Corporate Leaders on Internship Success

On Monday, we heard from recent alumni on their experiences as they transitioned from school to work.  Below, corporate leaders provide insights from the employer perspective on how best to tackle your summer internship and land the job.


Photo: Dave Lilac, Human Resources Director at General Mills

Cast of Characters

Dave Lilak 

Human Resources Director at General Mills, Inc 

Leah Stark 

Senior Director of Human Resources at Whirlpool 

Kevin Burke 

Vice-President of Human Resources for Hemlock Semiconductor at Dow Corning 

Megan Sinow 

Human Resources Manager at Whirlpool 

You have spent the majority of your life as a student and now it’s time to enter into the real world of work.  Not sure what to expect, huh?  How do I effectively navigate the workplace?  How can I add value to the firm? How can I ramp quickly in my new role?

Onboarding Basics: 

Dave: You need to onboard quickly and effectively but you have a short time to do so. How do you achieve your top three goals and articulate it at the end of the summer?  You need to address many of the principles of onboarding before you even get to your internship.  What do you know about the company? You should be doing work NOW.  Know the company’s history. What is it all about, what does it exist to do, and what are the strategies to make that happen?  What is the structure you are walking into?  Business acumen is one of the biggest things you will need to ramp effectively.  What is the corporate culture?  How do things get done?  What is the framework?

Leah:  Especially going into your full time assignment, do as much research as you can. Really understand the culture and asses yourself to ensure it is a good cultural match.  You can figure the rest out but it needs to be a good fit.  Reach out to other graduates from your program.  Make the assessment of cultural fit a leading factor in your decision (to accept a job offer).

Megan: You are going from a student lifestyle of classes and staying up late to working. It is difficult to be out late and make a successful transition to the professional work environment. Spend some time to mentally/physically prepare yourself to walk into work ready on day one.

Kevin: I was born for second shift! (When I first transitioned from school to work) my clock was set differently. Get yourself mentally and physically prepared for the transition. It does matter.  You want to be able to show initiative, interest and passion in what you are doing.  One thing you do have control over is presenteeism. Am I engaged?  You want to show up fully present, engaged and interested in what’s going on.  There are things you all can do to prepare for the internship. Take advantage of public information available today, before you start.  Read an annual report. That’s the kind of thing you need to do.  Start to anticipate questions as you look at trends you find in the public information.  Press releases. Media. Really absorb all that you can for perspective on the company. Develop your ability to ask good questions. Start to be able to connect the dots. Internalize the information.  Ask more and better quality questions.

Leah: Be prepared. (Your summer internship is) an interview. It’s a 12 week interview on both sides. Don’t think you can kick back and relax. It’s an interview the entire time with everyone you interact with.  You are always on, even after hours.

Dave: Part of onboarding happens before you arrive.  When you get there, you need to learn your job. Is there a project? Do you have a realistic job preview?  You’ve got to find out what is the project. What are you supposed to be delivering and what does this mean to the business?  That’s the what. What is the how? What does it look like? Nothing gets done alone. What people and what equipment do I need to get the job done?  You’ve really got to get up to speed on these items really quickly.

Leah:  Make sure you have clearly established expectations of what the outcomes are before you deliver. Ask for input. Develop shared expectations and then deliver above them.  Take nothing for granted, whether it’s an assumption or a bad supervisor.  Establish clear expectations on the front end.

Megan: Do a check in point with yourself on a weekly basis to see whether you are trending towards your objectives. Make sure you’re trending towards the path you want to be on. Make sure you know what success looks like.

Kevin: Plan with the end in mind. Work with your supervisor and other resources to build a robust project plan. You want to build a plan that allows u to exceed, not only meet, expectations. Really put in the discipline up front. It doesn’t have to be as crazy as on The Apprentice, but it’s not that far off.  Put together those plans because then when you are doing weekly check-ins with your manager, you can determine where you are and where you are supposed to be. Part of this is having the resilience to overcome some of the things you need to do.

Dave: Don’t make your project plan “in the 10th week I’m gonna nail it!”  That’s when you find out that someone is on vacation and it doesn’t work out. Despite your positive intent, you haven’t brought your manager along.  Practicing weekly discipline against your project includes checking in with your manager.

Leah: Be proactive and direct. Also, understand your manager’s time as well.  Don’t spend hours with them. Focus on the important things. Expect that there are going to be surprises. You might find out your role shifts at the last minute.  Demonstrate flexibility. Ask the right questions and demonstrate the right learning agility. 

Dave: Relationship building. How do I work this thing? In order to get any job done, you need to know who you need to work with. Who is my network to get the job done? A subject matter expert (SME), an aligned client, or someone outside the firm?  How do I work this network? How do you work the relationship with your manager? Now you have fairly tangible and timely feedback.  You are going to work for someone who is busy.  You need to learn to ask direct questions and make good use of time with your manager. How do I feed you? Email, IMs, face to face? Do I set up a meeting with data? Let’s talk about this.  Many companies give a buddy to provide answers on how “this place works” without bothering your boss, who grades you at the end.

Leah: The buddy is helpful. If you are not assigned, find one.  You need an informal person to ask questions to.  Still, assume anyone you interact with can have influence on hire or don’t hire decisions.  A lot of what you are assessed on is “how you do it”.

Megan: Network at all levels of the organization. Even though the only people in my report out are directors and above, sometime the most important people are the oldest people in the organization. I was so lost my first week.  One of my first people was the administrative assistant.

Kevin: Never underestimate the value of the administrative assistant. Treat everybody in the company as a resource and as somebody that you could really connect with. You get different perspectives this way. When everyone looks with a different point of view, it helps you to navigate the matrix.

Dave: Where you sit depends on where you stand. Triangulate with different people/perspectives.

Leah: Come in with questions and listening vs. opinions and statements.  It is always important to demonstrate listening and respect.

Kevin: I think for a lot of folks, early in career, you should have unique points of view on things but you also need to be able to ask good questions. Frankly, that’s at any level in your career.  Often, asking good questions is better than having great answers.

Leah: Be smart about asking questions you can’t find answers to out on your own already. As an escalation, then ask the questions.  Don’t ask all the questions to the same people.

Megan: You are going to hear so many acronyms.  Write them down.  Ask your buddy.  Ask an admin.  You don’t want to realize you don’t know what something stands for four weeks into the internship.

Leah: Build relationships early on. Build with other interns. This is a safe haven. You have a shared experience and an opportunity to learn from each other.  Plus, fun in the summer. Take full advantage of that.

Dave: (Other interns are) a safe group. One (past intern) spent all his time alone working on his project, ignoring social events. And questions are good. Channel them. Be smart about who you are asking what. If you’re asking no questions, that’s a problem. I you’re asking nothing but questions, that’s a problem.

On Feedback

Dave: So what you’ve heard us say is: align early with your manager. What’s the right style? How should I give and receive feedback? Formal vs. informal?  Get frequency down.  Daily or weekly? Where? Over lunch or in an office?  Seek it regularly. It should be a recurring dialogue. You may have veered way off course. Create an environment that’s safe for your manager to give feedback. Don’t be defensive. Accept feedback. It’s a gift. Be gracious. Ask for feedback and say thank you. It shows interest. If you are not getting feedback, there are other peers and sources of information other than your manager.

Leah:  Use informal feedback as well. Don’t always structure and formalize. Check how much you’re asking about yourself.  Ask about the work that you’re doing.  Don’t make it all about you.

Kevin: We evaluate people based on “how do we respond to those types of things”. It’s easy to get caught up in feedback. People react emotionally about it.  It’s not the end of the world. Be able to take feedback, really understand it, and demonstrate the maturity to ask for feedback and do something with it.  We’ve all seen some folks early in career where how they process feedback is a make or break deal.

Dave: If you are perceived as not meeting mark, then you aren’t meeting it. Perception is a reality at that point in time.  There is intent and there is impact. Feedback gets you there.

Leah: Get feedback through asking good questions.


Dave: Understand the goals of the organization.  Develop business acumen.  How does the business make money? How is it doing? Where am I and how do we contribute to profitability?  It’s an imperfect world. Understand that. Do you have a grip on financials?  Do you understand business fundamentals? What do you do that makes a difference?

Leah: Earn 10X what you are getting paid.  When you’re in a meeting, earn your seat. If you don’t, then you shouldn’t be there.  Make sure you’re earning your place. Understand the internal business along with the competitive dynamics of the industry.

Megan: There are so many articles about HR as a changing paradigm.  True business partners. We need to earn that. It’s not given to you. You must have business acumen to be able to contribute with business leaders.

Kevin: Not every leader will see HR as important until you prove your importance.  That’s a resistance factor that you need to push through.  As soon as you do that, you can get past half the snide comments. Show that you’re there as a part of the business first, and with HR expertise second.

Leah: Would they take you in a non-HR role?

Dave: Business mindset.  We’re looking for professionals; someone that can grow in the organization. That has self awareness. People that do solicit feedback. Have you learned from that? Will you be smarter next time? You have to understand sensitive situations that occur early on.

Leah: How do you deal with adversity? You’re likely to come across some type of conflict. How will you deal?  What’s your reaction? Demonstrate  professional maturity and always rise above (conflict, values/integrity pressures, gossip, etc.). Don’t drink too much. Whether it’s a work function or sanctioned event outside of work. Sometimes, great talent misses out on opportunities because of unsuccessful professional navigation.

Kevin: Right. Even if there aren’t a lot of people there, there are enough people there.

Leah: You may have a bad supervisor. Learn the hard way. Suck it up. It’s 12 weeks. Put a smile on and make the most because you can’t change it.

Kevin: Learn from seeing those things (a bad supervisor) than seeing the right way. How would you be a good manager? What are the takeaways? How do you coach other people to be good managers?  It’s not fun, but you can learn more in these situations.

Dave: Navigating the organization: ask the why. We like curious people.  There are org charts and then there are informal leaders. A rotten boss but a key stakeholder. Do you have a desire to understand beyond HR?  Do you have curiosity about where you fit into the business?  Where your position fits in?  Where the department fits in?

Megan: Understand different roles within the organization.

Leah:  Understanding the why is understanding the legacy of the company.

Dave: If you can do this, you can influence pretty well. Do you understand the other person’s point of view?  They might be coming at it a different way because they have 30 years experience. Maybe they are in finance. Have them play it back to you. Understand their self-interest. Never underestimate the other guy’s self-interest. You will work with a lot of different audiences.  Take advantage of it.  Are you flexible enough to understand the other person’s point of view?  Can you build rapport with these people?  It’s good to have a different point of view. Express candor. But, do it respectfully.

Leah: There are critical elements to being a senior leader.  One is 360 degree influence.  This is important no matter what job you’re in.  The ability to influence without formal authority is critical to success no matter what company you’re working in.

Kevin: Informal vs. formal. You help give people their best ideas. If you hear someone else say something you helped them formulate, that will be one of the best compliments you’ll ever get.  It takes a lot of listening skills to get there.  Build rapport.  Understand them.

Translating Expertise into Results – End of Summer Presentation

Kevin: There’s activity and then there are results.

Leah: Have objectives set at the beginning of the summer.  People don’t care too much about activities.  They want to see results.  Are you delivering differentiated outcomes.  Companies are looking for innovative fresh thought with candor and great ideas.

Dave: You (interns) are coming from good schools. You are keeping busy. But ultimately, did you get results? What were the two or three most important things that you accomplished this summer?  I’ve seen interns who are wicked smart, who have nailed their projects, and who have managed to tick off every admin, and every recruiter along the way. That’s why we harp on competencies: how you get things done.  Can you articulate the goals, the role, and the results?  People love to know how you think.  They love fresh ideas.  How did I approach this thing? What obstacles did I overcome?  What was your result? What’s the leave behind?  “I don’t know” is just unacceptable.  What were your lessons learned? What should we learn from you?  In the end, you’ve got 15 minutes to boil down “what did I do for my summer internship?”

Leah: Ensure effective delivery.  How effective are your communication skills and your ability to connect with people in the room (the audience)? Time yourself.  Make sure you work on the polish and the professional presence.

Kevin: Think through the questions you might be asked. Practice with a couple other people. Be prepared to be rattled. Anticipate the questions that are going to throw you off.  Have the maturity to not make something up.  It’s okay.  You want to be able to respond.

Megan: Don’t let other interns get you nervous about your presentation. Mentally and physically prepare for these presentations so you are in the best state to give them to the best of your ability.

Leah: Be yourself. It’s the only way if you’re going to know if it’s the right cultural fit for you.  It comes down to fit at the very end.  Although you are on stage, make sure you are yourself.

Kevin: Knowing yourself. You’ll learn more about your own style and preferences.

Dave: 12 weeks. Onboard quickly. Be effective. Understand competencies and how you are supposed to achieve. What are your desired results?  Can you summarize them?


Student: I have been in school all my life where I’ve been given assignments and due dates. The expectations have been clearly defined for me and I’ve delivered upon those expectations. How am I going to get out of this drone mentality to manage ambiguity in the workplace?

Kevin: Use your network.  Family, friends. Rely on people on a deeper personal level for how you make the transition from school to work.  There are ways people behave around the office that are different than what you’re used to.  You’ll pick up a lot through observation.

Dave: Find people that know you that are invested in you and use them for a sanity check.  How would you handle something like this? Build on your (personal) board of directors.

Student: How do I navigate an organization in transition?

Dave: We look for people who know how to manage adversity. Go back to fundamentals. Look at culture, legacy and drivers for change. What are the sensitivities I should be aware of? Don’t ignore the elephant in the room. Ask questions.

Leah: Don’t be afraid of it.  Those are some of the best learning and development opportunities you could ever be given. Take advantage of all the learning.  Just make sure your sensitivity radar is on the whole time.

Student: I’m young.  In my experiences, I have had unlimited time to build relationships. How do you speed that relationship up?

Leah: Understand their self-interest.  Make sure you demonstrate the right balance of humility and confidence.  Don’t flaunt or advertise age differences. Listen & learn well, demonstrate respect, and consider things through others’ eyes. I’ve seen people go into these roles and it’s amazing
the credibility and followership they can establish in a short amount of time.

Megan: Don’t put yourself in that box.  “Hi, I’m the intern.” If you do a good job, people won’t even know you’re an intern.

This discussion took place Michigan State University’s prestigious School of Human Resources and Labor Relations on Thursday, March 28th and is part of an ongoing series to get you ramped quickly within the first 90 days.  

-The SHR

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