Darden: Advice to the summer intern — making a graceful exit

July 28, 2013

For our students with summer internships, the end is in view. MBA programs resume soon. Interns will work for just a few more weeks, and then return to school. Thus, it’s the annual moment for me to offer some advice to interns about to finish their summer jobs.

Most summer interns want a full-time offer. In recent years, about 60 percent of interns from Darden have received offers of permanent employment from their summer jobs. There is a range of things one can do to improve the odds of getting an offer:

Actually ask for the job. Too many summer interns simply don’t “close the sale.”

Become known. “Lean in” in Sheryl Sandberg’s parlance. Too many summer interns lean back and fade out.

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.

Quell any sense of entitlement; you must earn the offer. In most settings, arrogance damages, rather than strengthens, career prospects.

No doubt, such offers bring huge relief to the student: Regardless of the recruiting dance in the year ahead, you’ve got a backstop.

But what about the others who came back without an offer? Here’s some advice for you:

1. Take stock and get grounded. I would guess that most interns who didn’t get an offer aren’t totally surprised. If you are surprised, that’s an even more important reason to get grounded. Maybe the business was in trouble and cutting back on hiring. Or it was an insane product, a toxic boss or the Customer From Hell. Or maybe it was an accident: You dropped a bowl of hollandaise in the CEO’s lap at the annual meeting. Or perhaps it was the most simple of all: You just aren’t cut out for that kind of work. Before you leave, it is important to get candid feedback, even though it may be difficult to ask for and receive it. If you don’t, you’ll always wonder. And the absence of insights may hamper your ability to plan the next steps.

2. Take the high road . Don’t weep, pout, plead or bargain aggressively. Under no circumstances should you slam the door on the way out. To the extent you can, make a lap around the business from the executives to your supervisor, to your peers and the administrative assistants: “Thank you for the opportunity to work with you. I wish it had worked out. Perhaps our paths will cross again. I’d be glad to stay in touch. And best of luck to you going forward.” A gift of a box of cookies or chocolates for that co-worker who made an extra effort to help you is a grand gesture. The high road exit expresses grace, dignity and self-confidence. If you stay in the same industry, you may well run into your co-workers again. The high road exit actually gives you a “bridge” with which to resume a conversation. And occasionally, the high road prompts a reversal: Weeks later you may get a call, “Um … we’ve changed our mind. Would you work for us?”

3. Get perspective. Talk through the experience with a mentor, your partner or wise friends. The key questions should be: “What happened?” “Why did that job matter to you?” “What can you learn from this?” and “What’s next?” A coach or career counselor can lend even more structure to the reflective process. Getting perspective is important for your peace of mind. And it may help you to answer questions from friends and other employers about why you didn’t get an offer from your internship.

4. Find acceptance: It is what it is. Move on. Later, you may well conclude that it was a blessing in disguise. And never forget that your worth is infinitely greater than any offer, job title or paycheck.

Robert F. Bruner is dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. This column was adapted from his blog.

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