Dear Summer Intern: This is an audition for your future

June 14, 2012

Once upon a time – i.e., eons ago – one of us had a summer internship that mainly involved playing golf with the boss, who appreciated the company of a college kid with a single-digit handicap. Not much work got done, but it didn’t seem to matter, particularly to the boss. The other one of us (the one whose handicap is so obscene it can’t be printed in a family publication) once had a summer job that revolved around asking, “Would you like your eggs bagged separately?” It was boring, sure, but the hours were great if hitting the pool is your kind of thing.

As the song goes, “Those were the days, my friends. We thought they’d never end….”

Well, they did. They really, really did. Today, due to economic conditions that need no explanation, most college grads have to fight and claw for entry-level jobs in their chosen fields, and many, perhaps as many as 25 percent, aren’t even able to get a well-shined shoe in the door.

So say goodbye to your father’s, or even your older brother’s, summer internship, when the office was, for all intents and purposes, where you passed the time between weekends at  Cape Cod, and the best thing about going to work each day was that it meant – hallelujah! – you weren’t going to classes or taking exams.

Say hello instead to a summer that offers what might be your best hope of landing a real, live job upon graduation. That is – if you can just remember two little things.

O.K., maybe they aren’t little.

The first is to be keenly aware of who is courting whom this summer. Sure, the cheerful hiring people might have assured you that your internship is designed to introduce you to the company’s wonderful staff and culture and help you gain valuable industry experience, which is all well and good. Take that stuff in. But the bottom line is that, whether you’re working at an investment bank or a radio station, your summer internship should be more about giving than getting. Indeed, it should primarily be about you giving a helluva performance, over-delivering, making an impression with your insightful, unexpected ideas and terrific, sweat-the-details kind of output that prompts people to say, “Holy Cow, this kid really wants it.”

You need to do stuff that makes your boss look like a hero. Suggest a small process improvement, come up with a cool packaging idea, offer deep-dive insights into a customer segment. Do something, anything, that might make your boss think, “It would really stink if this kid worked at one of our competitors.” That’s the kind of wow you’re after…every single day.

Our second “little” piece of advice is both easier and simpler. Be likable. Just that. Fun, upbeat, friendly, authentic, filled with positive energy, happy, agreeable, chit-chatty about sports and the weather and The Avengers, or frankly, whatever everyone at your company likes to be chit-chatty about. Get in the game and play, even literally, if there’s a softball game to be had. Let people know you. Let them hear you laugh. Let them see your humanity. Sure, some people are so freakishly smart, their personalities don’t matter and they don’t have to make the kind of nice we suggest. But those people are rare, and most of them don’t need summer internships anyway because they’re millionaires by age 18, with a couple of patents or apps to their name.

Finally, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention one last summer to-do item, which is not to take place at work but rather in the privacy of your own cheap rental. The pastor and author Terry A. Smith makes the case that people are happiest when they are working in their “Area of Destiny” – that gorgeous piece of emotional and intellectual real estate that exists at the intersection of what you’re uniquely good at and what deeply interests and excites you. We couldn’t agree more; indeed, we talk about “Area of Destiny” so often with our own college-aged kids that they’ve been known to greet us by saying, “My area of destiny is fine today, thanks, how’s yours?”

They’re joking, but it’s not a bad question to ask yourself. So this summer, while you’re over-delivering and winning likability points in extremis, also think long and hard about whether you’re on the road to a career that someday will give you the chance to simultaneously do what you’re good at and what you love. Because that is the place you want to land. It’s where you belong.

And the first step in that direction, dear summer intern, is getting an A on the job right now.

Jack Welch was the CEO of General Electric for 21 years and is the founder of the Jack Welch Management Institute at Strayer University. Suzy Welch is an author, speaker and the former Editor of the Harvard Business Review.

PHOTO: Nora Barnett, an intern for House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA), waits with stacks of paperwork in anticipation of a committee meeting to mark-up health care legislation titled “America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009,” on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 29, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst



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ok, what happened to the real Nuetron Jack?

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Please, Reuters, stop letting these two write opinion columns. I’m BEGGING YOU.

The two real nuggets of info here are:

1. Work hard, no, really hard. Like, so hard. As hard as you can.

2. Have something more than a wet paper bag of a personality.

If I were you, Reuters, I’d charge these guys, rather than paying them, for such a useless column. Or maybe not, maybe I’m the only one who sees hard work and acting like a normal, likable human being as obvious things you do at a job. Things you don’t need to be told to do. I dunno. Call me crazy.

Posted by Adam_S | Report as abusive

Jack and Suzy went up a hill to fetch a pail of water. Oh, no wait, let’s send our unpaid, overeducated intern to do the work we would normally have to pay minimum wage to an employee.

That way Jack and Suzy can skip employment benefits tax, healthcare costs, insurance, etc.

The reality of today’s internships is that they work in mail rooms unpaid to do grunt work that has nothing to do with their career aspirations. However, it does add to GE’s bottom line.

Posted by Acetracy | Report as abusive

obey. step. fetch. let the 1% feed off your life essence.

believe in the American Dream that’s been snatched from the grasp of 100 million other Americans.

then die, hapless worker drone.

Posted by bryanX | Report as abusive

It is also funny, as others have mentioned tertiarily, that there is NO mention of pay in this article.

Interns work hard, or should, as the brilliant Welch’s tell us. Are they paid? Is there any mention of that? I work for a nonprofit, we don’t pay our interns, and as their manager, it incenses me every summer when I’m supposed to find 2-3, high quality, intelligent, hard-working kids, extol the virtues of working where I work, then tell them they don’t get paid. When I finally leave this place, that’s going to be a top 5 reason.

If your part-time employees produce work product for you, and do it well, they are adding value, and they deserve to be paid. The attitude of management who feel they don’t need to pay interns is disgusting. While they *might* learn something beneficial for a career, they certainly won’t learn the value of a dollar, since they’re expected to pay rent, eat, etc, on their own savings (which, duh, so many 18-21 year old kids have in spades), or their parents’ generosity, which due to the market recently, is probably at an all-time low.

It amazes me how these two don’t even mention that.

Posted by Adam_S | Report as abusive

@adam do you really think Jack W wrote that? It was an excellent piece by his intern.

Posted by Papaner88 | Report as abusive

These 2 have nothing to say to regular people, they live in the 1% buble, please spare us.

Posted by jgscott | Report as abusive

This piece isn’t just rubbish, it’s a message from the status quo. This is neoliberal junk.

From whence we’re born, we’re meant to be profit maximizing machines it seems. Work your life to death and mindlessly consume all the while. Oh and don’t concern yourself about the planet and the environment as well. As you can see, everything will just magically turn out ok because it’s supposed to.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have let communism fall so quickly. Just a mere few decades after the fall of communism and look where we are and where we’re headed which feels very much like serfdom.

Student debt now stands at over a trillion dollars. No jobs for them. Well thank god there’s cheap junk food and gadgets to keep them distracted for now. And Jack and Suzy.

Posted by crucial | Report as abusive

interning, is a great way to check out the ‘company culture’……….the inner workings……you may NEVER want to actually work there

Posted by Robertla | Report as abusive

IMO I think it’s good advice. Many here may be critical because they are expecting more specifics or jargin or eye-opening from Jack & Suzy, but for the target audience (17-24yr olds) their advice (albeit well documented and common sense) is simple and to the point.

I met Jack and Suzy on their latest book tour, she was quiet and he was very nice – of course because I bought 6 of his books to have him sign. If I could improve upon this piece I would look for a better interviewer who’s more attuned to their topic and can ask more pointed and gating questions that can draw out more value added information. Jack didn’t have a “chemical” internship, he was a Chemical Engineer, and that’s different than a Chemist.

Posted by elibutton | Report as abusive

Private, for-profit entities that do not pay interns are engaging in classic exploitation – taking advantage of the desperate. Perhaps a case can be made for free labor at non-profits or government agencies, but a self-respecting business should pay the help – and this is from a conservative-leaner.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive