From Intern to Direct Hire or Afterthought. Which will you be?

Updated: Jul 17, 2019

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It’s May, and Intern season has officially started. From the East Coast to the West Coast, students everywhere are packing their belongings into used cars and heading off on corporate adventures. Hope, excitement, determination, and anxiety are riding shotgun in those vehicles, and with good reason. This is an opportunity that can shape their future. For many of you, these internships could turn into full-time offers and be the launching pad for an amazing career. Others will fail this opportunity because they aren’t emotionally, mentally, or professionally prepared. That’s something that can set an intern back and significantly limit future opportunities, but I’m hoping that I can offer some advice to help get everyone started off on the right foot.

You did it. You got the internship at the company that you had targeted. Or maybe you are onto your second, third, fourth, or fifth choice. The good news is that you’re there. You got your foot in the door, but don’t think it’s smooth sailing from that point on. Now it’s time to work. You’re going to have to do everything you can to prove your long-term value if you want to land a full-time offer at the end of this experience and become a positive mark in a company’s HR metrics sheet.

Speaking of metrics, I have some “Intern to FTE” key performance indicators listed here below. These came directly from the “Recruiting Trends 2016-2017, 46th Edition Brief 7” from the Collegiate Employment Research institute.

When I look at them, I start to think of that statement by President Snow in the Hunger Games; “May the odds, be ever in your favor”. You’re not quite Katniss Everdeen, but I’d say you have a 50% chance when it’s all said in done. You’re going to have to stand out from a crowd, and here’s what it’ll take.

Make Decisions with your Future in Mind.

Most MBA interns already are aware of just how important an internship opportunity is. Many take the time during the interview process to truly weigh the pros and cons of each offer they receive and are thinking 3-5 years down the road. I recently gave an offer to an unbelievably talented business student who ultimately turned me down, but I want to share her story as an example of how to consider your future and the reasons why you went to business school when making a decision.

Karen Rodriguez is currently an MBA candidate and Forte Fellow at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State. She speaks English, German and Spanish fluently, received her Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics from UCLA, and spent time studying abroad in Thailand at Thammasat University. Her work experience is just as impressive as her education. After spending time as a Room Producer for Fox Sports, she took a job at Super Deluxe as a Post Production Coordinator, then a supervisor and had moved up to Director of Post Production within two years.

Not only is she a hard worker, but she has a personality and way with people that will help her to form meaningful relationships with colleagues and stakeholders alike. Because of this, I saw her as an ideal candidate for the Procurement Masters Internship Program that we were running at Bayer. Once she learned how to develop category strategy and strategic sourcing, I could see her being flooded with thanks and recognition from the groups that she would have been assigned to support within the company. Karen hadn’t considered a career in Procurement until I had reached out to her. She had gone back to business school to pursue a career in Marketing. And although we were a finalist, she ultimately followed her plan and stuck with an internship that would support her long-term career goals. Even though she chose another position, she actually helped me recruit two other students from W.P. Carey. One joined Bayer’s International Procurement Management Trainee program, and the other accepted our offer into the Procurement Masters Internship Program. The maturity of her decision-making and her willingness to help definitely helped her stand out from the crowd.

Take This Opportunity Seriously

Whether you have been on an internship before or have a few years of work experience already, look at this one as an opportunity for you to identify what the best version of yourself is. Talk to as many people as possible about what long-term careers within your function or company look like. Ask those people how they got to where they are today, take notes, use discernment, and find out what advice will work for you. Every new day is an opportunity for you to grow, so take it seriously and look to develop yourself.

Build Your Social Credibility Through Storytelling

I personally believe that every intern can build power and influence within a 9-week period. This will come from your passion, your work ethic, the quality of your work, and your ability to build your “social credibility” within the organization you’re working in. Some websites will tell you that social credibility is the “ability to connect and engage with people on social media”. In this case, it’s your ability ask others for their story, and your ability to tell your own effectively. When you share your story the right way, people will see a piece of themselves in you. This will create a connection and allow you to start forming meaningful relationships with people, whether it’s in a 1:1 meeting or in front of a crowd. That creates an “Influence Opportunity”, and can turn into power if you leverage it correctly. The table below provides some guidance on “How to Tell Your Story”. This comes directly from Janet Greco, a brilliant professor I have the privilege of studying under at the University of Pennsylvania.

Learn Quickly Who Has Hiring Authority Because First Impressions Matter

When your internship starts, hit the ground running. Get organized and put a game-plan together quickly. If other interns have their act together before you do, then they could be making a more favorable impression. The unfortunate piece of this is that you could have more long-term potential. However, this internship is a 9-12 week assessment of your capability, but those who are making the hiring decisions are typically the people who you see right at the start, maybe a bit in the middle, and then right at the end. It is of the utmost importance that they see you at your best during each engagement.

The way my intern program works, I typically have each candidate interview between 25-50 different people within the organization I’m servicing as a client. I do this for a number of reasons, but one of them is so that they have the opportunity to mine for projects. The more people who they interview, the more opportunity for them to land meaningful work. The more meaningful work they land, the more they have to talk about to the Chief Procurement Officer when he stops by to check in on them. The CPO is the figure who makes the final call on all hiring decisions within the Procurement function, so they need to make sure they have meaningful things to talk about and make a favorable impression.

Have Self-Awareness and Know Your Audience

First off, you have to know that people talk. And they’ll talk about you. I can’t stress the importance of knowing what the people you interact with are responsible for. Also know the seniority levels of the people who you’re having private conversations around. If you’re openly talking about a night out at the bar that ended in you being hung-over the next day, people will hear it and form opinions. Please also have some sort of self-awareness around what’s actually appropriate to say in a meeting and what isn’t.

Four years ago, I made a decision to switch the direction of my internship program. I had previously been focused on undergraduates but decided that I had to switch to MBA candidates because of two specific situations that happened on the same day.

This was a day that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I can laugh about it now, but I was shocked as it was unfolding before me. In New Jersey, I had been asked to lead a project scoping session for a group of senior level stakeholders in the Training and Coaching space. I had a good idea of what their needs where, but wanted to host a session where they were able to map out everything that they needed from the Procurement organization in order to be successful. I thought it’d be a great experience for my group of interns to take part in. Each had a specific role and would lead different portions of the session, guiding the group of Directors and Vice Presidents through each exercise. All three of them did exceptionally well with the delivery. The issue was what happened after they finished.

As I took over the session, one of the interns sat back and started playing on her phone. While she was doing this, she found one article she was reading particularly funny and started to laugh out loud. One of the directors looked at me and at that point we decided to take a 10-minute break so that I could address the situation and everyone else could run down to Starbucks and get recharged. While everyone was away, I approached the intern who had disrupted the meeting to talk about what had happened. She apologized and then showed me the article she was reading. It was entitled, “You’re Probably a Psychopath If You Like IPAs”. I asked if she would put her phone away when the meeting resumed, and we had a quick talk about first impressions.

As my group of stakeholders started to return to the room, my intern looked at everyone sitting around the table and casually asked each of them if they liked IPAs. “Sure, I like a good IPA”. “Of course, Alagash makes a great one”. “Lagunitas is one of my favorites”. My intern then pointed a finger at each person in the room….. “You’re a psychopath, you’re a psychopath, you’re a psychopath, and you’re a psychopath.” My jaw dropped. The worst part was she provided no context to why she was accusing everyone of mental illness. Luckily everyone there had a great sense of humor. I sent my intern back to her desk and followed up with a long talk where I shared my expectations of her behavior moving forward.

After that discussion, the second event that made me decide to refocus my intern program efforts took place. As I sat down at my desk, I received a phone call from one of my team members in Raleigh, North Carolina. I had made the decision to expand our internship programming to six different sites that year and we were having a great overall experience. We had some ups and downs, but things seemed to be going smoothly. As I picked up the phone, I heard my colleague laughing. “You won’t believe this Ryan. Apparently, one of the interns here put in a request to have a corporate car.”

Can you imagine? An intern, put in an official request to have a corporate car issued to him. I don’t even know how he figured it out. The next day I was on a plane to Raleigh to address the situation. We had a long talk about how he wasn’t an employee, that he was a guest. I had to ask why he felt it was ok to do something like that, and he told me, “I don’t know. I was trying to save money on gas”. That was it. From that point on, all interns would be MBA candidates and based directly with me in New Jersey.

Be Confident, But Realize You’re Not Director Material (Yet).

I get it. I’ve been there. We’re in the age of confidence and entitlement. You’re at the top of your class or you got into business school with a 760 GMAT score. That’s great. Just please be humble when you get on site. There is nothing worse than an intern who openly complains about not getting strategic work when they’re just starting. And although no one will tell you this, the organization you’re going to already has enough problematic narcissists who are intimidated by your capability. You’re going to have to build trust with people in order to get more meaningful assignments. The way to do that is by treating people with the utmost respect, showing up early, doing quality work, getting it turned in on time, adding value outside the scope of your position, realizing you have a lot to learn, and building meaningful relationships with your new colleagues.

If you follow me on LinkedIn you may have read an article I posted in January of 2018 entitled “Advice from the Oregon Trail”. In it I generalize my upbringing and how I was raised by a Baby Boomer father who I felt I had to beat career-wise. This was a completely misguided assumption and I don’t know where it came from, but in my eyes, I had to win. From there, I always tried to copy his success while doing the opposite of everything he suggested. Where he had professional achievement, I would have it too. Just in my own way and by my own rules. Oddly enough this pattern is repeating itself with my daughters. Although they’re only 7 and 3, they already know better than I do.

Youth is beautiful, and so are my kids. Amaya’s future is already planned out. Just last week she told me she plans on becoming a space police officer just after she told me I was too embarrassing of a father to walk her into school. Kai is like a little clone of me, so I think know what’s coming. During my youth, I incorrectly assumed that I would be just like my dad, and surpass him. Where he had been a director, I would be a vice president, and I would reach that goal years before him. You might have a similar mindset. You may be incredibly gifted, ready to accelerate your career, and want to dive into your work with intense focus. Maybe you even want to chase bad guys in a spaceship. But remember when you’re playing Fortnite or cornhole that you have to pay your dues to get there. You may get there faster than most people, but you have to learn what it takes to be a leader before you do. That comes with time and experience. You have to have had time to fail, and fail big. You need the experience of picking yourself off the ground and learning from your mistakes. Once that happens, you’ll have the awakening you need to develop into a future executive.

Find a Leader Who Emulates the Values that Are a Part of You

There have been hundreds of people who have inspired me in my lifetime. But there are three that stand out above all others. I encourage you to find at least one leader whose style you want to emulate, build a relationship with them, and soak in everything they teach you.

Kevin Leo was the first leader who took a chance on me and his influence planted the seeds for the professional I would become today. When I started my career, I took a packaging engineer role at a semi-conductor manufacturing equipment company in Austin. The week I started, they had a massive organizational restructuring and they eliminated the packaging engineer positions. Desperate to stay in Austin, I went door to door and tried to meet with every Sr. Leader I could, hoping to find someone who would be willing to take a chance on me.

Kevin was the man who did. I knocked on his door, asked if he had 5 minutes, and he invited me in. Three hours later, I left his office feeling like I had finally met someone who might be willing to give me an opportunity. A few days later, I had a job offer in Supplier Quality. Kevin took a chance on me because he saw my potential. After that day, he put me in position to be successful with projects that catered to my strengths. I was able to thrive in that environment, and it resulted in four different promotions within a six-year period and multiple stints in Japan and Taiwan. When he eventually left our company and took a job at Bayer Diabetes Care, he called and asked me to come with him. He taught me the importance of taking a chance on talented people who don’t fit the traditional mold of a standardized job description. He showed me the importance of mentoring and developing people, giving them opportunity to shine with projects that fit their strengths, and he showed me what it was like to care for your colleagues like family.

Brian McNelis was the second leader who played a massive influence in my life. After spending the first 12 years of my career working for Kevin, he told me that I had to leave the nest and learn how to stand on my own. I found a position within the Procurement organization as the Head of Performance and Program Management. The funny thing was that it didn’t really have much of a job description. I went and interviewed with the hiring manager and the rest was history. When I met Brian, I was immediately drawn to him. He had passion for the work that he did and genuinely cared about developing the people within his organization. While working for him, he encouraged me to follow my heart and focus on the areas where I showed the most promise. He took me 180 degrees away from my past life as a supplier quality engineer, and turned me into a champion for people and organizational culture. His influence is what set the stage for my developing an expertise in change management, cultural transformations and best-in-class intern programming. He was the kind of leader who would run through a wall for his people, and I tried to emulate that style by fighting for every talented intern who came through one of my programs. He’s also an incredible story teller and presents to his organization with a level of expertise that’s unmatched in a function of 2,500 employees.

Matthew Walls is a leader who I’ve only known for the past two years, but his influence has been just as great in my life. Matt was my manager but worked with me as a peer and as a friend. He was the one who took the time to help find a path that was perfect for me, and was the primary reason I’m pursuing a degree in Organizational Dynamics. If he hadn’t done that, then I never would have set out on my own to start ChangeAgent or

I know you’re only there for the summer. But find your own version of Kevin, Brian, and Matt. Find them and learn as much as you can. They’ll be champions for you the rest of your career.

Put your phone down and leave your computer at your desk

Yes, I know that you do everything on your phone, i-pad, or computer, but go stone-age in all non-working meetings this summer. Instead of taking your electronic devices, try something they used to do in the 80s and 90s. Bring a notepad. Actively listen to the people who you’re speaking with and let them see that what they’re saying matters to you. Let me explain why this is important.

Two years ago, I had an amazing intern from the Eli Broad School of Business. He is sharp, articulate, cares about the work that he does and puts maximum effort into everything. From day 1 of his internship experience, he was dead set on taking notes in every meeting and not missing a thing. He would go into meetings, and intently type notes on his laptop. The only problem was that everyone else multi-tasks when they go to meetings. Because they intently work on other things rather than give the meeting their full attention, they assumed he was doing that too. And how dare an intern not pay full attention! I was able to address this issue with the people who started to complain, and we course corrected that particular behavior moving forward. So, there are definitely ways to recover if you start to build a reputation for multi-tasking in meetings. But let me ask you a question. Why even put yourself in a situation where your manager has to defend you? Throw out the electronics. Bring the notepad.

Video in on every Conference Call

Whatever company you’re going to, the chances are that they have video conferencing. Most companies actually will provide you with this ability directly from your laptop. If you’re using Skype, GotoMeeting, or any of the other platforms, you can do this. Don’t worry about it being weird. You’re new and you need as many people as possible to see you. They need to see you lean-in during the call and watch your body language. They need to put a face with a name too. Take advantage of the video conferencing and never just dial in from a phone line unless you’ve already spent time building a relationship with the person you’re speaking with.

It’s very possible no one planned for you. Don’t sit and wait for work

Being self-motivated can be a challenge. If you’re just sitting around with nothing to do, it’s a problem. That is a clear sign that the company you’ve dedicated your summer to has spent little to no time preparing for you or your skill set. They got you a laptop and a desk, but in some places, that’s all the preparation that goes into it. Let’s be honest. There are some companies, and some managers, who just should not have interns. They don’t see the strategic value that is actually there. If done right, you can turn into the next generation of leadership, but they haven’t realized it because there’s no true champion within the function who is worried about succession planning, long term employee development, or employer branding and ensuring you had the best experience possible.

Every year, I would end up adopting interns from other functions because their managers didn’t prepare for them. It happened so frequently that I actually incorporated planning for “orphan interns” in my programming. In one case, another function had been lucky enough to recruit a massively talented student who was pursuing her Masters in Accounting at McCombs School of Business. She was a 4.0, top of her class, and capable of anything thrown on her plate. The group that had hired her thought filing contracts alphabetically would be a suitable internship experience. After she saw the type of work our interns were doing, she approached me and asked if I could help her. Because she actually made the effort to seek out work, we adopted her and she ended up having a meaningful experience. Unfortunately, her experience started out so poorly that she assumed all other functions outside of Procurement were just as bad and turned down the full-time offer our company gave her. She ended up at Ernst and Young, and is off to a rewarding and successful career.

If you find yourself in this situation, take immediate action. There are a number of things that you can do to turn it around, but you have to find your entrepreneurial spirit. It’s there, even if you don’t realize it. You just have to get a little bit uncomfortable. Here are some things that I recommend:

  1. Speak directly with your manager about the expectations you had entering your internship. If he or she were the person who recruited, interviewed, and hired you, then they have some explaining to do. If all of that was done through Human Resources, then there was a disconnect.

  2. Look into the different Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) the company has and find a way to work with one as a program manager. This can literally keep you busy all summer.

  3. Interview as many people in your function as possible. Get to know them, find things you have in common. Learn what they’re working on and how it adds value back to the business. Find out if there are any projects they’re just not finding the time to start on, and ask if you can help.

  4. Every function has a person who will embrace you, even if your manager hasn’t. Look for that person and be open and honest about your situation. Ask them for help.

  5. Finally, you can call me. I have a list of 200 activities you can take part in to help accelerate your development. You can reach me at If you’re uncomfortable doing that, then feel free to visit our website and fill out our contact form. Let me know your situation and we can brainstorm ways that you can end up with a more rewarding experience than you would have had otherwise.

Find a Coach

These are just a few tips but there are dozens more. I founded to help as many people as possible. And by “people”, I mean companies who are struggling to land top talent and students who are struggling with their internships.

Reach out to me. Let’s have a conversation. Maybe a lunch and learn. I’d be happy to come on-site and offer your function a free overview on how to build an effective internship program or speak with a group of interns on how to maximize this opportunity and add value back to the business.

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