“After two years of consulting, I asked Fred Langhammer, who was then Chief Operating Officer of the Estee Lauder Companies and would later be CEO, if he would hire me. I believe it’s important to ask for what you want. And I recall he said, “We don’t have MBAs. Where would I put you?” I didn’t take no for an answer and was named his executive assistant…” Jill Granoff, CEO of Kenneth Cole ((Jill Granoff, “The Boss: Ask for What you Want,” New York Times, Sunday, July 19, 2009, page 9, Business Section.))

A professor of mine, C. Roland Christensen, once told me that MBA students do a great job learning how to do the work required by employers (accounting, marketing, finance, operations and so on), but give little or no thought to the entry into or exit from those jobs—and he argued that the entry and exit are so vitally important that they can actually overshadow the work that got done in between. I have thought about Christensen’s comment many times over the past 35 years. It comes back to me especially now.

Here in July, MBA students have in view the end of their summer internships. Darden will start up in late August. The usual academic cycle resumes.

The academic year ahead will be overshadowed by the “Great Recession” in which we now find ourselves. Unemployment in the U.S. is rising, a trend that is expected to continue for some time after the economy starts to grow again—such a lag is typical of all recessions. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke expects that the U.S. recovery will start in the fourth quarter of 2009 implying that corporate employment won’t start looking up until spring or summer 2010. Conditions are stringent enough that CEOs like Jeffrey Immelt and Steven Ballmer assert that we are experiencing a fundamental economic “reset,” not just a recession. No one really knows what will happen over the next 12 months. But based on historical patterns and an assessment of current conditions, it looks like MBA employment next year will be like last year: down from the boom years of 2005-2008. These days, I am visiting our corporate partners intensively. They tell me that they will certainly come to hire at Darden and the other top schools, but that they will be looking to fill fewer positions. And the positions they do need to fill will be drawn from the candidates they know best, the summer interns. One Chief Talent Officer calls them “the proven talent.”

Right now, summer interns are looking at the final few weeks of a beauty contest in which they have an opportunity make a good impression and win an offer of permanent employment. Face it: the summer internship is a selling-and-buying game. Both the intern and employer are assessing each other. But in the “reset” reality of the current recession, the interns are comparatively weaker than in previous years. This year, the interns are plainly selling and the employers are plainly doing the buying. I have asked some interns what they are doing to close the sale. I am struck by how little thought they have given to the notion. This is where Chris Christensen’s comment hits home. Summer interns need to get smart—fast—about how to end the internship well. To feed one’s imagination, I’ll offer seven pointers:

1. Get the right attitude. Accept the context. The year ahead is no time to be very choosy. You may have dreamed of getting several killer job offers. But wake up and smell the coffee: this year again, the job market will be thinner than usual. Accept the fact that you will need to focus significantly on the needs of employers and much less on your own aspirations. Don’t whine about it or rail against the injustice in the world—doing so will make you sound like a loser. And if you go to our podcasts of alumni (Gene Lockhart, Greg Fairchild, Carroll Warfield) who started their careers in the midst of a recession, you will hear how economic turbulence opens up great opportunity. The fact is that a great job depends partly on the employer and very significantly on the employee. Develop a mindset of doing terrific work for whoever happens to employ you.

2. Finish at a sprint. This is not summer camp. And however beguiling may be the closing round of social events for the interns, this is no time to kick back. Arrive early. Stay late. Finish each and every task and project you were assigned. Do your very best, for you can be sure that those watching you will assume that any careless work represents your top effort. Double-check with your “client” about his or her satisfaction with the finished job: “is there anything else I can do to polish this further for you?” Offer to continue helping on the project after you return to school. By the way, if you don’t know who your “client” is, figure it out very fast.

3. Volunteer for more work. Needs crop up unexpectedly and full-time employees go on vacation at this time of year. Offer to fill in.

4. Lead. You are in a good position to see where challenges are cropping up or opportunities are falling through the cracks. Take the initiative to rally some others around these issues.

5. Invite a full-time offer in an appropriate way: in any Selling 101-type of course, this is called “closing the sale.” Play no games like pleading, bribing, entitlement, or narcissism. Just state your case straightforwardly: “I see a good fit between this organization and me because…” “In the following examples, I’ve shown that I can do the kind of work you need…” “I can make a contribution to this organization in the following ways…” If you want a job, say so and say why. If you can, say it with some conviction. (If you don’t feel some conviction, see point #1.) In this environment, if you leave without expressing any interest, the employer may assume that you are indifferent.

6. Everything with integrity. In the exit interview, honestly represent your accomplishments, strengths, and intentions. Attempting to close the sale by diminishing the work of other interns is shabby. Don’t get sucked into the zero-sum beggar-thy-neighbor behavior that a “reset” economy can trigger. Help the other interns even if this gives them a leg up on the chances for the job offer. I believe that managers value this kind of altruistic teamwork—and if they don’t, is this the kind of company you want to work for?

7. Be big. Close the door gracefully ((Maybe you had a bad boss, an incompetent co-worker, or a customer from Hell: explain the facts if asked in an exit interview; but don’t think you are going to change things on the basis of an aria in front of everyone.)) on the way out. Use the final weeks to cement friendships and build your network. Do a lap around the office, look everyone in the eyes, and shake hands. Follow up with a short handwritten note of thanks to people you worked for. Especially, don’t forget to thank the administrative assistant, programmer, graphic designer, lab assistant, or statistician who helped you: these folks see interns come and go and probably never get recognized—for the best ones, you might consider an inexpensive gift like flowers or sweets. Wish them all well, no matter how the job situation turns out. You will probably see some of them again one day; how you exit will shape a lasting impression.

My colleague, Everette Fortner, has more advice to offer in his blog posting, “How to Turn that Informal Internship into an Offer (and Other Next Steps).” As Jill Granoff said, you have to “ask for what you want.”

Such steps give no guarantees. When all is said and done, luck plays a big role in a “reset” economy like this one. As Thomas Jefferson said, “I’m a great believer in luck. And I find that the harder I work, the more I have of it.” Working intentionally at your departure from summer internship to school might help your chances and will certainly teach you a number of invaluable lessons in the art of entry and exit. Over the course of a career, the typical MBA may have numerous transitions. It’s not too late to start practicing.