There’s a lot more to being a great intern/employee beyond intelligence and high-quality work. It can be summed up in 1 word — professionalism.
Professionalism is an ambiguous concept. It was only a few years ago that I began to realize its importance.
To have a decent chance of receiving a return offer, it is crucial that you transition from the demeanor of a student towards that of a professional.
What exactly is a professional? A professional delivers high-quality work and is stellar in 3 key ways:
- Continuous Learning
Below, I’ve broken each category down into 4 specific and actionable items you can use to further develop as a professional.
Strong communication will make your manager’s life easier
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
- Make your manager’s job easier by managing yourself. The people who get promoted (or a return offer) are those that do part of their manager’s job. Crazy enough, a big part of your manager’s job will be to manage you! The easier you make this for her, the more she will like you.
Here are 2 ways to manage yourself.
First, make the decision-making process simple by delivering work output with easy, actionable next steps.
When you deliver some work to your manager, don’t just send it over and wait for her to move the ball forward. Instead, say what you think it means and suggest next steps. The goal is to provide insights to help your manager quickly understand your work, followed by an actionable next step that simplifies her decision process.
You: “Here’s the analysis I did on [xyz]. I think it’s interesting that there’s a strong trend between [abc] and [def]. Maybe we should set up a meeting with the product team to discuss this, what do you think… would you like me to set that up?”
Manager: “Yes” or “No”
Second, keep track of yourself so your manager doesn’t have to.
The goal is to let them focus on their work instead of keeping track of your deadlines. You want your manager to have confidence in your ability to get things done without a lot of handholding.
If you’re working on a larger project, send regular updates often (every few days or each week). For simpler, ad-hoc work, get it done and sent to your manager on time with no fuss.
Try to make their life easier, not harder.
Quick note: keeping track of yourself does not mean you should do everything on your own and never bother your manager. Asking good questions is a great use of your manager’s time, while having them keep track of your deadlines is not.
- Manage your manager’s expectations (managing up) and UPOD (under promise over deliver). Managing up is one of the most rewarding concepts to understand and use in your professional life. I like to think about it in terms of this equation:
Your Perceived Output = Your Work Output – Manager’s Expectations.
If your work output was 8/10 and your manager was expecting 9/10, your perceived output is -1/10. You will disappoint your manager, despite delivering pretty good work.
This is definitely a simplified equation — you don’t want your manager’s expectations to be so low that you impress her by getting coffee. Exaggerations aside, you will benefit from leveling your manager’s expectations to something you can accomplish and knocking it out of the park. For more information, check out this Harvard Business Review Article.
Manager: “Can you get this work to me in 5 days?”
Knowing that it may take 7 days, don’t try to rush and meet your manager’s deadline. You will most likely be delayed and will disappoint your manager (low perceived output).
You: “5 days might be a bit difficult. If you really need it by then, I’ll make sure I get it done. Otherwise, if it’s not a priority, 10 days would be better.”
Now try to deliver the work in the same 7 days. You will beat your manager’s new expectations and allow time to troubleshoot/double-check your work. (high perceived output)
Managing expectations can greatly affect your perceived output, while keeping your actual work output the same.
- Plan an agenda for your weekly 1 on 1’s one day in advance. Many companies implement 1 on 1’s between managers and employees. This entails a weekly, 30-minute meeting with your manager to discuss work obstacles and your general well-being during the internship.
The secret is to plan the 1 on 1’s yourself! Don’t make your manager spend their precious time brainstorming discussion topics for you. This goes back to doing part of your manager’s job. Of course there will always be things that your manager wants to discuss, but it’s very impressive when the intern prepares a meeting agenda and drives the conversation. More details on how to do this from Ben Horowitz, venture capital partner from Andreessen Horowitz.
Some topics to discuss are: your intern project, big picture questions about the product, company or industry, career advice, feedback, etc.
- Learn your manager’s preferred communication style. Unfortunately, everyone’s communication style is different.
I’ve worked with people who prefer Slack or Outlook messages instead of emails. Some managers strongly believe in brief updates and hate long emails. Your manager may want daily check-ins, while others prefer weekly check-ins.
You will beat your manager’s expectations if you learn her communication preferences.
One of your internship goals should be to help your manager as much as possible — this means learning their communication behavior and adapting to them, not the other way around.
Mature organization skills make you seem 5 years older
“With organization comes empowerment.” – Lynda Peterson
- Come prepared to meetings and take notes. One of the easiest things you can do to up your professionalism is to show up prepared. Never show up to a meeting without a basic understanding of the topic and any relevant material. Depending on your company, it may help to print out meeting materials and hand them out to all participants. During the meeting, take thorough notes so you or your manager can refer back to them.
Afterwards, send out a summary of the meeting and next steps (if applicable). You will definitely want detailed notes when you are writing the meeting summary for your email.
Even when you schedule a networking coffee chat with someone, do your homework and research their background. He will be so much more impressed if you come prepared with interesting questions and keep him engaged. Then for the icing on the cake, just send him a thank you email.
- Ask a lot of questions, but don’t ask the same question twice. By asking questions, you are demonstrating your engagement with the internship and curiosity to learn. Use your manager’s expertise to expand your knowledge!
In one of my internships, I thought I was asking too many questions. To my surprise, my manager’s feedback was to ask even more questions!
However, there are 2 instances in which you should avoid asking your manager a question.
The first is if you have a Google-able question. Rather than wasting your manager’s time, just spend your time to look it up.
The second is if you previously asked the same question.
My friend Bryan, an investment banker, explains this well: “Take a few seconds to write exactly what your manager says. Even if you think you’ll remember, it never hurts to have written notes to refer to on your own. It’s a pretty small thing to do, but it shows her that you’re actually retaining information. It gets annoying for her to repeatedly walk you through a process — especially when she’s on tight deadlines.”
This especially applies to any small details. For example, if you ask your manager about how to format a Powerpoint slide, write the exact details she says. You may disappoint your manager if you submit the slide and the font is off, or you have to ask again because you forgot.
- Do what you say you will do, on time, every time. This is something many students (including me) struggle with because college enables procrastination. If you have trouble with this, try challenging yourself to get everything done on time for 1 week — regardless of how little the task is. This will help slowly build the habit of always getting your shit done.
Half of professionalism is just being consistent.
- Send periodic reflections to your manager. Try sending an email every week or two about what you worked on, what you learned, and what you’re looking forward to. This is an easy way to stay organized about your personal progress. Many managers will love your introspection and positivity.
A friend did this during his Google internship. Needless to say, his manager and team loved him and he got a return offer!
This also double dips with the hypothesis-driven career. You should continuously reflect on factors you like and dislike about your internship. This will help further refine your hypothesis and get an even better internship/job next year.
Take advantage of every learning opportunity
“Once you stop learning, you start dying.” -Albert Einstein
- Ask for feedback every week and resist the urge to defend yourself. Your internship/job is a great time to learn about your character flaws and personality weaknesses. For the first time in your life, you are surrounded by completely new people in a high-stakes environment (not school). Use this to your advantage!
After a certain interval (project checkpoint or every few weeks), set up a short feedback session. This is the perfect time to reflect on your performance by asking your manager for areas of improvement.
Now here’s the key to making the feedback session work. No matter what they say, do not reply with your immediate gut reaction! Your gut will tell you to defend yourself, and nobody likes a closed-minded person.
Instead, just accept what they say and write it down. I find it helpful to give myself a few days to digest constructive feedback.
This is also a fantastic way to make sure you are on track to receive a return offer – you don’t want any surprises!
- Get coffee with as many people as possible. This one is from my friend Raylene who works in product management: “Being an intern is the best excuse to get coffee and learn from even the most senior people at a company. Usually things will be different when you’re full time, so take advantage of the free access now!”
This is an amazing opportunity to soak up new information and learn from anyone at your company. Remember, most companies with intern programs are trying to impress you. As a result, they often encourage you to learn from other employees.
This is also the perfect time to test other interests you have without the hassle of cold emailing!
If you’re interested in marketing, email a marketing manager or ask your manager for an introduction.
When writing the email, follow the general guidelines in my cold-email template. Make sure you send these emails from your work email address, and mention that you’re an intern in [xyz] department working with [name of manager].
This time your reply rate will be close to 100% since you already work at the company!
In fact, a few of my friends and I even got coffee chats with the CEO and other senior executives of the company. Aim high — you never know who will be open to a coffee chat.
- Have an opinion about the big picture without being arrogant. Many companies value its employees/interns having opinions about their work, not just putting their head down and getting it done. Whether you’re in strategy, finance, software engineering, sales, or any other role, it is helpful to know what is happening in your company or industry.
This helps you connect your work to the bigger picture and form an opinion on how the company is evolving. It’s a great way to impress your manager and spark very interesting conversations in your 1 on 1’s. Also in future job interviews, your thoughts and reflections about your work/company will impress prospective employers.
Spend just 30-60 minutes every day reading industry specific blogs, journals, articles, etc. Keeping up-to-date is your job.
You “What do you think about [abc] competitor launching that new product — it seems like it could be a competitor to our company because of [xyz] reasons”
Manager “Actually, [proceeds to explain why you may be wrong]“
As long as you stay humble, your manager won’t care if you were right or wrong. She will appreciate that you tried. As you get more experience, you’ll start to develop an intuition about the bigger picture.
The next time you want to ask your manager “what do you think about…,” just say your opinion first then ask for their thoughts.
- Develop an entrepreneurial mindset and work on side projects. The most impressive employees are those who can quickly get up to speed with the situation and start tackling problems that nobody else bothered fixing. It doesn’t have to be big, even small solutions add value.
Alongside your main responsibilities (and as time permits), look for little problems you can solve in your workplace. Some examples are: software bugs that need fixing, documentation that is incorrect, a slow process that you can speed up with a simple tool, writing a guide to help new employees get started, etc.
Show that you are a proactive employee with a thirst to learn about problems and solve them — without being told.
As you can tell, most of this stuff is not difficult. Little things go a long way in proving your reliability and demonstrating your professionalism.
Don’t worry about remembering all these tips – even acknowledging the need for professional development will put you ahead.
Have a fun with your internship! Be open to new things, and above all else, have a great attitude. You’re employed in-part because of your positivity and youth. Everybody loves interns. Turn up your enthusiasm and make the most of this experience.
To best use this list, I recommend writing a few of your favorite takeaways. Then, come back to this article midway through your internship to see what else you can do. If you can implement a few of these tips, you will seriously impress your manager.
I guarantee they will not expect it.