A Question for Summer Interns: Who Are You?
“I think, therefore I am.” — Descartes
“I yam what I yam.” — Popeye
The recruiter tried to tell me why the MBA summer intern wasn’t given an offer of permanent employment: “She seemed to be technically proficient as did the other candidate. She was nice enough as a person. But we had two interns and were able to hire only one. The decision came down to “fit.” It wasn’t that she would have been a bad fit, but we just didn’t know her well enough to say that, in this tight employment environment, she would be a good fit. We knew what she could do; we just didn’t know who she was. The other candidate got the offer; there was less uncertainty about how well she would fit in.” 
Let’s face it: some eight months after the end of the Great Recession, this is still a tough employment market for MBAs. The MBAs headed into this market—many of whom are smart and ambitious—tend to expect employers to figure out the Millennial Generation for themselves. But this is a buyer’s market in which employers expect to be sold. Simply proving that you know the stuff of good business isn’t enough: the intangible “fit” with the company’s culture can become a deciding factor. In short, to get a job offer, you must not leave your employer guessing about who you are; what you stand for; and the extent to which all this is congruent with the values and culture of the firm.
A year ago, I blogged on the importance of “closing the sale,” of finishing strong, and of asking for an offer in an appropriate way—this message is still highly relevant (if you have not seen it before, read it now). To that earlier posting, I add the advice here: leave an impression about who you are. Most summer internships for MBAs will end in a couple of weeks or so. This is late—but not too late—for you to put this advice to good use. The careful judgment is not whether, but what to say, and how to do it.
What to say. The average twenty-something MBA candidate is still figuring out the finer points of his or her identity [Note: it is not clear that a sentient being ever stops reflecting on his or her identity]; if you seem to be a work-in-progress, it may feel awkward to say frankly and sincerely something about who you are and what you value. But if you are already in an MBA program, the odds are that you’ve had some practice at this: most applications to selective MBA programs require some insightful disclosure about yourself in those essays. Been there, done that. As a general rule, you should focus on relevance and truth.
Think about your listener and what he or she might be interested to learn about you. The vast catalogue of your attributes may not be very interesting to your prospective employer. Based on your summer internship, what seems to matter most to this firm and its competitors? What about who you are would be most relevant to the things that matter? Whom and what do you serve? What sense of purpose gets you up in the morning? Is there anything in the mission statement of your employer with which you especially identify? If you work for a firm in the health care industry, do you feel a commitment to health and wellness? Companies in the food industry may express a commitment to wholesome nutrition. In entertainment, it tends to be delight. In media, it is informing the public. And so on.
Tell the truth. It will be tempting to say something about yourself that is gauged to please the listener, but is not wholly accurate. The less diverse the culture (and the more you want an offer) the greater may be the temptation. But take it from me: it is a very bad idea to deny who you are, and even worse to represent yourself as something different. The best corporate cultures embrace diversity. In fact, the company may be interested in you precisely because you bring a different point of view that in the future might help them.
How to say it. “I am” statements are the blunt instruments of helping someone get to know you. These are really powerful and tend to draw a line in the sand. Such statements range from the sublime to the ridiculous so be careful. Descartes tells us he is a thinker; Popeye tells us to look at him and judge for ourselves.
Alternatively, you can tell some stories. If “I am” statements are the blunt instruments of impression-making, stories are the stilettos: subtle, and highly effective. Daniel Willingham, a professor in UVA’s psychology department, has written, “The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories—so much so that psychologists sometimes refer to stories as “psychologically privileged,” meaning that they are treated differently in memory than other types of material.”  He says that stories are easy to comprehend because the audience helps to interpret the action; and stories are much more interesting, which makes them easy to remember. Willingham says that stories consist of several elements:
· Causality. Events in the story have some linkage. “Both of my parents worked, so I spent a lot of time at home alone. I became adept at entertaining myself.”
· Conflict. The main character in the story encounters an obstacle on the way to a goal. “I invented a new software application, but had no idea how to bring it to the market. I approached some investors and eventually raised some Angel money from family and friends.”
· Complications. A good story offers some tension: will the protagonist succeed? “Then Megacorp threatened to sue me for patent infringement and at the same time gave me a low-ball offer to buy all the rights to my software.”
· Character. Ultimately, a story says something substantive about one or more people—this is the point of telling the story, to say something memorable about you. “I fought the lawsuit, and won.” Or “I saw how rapidly the field of applications was changing. So I sold them the software and used the money to bootstrap the founding of my next company. We invented—and successfully patented—the second generation of application software.”
Close well. Whatever you decide to say, do not lose the opportunity to link who you are with the company you seek to join. Why is a job with this company consistent with where you’ve come from and who you are? It would help if there were some joy and enthusiasm in your closing. In my experience a strong expression of who you are—in a way that is consistent with what the company needs–helps to clinch a job offer.
- I have a conversation of this sort at least annually. Given here is a pastiche of such conversations. Any implied reference to a specific person is unintentional. [↩]
- Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom” Jossey-Bass, 2009, pages 51-2. [↩]