The summer is a time of endings and beginnings. We’re about to enroll the Darden Class of 2016,
among whom many students are looking to end one career path and embark on another. Alums I’ve been
speaking with recently, took vacations, found the time to stop and reflect, and confronted the itch to
change employers. And for the Darden Class of 2015, who have had summer internships, this week is
probably the closing act: companies will start to make full-time offers. About two-thirds of Darden’s
summer interns get offers of permanent employment from their summer jobs. Common to all of these groups is a fundamental question: “Should I work for this company?” Let me help you reflect on this. 
How not to decide
Start by dispensing with some of the most frequently-heard—and worst—reasons to sign on, such as money, power, fame, convenience, or lifestyle. Mind you, these aren’t trivial; and a partner or mentor may place them at the head of the parade. But these considerations can prompt one to make a decision that seems justified in the short run, but that in the long run may be regretted.
Where to start
The way to begin is to start with a sense of purpose, or intent, or calling. As Stephen Covey once wrote, you must “start with the end in view.” For a few people, this “end” will entail a clear vision of exactly what one will be doing in a few decades. But for most of us, the “end” will amount to an intuition about the kind of impact one wants to make, the kind of legacy one would want to leave, or the help one would want to give to others. If you have a vision or intuition about your “end” in view, everything else will be noise. As the Psalmist said, “Without a vision, the people wander.” If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.
The guiding principle
If you address the question of where to work with the end in view, then you get focused on how to get there. This focus drives you to one overarching principle: You should go where you believe that you can you do your best work. Thinking in terms of one’s “best work” necessarily focuses on the impact of one’s life and helps to define priorities. I don’t mean to suggest that defining one’s focus and priorities is easy. But finding the signal despite the noise is indispensable to charting a course. Think about the implications of this principle:
- Go. This begs you to reflect on how you will leave where you are now, and how you will gain access to the place you should be. Is now the time to go? Is your team depending on you to finish some vital work? Will you slam the door behind you, and leave bitter co-workers behind? Leaving well is one of the hardest challenges in a career.
- Where. In what sense is your best work you contingent on a place? Is it a physical location, close to friends and family? A virtual space that grants you connectivity to people who amplify your talents? A spiritual space that gets you in the zone for great work?
- You. Are you waiting for someone else to decide for you? You must own the issue. Are you straining over the decision because you simply don’t want to face it?
- Believe. This takes courage. When you decide to work for a company you must embrace a lot of uncertainty about the industry, company, your supervisor, and even yourself. Have you thoroughly assessed all of these uncertainties? Some are certainly groundless. But there may be good cause for doubts, and perhaps some fears. Ultimately, to decide requires a stroke of faith. Some people gain that faith through serendipity, “signs,” or a feeling of being called, a nagging idea that just won’t go away.
- Work. What is the work that you want to do? Like to do? Are prepared to do? Will this company let you do it? Or at least grow into it? And let’s not define “work” too narrowly. Your life’s work could also include serving a community, nurturing loved ones, or repairing some nagging interpersonal problem. Think about the balance of all of these possible demands over the course of your life.
- Best. This is the most important word in the whole question. You shouldn’t settle for just any old work. Life is too short for that. One wants to have an impact with one’s life and arrive at a good end. The notion of “best” should trigger some deep reflection on how you define success. If you start with some sense of the end in view, your best work will start to define itself.
“You should go where you believe that you can do your best work.” Spoken plainly, this principle seems obvious, hardly a slap-the-forehead insight. Yet in my decades of working with students, alums, and searchers of all kinds, I observe how slowly people come around to this conclusion. Often late in life, they will wrap their career choices based on money, power, fame, convenience and lifestyle in some rationalization about “best work”–but it always sounds hollow.
It is better to start with the end in view. That way, the steps to get there tend to define themselves.
- Those interns who are in the home stretch and really hope to gain an offer might find some of my past
advice helpful. There is a range of things one can do to improve the odds of getting an offer:
A. Actually ask for the job. Too many summer interns simply don’t “close the sale” (see this.)
B. Become known. “Lean in,” in Sheryl Sandberg’s parlance. Too many summer interns lean back and fade out (see href="http://blogs.darden.virginia.edu/deansblog/2010/07/a-question-for-summer-interns-who-are-you/">this.)
C. Finish at a sprint; don’t coast to the end. Research suggests that the most recent perceptions are very influential to decision-makers. Even if you’re finished with your summer project, walk around and volunteer to help anyone else (see this.)
D. Quell any sense of entitlement; you must earn the offer. In most settings, arrogance damages, rather than strengthens, career prospects (see this.)
E. Even if the news isn’t good, exit gracefully. (See this.)