Nikki Gupta, originally from India, grew up in Saudi Arabia and London before starting her MBA at London Business School. She is a member of the 2020 class and has been sharing snippets of her day-to-day on what it’s like to have a London MBA experience.
The summer internship can feel like a big deal. It is the final piece of evidence that your interest is indeed your calling. It becomes part of your MBA identity. You’ve spent a lot of time away from the real world. You want this internship experience to measure up to everything you thought it’d be as a first-year student.
I was thrilled when I secured a product management internship at a company that I idealized since high school. I was nervous, so I did everything I could to prepare. I read books, spoke to people, and researched the company top-to-bottom.
This internship was going to prepare me to become a real product manager, I thought. I had imagined talking to customers, designing features, and launching products. Along the way, I would find ways to apply all of my first-year learnings in some form. It was going to be epic.
Before I knew it, I had finished my eight weeks and found myself with an uncomfortable feeling. I felt like an “expectations vs reality” meme. Not because I did not learn a lot – I just didn’t learn as much from the mental list I made before starting the internship. Did I choose the right internship? Did I add value during my time? What am I going to do now? These are uncomfortable questions I now have to answer as I look back on this rite of passage.
THE RESEARCH PROJECT
My manager’s first question was this: “What are your expectations from this internship?” I was grateful that she had asked. I told her that I wanted to learn the workings of a large company, as well as how experimentation comes into product management and how product teams work together on different yet interconnected products. I needed to understand this because, having only worked in my own startup, the MBA was going to help me learn how large-scale impact is engineered. Being in a big company was beyond my comfort zone. What I did not want was to work in a silo, on a research project where I would present my findings without implementing something “live.”
She smiled and swiftly revealed that she would like me to complete a research project on a new product alongside supporting an established product’s team. I am ashamed to say that I protested. I saw research projects as isolated “nice to haves” that may never add value.
My discomfort came from a place of fear and arrogance. The project entailed researching and presenting the scope of problems for users that the company had not served before. In reality, it gave me the chance to go on a marketing field day, interview people, and present my research to multiple teams.
I talked through my research in the bi-weekly “Share and Learn”, where my thematic analysis of user interviews caught peoples’ eye. Different colleagues asked me to train them to use thematic analysis to break down unstructured user interviews and devise a focused marketing strategy for a different product. This was entirely unexpected, incredibly humbling, and certainly not on my list.
THE MBA MINDSET
As I mentioned, I wanted my internship to solve important problems and leave a lasting impact. This is largely because of who we are as MBAs; we spend our days in an environment that encourages challenging the status quo and being intentional with our time.
In a nutshell, I think I may have taken this enthusiasm too far. I know this because I sent colleagues an anonymous feedback form at the end. One teammate, whom I grew particularly fond of, described her first impression of me as “a bit impulsive and impatient.” She also said that this image quickly changed to “thoughtful, empathetic, patient, confident, well-prepared.” This stark contrast taught me a tough lesson about first impressions.
I was so laser-focused on solving the right problems and getting the desirable outcomes that I forgot how important it is to start by building trust with my teammates. On the surface, such activities can seem inefficient and “soft”. In reality, the MBA is a leadership incubator and leadership is a story told through people – other people whose impressions and buy-in ultimately decide how much impact you can make.
Looking back, I could have done more to shoulder less of the grind and bring the team on the journey with me. At the start of my internship, my checklist was full of ‘hard’ skills such as data analytics, financial modeling, and product delivery. In reality, the human dimension is the most unpredictable and challenging variable in execution. I wish I had spent more time getting to know my team a bit more, gone on more team activities, and shown my appreciation for their openness and generosity towards me.
INTERNSHIPS COME WITH SOME POWER
In spite of some colleagues genuinely mistaking me for a 21-year-old kind of intern, my role as a learner brought down barriers and gave me access to powerful insights. Everyone knew I was there to benefit from their experiences as product managers, marketers, and design experts. This made it acceptable for me to ask questions that would likely make some people defensive.
For example, I asked for thirty minutes with the CEO and he was happy to oblige. I posed some pretty tough questions to him: “How do you know if your organization is entrepreneurial enough?”; “Would you say that most decisions are still made top-down?”; and “How do you manage your relationship with the private equity firm that owns the company?” To the Chief Product Officer, I asked: “How did you decide the composition of this product team?”; “How was the decision made to price this product this way?”; and “Where does the proof of concept for this product come from?” The premise of being an intern allowed me to be curious and dig deeper. I didn’t face the political risks of asking such questions as a permanent employee.
The biggest lesson: senior leadership likes being challenged and wish it happened more. I took the learnings from my MBA and presented recommendations to the Chief Product Officer that addressed missed opportunities I had observed in product processes. Since he was not expecting this, I went prepared to be challenged in return. I was so nervous that I may have eaten three breakfasts. The one-hour meeting lasted two hours while he remained fully engaged and keen to implement the changes. This moment did not feel like a victory, it felt like a mini MBA graduation in my head. This was the stuff of internship magic for me. For him, it was a testament to his humility as a leader.
GOOD AND BAD AMBITION
The internship is inherently a selfish way to spend the summer. It comes from a need for MBAs to prove our skills by applying what we learned in class. I once read in a book that there are two kinds of ambition: good ambition and bad ambition. When candidates talk about how much they could learn from a role and ways in which it would grow their skill set, they are displaying ambition for themselves first: the bad kind. When a candidate talks about how their skills can foster business growth, enable teams to work together, and help leaders execute their vision, this is the good kind of ambition.
The list I made at the start of the internship was a display of the bad kind of ambition. What I should have done was wait until I started, talked to the teams, learned about the business and looked for places where they needed me to bring value that mattered most to them.
Being a woman in business, I do struggle with striking a healthy balance on confidence and self-belief. This internship has taught me the importance of allowing myself to be more human, having the courage to speak up when it matters most and perhaps going into more situations with an open mind and no list. All I can say is, I am thrilled to have another year at LBS to put these into practice!