“It wasn’t what I expected,” said a second-year MBA student who had just returned from a summer internship. He was sitting in my office some years ago, and said, “I aspired to make a difference; to really show what I could do. Instead, what we got was warmed-over projects, company propaganda, and lots of social events. I mean, the company is okay, but if last summer is the kind of work they want me to do, should I accept their job offer?” This student clearly had one leg out the company’s door (if not more of his anatomy). His explanation seemed to beg for my confirmation. Thus, he was a bit surprised when I didn’t leap to his conclusion. I asked him four questions:
- Were your expectations reasonable?
Students tend to set expectations based on hearsay from other students, or on the big decisions embedded in case studies. But frankly, a lot of the high-impact work in business is based on tedious foundation-building. Thomas Edison argued that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Anyway, I said to the student, “if you were CEO of that company, how would you have used a bunch of summer interns, all of whom knew little about the company to start with and some of whom might not return?”
- Why might the company have structured the internship as it did?
Most companies use the summer internship as part of a sophisticated recruitment and selection process. The recruitment piece is that they want to inform the interns in an effort to create ambassadors for the company on school campuses in the coming year. And some companies try to give the interns a jolly time so that they will bring some enthusiasm to their peers. But more importantly, companies use the internship to vet the candidates on the company’s own turf. Does the intern work hard, bring something to the enterprise, and play well in the sandbox? If you thought no one was paying attention to you, think again. It doesn’t take a high-impact project to bring out the best (or worst) in people. No doubt, the Director of Campus Recruiting spent months scrambling to find useful work for all the interns—so I said, “have some empathy for him/her. Someday, you might find yourself in a similar position.”
- What’s the outlook for you, the company, and the economy?
One can start with the assumption that one’s work last summer isn’t a perfect indication of the work that the company might have in store. Therefore, it is worth having a few long conversations with the folks there about what you’d be doing in the future. And any assessment of your own outlook should entail the question, “What’s the alternative?” At the start of the campus recruiting season the substitute to that company is anyone’s guess. And there is always uncertainty about the company and the economy. Take an investment point of view (you’ll be investing your time and effort in building the company): does this company have a good outlook? Would you buy stock in the company (if you had the money)? And whether the economy booms or busts, will this company be a good place to work?
- What did you learn about the people and the culture there?
Just as the company was vetting you last summer, you’ve had an opportunity to vet the company, to get the kind of insights that are rarely possible in campus interviews. There’s a saying that “A-players hire A-players; B-players hire C-players.” Generally, one can trust A-players to use your talents well—did you see any A-players? And the word, “trust,” directs one to think about values and ethics: did the people you met resonate with your best values? Even if your summer work was rather drab, the opportunity to work with great people, with whose values you resonate, will probably turn out well.
My dominant advice to the student in my office was that late summer was probably too soon to decide. Big decisions require time to reflect. I didn’t confirm the student’s leanings—but my questions stimulated a check on his expectations.
There are other lessons here, worthy of longer treatment than I’ll give, regarding how to set expectations for yourself and others. As managers and leaders, we must set reasonable expectations and hold people (and ourselves) accountable. The operative word here is “reasonable.” The student’s expectations for summer work were a tad high. Two filters for the reasonableness of expectations are humility and gratitude—an exemplar in this regard is the cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with a degenerative disease when he was a young man. Hawking is a high performer in his field. And he confessed, “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”  I hope that my questions helped the student gain some humility and see a bonus in his summer internship.
- “The Science of Second-Guessing” New York Times Magazine interview, December 12, 2004. [↩]