How To Get The Most From An Internship

John W. Boudreau

John W. Boudreau

John W. Boudreau, Research Director at the USC Marshall Center for Effective Organizations and Professor of Management at the USC Marshall School of Business

One thing that’s come up in my work that students might not be thinking about is what I call focusing on the thing that’s really pivotal. What I often find is that when you look at organizations carefully and ask enough ‘why’ questions, you really get to some non-obvious ways that things are going to be important or vital to the organization.

So the question I would suggest to them, in a nutshell, is, Where would improving something make the biggest difference to this organization? So whether they’re looking at the organization’s strategy, talking to people they’re working with, or looking at financials or investor reports from the organization, that’s often a question to have the MBAs ask. It’s very different from the question of “what’s important?” the answer to that is usually many, many, things…maybe everything, is important in some way. If you switch it around and get to a question like, “Where would a change make the biggest difference?” You often end up with some pretty interesting conversations and some very, very different answers than you’d get from a standard look.

[That question] may help direct them to places where work that they [could] do will be pivotal or have an impact. Another question to use goes something like this: If the thing we are working on was 10% better, how would that most affect the organization’s success? What I find, when I work with organizations as a consultant, is that this question shifts the conversation from what’s important to what’s pivotal and gets some interesting insights from folks at all levels.

Another piece of internship advice is having interns think about the network they’re working with. And what I mean by that is the network that doesn’t show up on an organizational chart or the job description. Let me step back, as I expect most MBAs have been exposed to social networks, the idea of these informal networks that exist as an outlet in organizations. Very often, people with significant influences in the organization don’t always show up in standard hierarchy as clearly as they would if you were thinking about the people that everyone goes to for advice. So have an image of this social network overlaid against the network you’re working with.

There has been some really interesting research on being a good networker and what has an impact in a social network. One of the findings is that while it’s important to be someone that people come to for information, one thing that’s turning out to be a real predictor of someone’s value to an organization is the energy that they bring to these encounters. So when you pose questions a little differently:

Where do you tend to get a great deal of energy? Who is it around here who gives a lot of energy to their interactions? These questions may ultimately lead you to a different person than the expert or the person you go to for information.

Think of the network you’re working in as a social network. Within that, begin thinking about where are people going and where is the significant energy in the organization around me. You need to connect with those folks. It’s likely to yield some significant benefits.

Finally, there’s a book I’m a big fan of by a colleague of mine at Wharton named Adam Grant. He wrote a best-seller called Give and Take. What I like about that book is that it has a counterintuitive message and one based very much on some pretty good research. The basic message is the idea that there’s often great potential success in being a giver and not just a taker. He distinguishes patterns like “I give as long as I get something back,” which he calls a taker. There’s a moderate giver: “I’ll give what I can, but there’s still sort of a quid pro quo.” And the third one is someone who gives without strings attached. They tend to be the ones who do favors for other people, who come early and stay late. The research is really interesting: If you can push yourself to the third level of giving, it actually correlates pretty highly to career success. That’s something I suggest interns take a good look at.

Dan Schawbel

Dan Schawbel

Dan Schawbel, Author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success

If you’re an MBA student, then you need to maximize your internship experience. Based on research that I’ve done, most internships will not turn into full-time jobs but yours can if you work hard, record the results of your projects, do more than what’s listed in your job description, and network in and out of your group. Think of the internship as a case study that you can use to prove your worth to that employer and justify them hiring you as an employee when the internship is over. Network outside of your core group of co-workers so that you can increase your chance of being referred to jobs after you leave the internship. Make sure that you complete all of your current tasks to the best of your ability while taking on additional work that you weren’t hired to do. Develop your skills through these tasks so that you become sought after and more employable later.

Sandy Khan, Founder, MBA Arena

There are a number of ways you can increase the value of your internship.

Remember that you have a very limited time to exceed expectations and shine.​ Employers are looking for future leaders with MBA talent. Be a leader while following directions and always have an opinion. If you have ideas on how to improve a process, make it happen. Think about what creates good business and how you can impact it in the short time you have​ with an employer.

Here’s how you do all that….

First, think about the following areas when creating and promoting new ideas and processes internally…I guarantee it will be valued by managers:

Simplification: Aim to increase speed

Sharing: Create or add to an internal online​ knowledge hub for your content

Supporters: Look to build or strengthen internal communities and cohesion

Sandy Khan

Sandy Khan

Second, it’s not about “face time” or pretty PowerPoints anymore. It’s much more about agreeing on realistic deliverables, the results you create and how you worked collaboratively with peers and senior management to achieve the results. To my earlier point about supporters, you must show you can navigate internally to create and nurture strategic partnerships.

Third, Network! Network! Network! Everyone will tell you to network. But be smart and genuine about your approach because you have a small window of time and have a lot to do! Create a few close relationships and remember that networking is about you giving as much as taking.

Look for three types of people:

1) A mentor, a senior person who can open your mind to new thinking and new people and potentially offer you a character reference. I would want you to give them something back, such as fresh thinking and your opinions. Think about reverse mentoring for your mentor. Not many people will think to do that.

2) A buddy, a person who you can go to quickly to figure out the daily small stuff, things like picking the reliable photocopier, shortcuts on internal systems, etc. Again, I would want you to give back; at the end of the internship, offer official positive feedback to HR or your buddy’s boss. It makes a huge difference and shows your leadership traits.

3) Interesting people who have a pain you can solve. Keeping your head down is terrible advice for interns. Look up and look around! Find out who is doing interesting work and ask or figure out how you can help them with their projects. Be proactive, curious, and useful. Again, think like a leader. Come up with ideas for projects. Sometimes, it’s hard for people to think of things for interns to do. Sometimes, interns get extra points for coming up with their own projects.

Fourth point of internship advice, don’t restrict yourself to just big employers. Internship experience with startups is fantastic because larger companies love candidates who have an entrepreneurial spirit, are comfortable with ambiguity, and are self-starters who can significantly impact a business. You’ll be surprised at how many multinationals operate like startups on new projects.

Finally, be adaptable. Think no task is too small or too weird for you to do (within reason of course). Be humble. Be fun. You want to be missed when you leave!

(See next page for internship advice from Dartmouth and Deloitte)

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