers insights from peers and employees and in the end it’s an image from the internet that provides the inspiration for his leadership view.

Can YouTube be a mentor? There is no substitute for human interaction and advice. Learning to work is a lifetime quest and hard work. But the ability to access online courses, TED Talks and podcasts provide an essential element in our professional development.