Wisdom From Youth: Lessons I Learned From Our Interns

Courtesy of Fidelity

Learning from interns

Courtesy of Fidelity

Kathleen Murphy
Kathleen Murphy
I have a special place in my heart for interns and all the optimism and fresh perspective they bring to the job. With college students finishing up their internships and getting ready to go back to school, I recently reflected on the unique value that internships offer for both the student and the company.

There's no doubt internships can be incredibly valuable to students in terms of helping inform what they want their careers to be. And as importantly, what they don't want their careers to be.  I've written in past blogs about how two internships shaped my career in a significant way. The first one – at a major Wall Street law firm – showed me that despite the prestige and great money the job offered, I actually wanted to launch my career in a different way. And I arrived at that conclusion because my other internship, at a global multi-line insurance company in Connecticut, offered me immediate exposure to many areas of the business and allowed me to gain more substantive responsibilities much more quickly.

But internships can also be a valuable source of insight, perspective and even career advice for the people who employ them. I’ve made it a habit of spending time with the interns at Fidelity to get feedback about their experiences – what delights them in the corporate setting, what frustrates them, and what would energize and inspire them to do their best work.  It never fails – I always leave those sessions with new learnings and perspective on how we can enhance the associate experience.

Their feedback can also be channeled into great career advice for anyone who takes the time to really listen and learn from interns. These are some of the observations I had this year.

Be open to learning something new every day

The students I spoke with this year – both individually and in group settings – were so open and candid. They wanted to offer their perspectives on how to make things even better and understand how they could add value every day. They were intensely curious, not taking anything as a “given,” and thereby stretching the boundaries of conventional thinking – which is a necessary precursor to creativity and innovation.

Leaders at all levels can learn from this genuine level of openness. Leaders don't have all the answers. In fact, one of their very important obligations is to ask really good, penetrating questions in order to push the thinking and boundaries of the organization. And another obligation is to be open to feedback and fresh ideas, and to empower people to act on these positive ideas. The traditional command and control style just won't work in most organizations any more. In this fast-paced and quickly changing world, strong leaders will need to demonstrate the intense curiosity that these interns brought to the table all summer. 

It can be uncomfortable for many leaders to make this transition. In order to do so, you have to admit you don't have all the answers, and you have to allow yourself to empower the people around you to act on their good ideas instead of simply looking to you for answers. It requires that we check our egos and pride at the door and invest in the best ideas and perspectives of every team member.

By being a leader who's open-minded and willing to listen and learn, you’ll sharpen your vision, connect more deeply with those around you, and empower your people to make a real difference.

Get real – less bureaucracy and more action!

The traditional corporate practices that are now second nature for so many of us are completely foreign to interns. I heard some common refrains from interns, such as: Why are there so many meetings? Why aren’t there more informal and unscheduled discussions? Why do things feel so complex?  Why can’t we break down the cubes to allow ideas and discussion to flow more freely? 

Of course they’re right. Fortunately, Fidelity has taken this feedback to heart and we’re well on our way to busting bureaucracy and creating a more energizing work environment.  And we need to continue working at it. Bureaucracy is the enemy of progress and empowerment. It sucks energy and creativity from people and inevitably slows things down. I wholeheartedly embrace the energy and spirit that interns bring forward to liberate us from bureaucracy. Their fresh perspective not only keeps us honest but it prevents us from thinking too small or acting too incrementally. 

Climbing the corporate ladder is not what it used to be.

Compared to seasoned employees, interns are much less likely to focus on where they’ll be in X years or what the promotion plan is. Some of that is to be expected, but I think there's something deeper afoot. Interns (and Millennials in general) are more focused on enhancing their skills than their titles. They intuitively grasp the fact that the world is quickly changing and they will need a diverse set of skills to enjoy a long and successful career. They’re open to the “jungle gym” approach to development instead of the hierarchal ladder.

Once again, I think they’re on to something. While ambition and career development are clearly very important, there’s a new world order developing before our very eyes and the traditional approach to career growth is narrow and limiting. I’ve had multiple discussions with interns and our own employees about the skills needed for future advancement. I’ve encouraged students to learn the basics of coding (at a minimum) and to have an internship that provides digital immersion of some sort.

Establishing a broader foundation of skills will serve you well in this quickly evolving world.

Chart your own course!

Experience and expertise are important in any career. And if you have a job, you’ll inevitably gain both. But the mindset you choose to employ throughout your career is yours and yours alone. Consider what your summer intern brought to the table – optimism, exuberance, energy and excitement – they’re qualities anyone could benefit from.
Views expressed are as of August 22, 2016. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions provided are those of the author and speakers, as applicable, and not necessarily those of Fidelity Investments.
Fidelity Brokerage Services, NYSE, SIPC.


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