An Internship Is a Real Job
I received this email in my in-box. It stumped me. Totally.
Hi, I am xxx from xxx - world's largest intern hiring platform...I am writing to discuss a partnership proposal...In collaboration with you, we can engage our students for a thrilling travel internship experience at exotic locations in profiles like - content writing, photography, videography, etc. It will be a great learning experience for students where they implement their skills while visiting new places and experiencing diverse cultures.
I found everything wrong with this email.
But what piqued me the most was the fact that "a great learning experience" came in the last line of paragraph three.
I think these platforms do our kids an injustice. To assume that our 21 - 24 year olds are flaky and just looking for a good time is presumptuous at best.
Since my days at STAR TV and National Geographic, I have always believed in a strong internship program.
I always felt that as "seniors" in the industry, it is incumbent upon us to create a respectable second line that can grow to occupy the positions we are in right now. In fact, it should be made mandatory.
Today, when I see the line-up of names in senior positions across television, journalism, and even e-commerce, I recognize several of them as juniors who worked with me or interns who came in fresh from college - and nothing gives me more joy!
As the Director of Outward Bound India-Himalaya - an internationally recognized outdoor leadership development program for students and professionals, we run a well-honed internship program and several of our interns have come back as full time employees.
In My Business, An Intern is An Added Responsibility
In the outdoors, we have experts who've been doing their job for years. Our instructors and facilitators come with decades of experience, they know the safety protocols, have done first aid and search and rescue courses and we trust them with the lives of our program participants.
A newbie in the wilderness is not much of a help, it is simply an added responsibility for the team. So, I always hesitate to take an inexperienced intern on an expedition. Many of them apply for an Outward Bound internship thinking they will get to trek in the Himalaya and learn kayaking on the Ganga - and maybe they will, but that's not what they're being hired to do.
What We Look For In An Intern
I'm looking for organizational skills, a multi-tasker with the ability to problem-solve and prioritize successfully within tight timelines and high stress.
I'm looking for a strong and effective communicator, both written and oral. Preferably bi-lingual with the knowledge of Hindi and English and the ability to speak with both young and adult audiences.
I'm looking for computer skills - Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint.
I'm looking for someone who's okay with irregular hours and weekend work.
An internship is serious business. My team and I spend our valuable time teaching them the necessary skills we believe they will need to succeed in the field of their choice. This 45 or 60 day period isn't a holiday.
So What Should One Expect From a Real Internship?
1. Learn to work the back-end first
To learn any business, you need to work the back-end first. In Outward Bound India, they will learn this by sitting in the office and creating a detailed itinerary - with their research done down to the last minute. It's amazing to watch their eyes roll back in their head (because it's something their college doesn't teach them) when I ask them if they've made allowances for the highway under construction while calculating distances and time taken to travel them. It shows me their research is incomplete. Because one quick Google search will immediately give you an indication of road conditions. And if you've said "1 hour" in your itinerary and it actually takes 1 hr: 45 Min, things can begin to fall apart pretty soon.
2. Learn how to budget
The business is learnt by putting together all the costs and creating a budget for that itinerary; by understanding what GST is applied; by comparing those costs with your competitors to see if you've reached a viable pricing or have priced yourself totally out of consideration.
3. Learn how to speak with a client
Answering client questions and addressing their concerns is a great way to learn on the job. There is no better teacher than an enquiring, curious, and often, ignorant client. Their questions will tell you where your marketing has fallen short and where your communication has gone awry. Or, for that matter, your budgeting.
4. Learn brand building
Learning to tackle the brand's social media, website and other marketing tools will hold them in good stead. Most kids today are tech savvy and that's an added bonus - a skill I can tap into and mould, to get an understanding of a brand larger than themselves and their personal profiles.
And finally, after they've done all of that, they will get to go on a trek or a rafting expedition - preferably the same one they researched and budgeted - if they stay long enough.
Attitude Is Everything
I had an intern once who said to me: "It's not what I came here to do." To me that line is like waving a red flag at a bull. That, and "It's not my job." Two definite lines that will have them looking for another internship. To me attitude is everything. Aptitude can be nurtured, but attitude goes way back to childhood. I see it as a clear reflection of how they were brought up as children and by the time they're 21. there's very little anyone can do to change that. Perhaps a few hard knocks may help, but I'm not about to play Aunt Agony or help them change what's become an intrinsic part of their nature.
No Job is Too Small
When I walked into the NDTV studios to help with the launch of STAR News, on my first day there, I crawled under the news desk to help hammer in a nail that STAR TV's Head of Network Presentation John O'Loan was trying to bang in. I learnt the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-jump-right-in from the master himself and it's something I expect from my team. No job is too small or irrelevant. Everything we do is a learning experience, even the most innocuous of jobs - it all adds up to making us the professionals we are.
Show No Mercy
Anyone who's interned with me will know this - no mercy. When I was heading Programming and Marketing at National Geographic channel, I had, as usual, thrown an intern into the deep end and packed her off with an experienced production team to direct short-form content for one of our big shows coming up.
The script was hers and instinctively I knew she had it in her to do the job.
I got a call from her at 7:45 AM.
I was in the office early to complete my own tasks and really wasn't there to solve someone else's problems.
The intern was in tears. "They won't listen to me!" She cried. "I'm telling him where to put the camera, and he won't listen to me!"
I immediately understood where the problem lay. An experienced camera and lighting team - all men at that, weren't going to take instructions from a new chit of a girl, even if she was way smarter than any of them. In short, their power play was on.
I spoke to her, slowly and clearly so there was no misunderstanding: "I entrusted you with a job, get it done. You're simply getting bullied. Stop the f.....g tears and stand your ground. At the end of the day, you're the director, the captain of the ship and everyone on that team understands there's a job to do. Figure your way out, and don't call me back."
No mercy. Today she's leading her own team in an e-commerce company we all love so much and doing a tremendous job:-).
"Apna khud ka business kaise chalaoge?!"
I took an intern with me on a short trek, when I first joined the adventure travel business.
As part of the team, not only was he supposed to trek with the clients, but once we reached the campsite, he had to assist in setting up the tents, help in the kitchen, and serve the clients.
I could see that the trek had taken the mickey out of him. It had been a steep climb to the top and he was plain exhausted. He threw his knapsack on the meadows and flung himself to the ground, throwing his peak cap over his face to block out the sun.
Our chief trekking guide Mahender walked up to him, pulled his cap off and laughed: "Kya hua? Itni jaldi thak gaye?! Apna khud ka business kaise chalaoge?" (What happened? Tired already? How will you ever run your own business?).
My Only Advise To The Young People Reading This
Choose The Right Internship.
It could land up being your first job, or better still, you will actually learn something more than simply pushing papers and filing them. Be smart, do your research, ask your interviewer the right questions: What do you expect from me? What would I have learnt when I leave from here? Is there one person I will report to, a mentor?
Remember one thing - they need you as much as you need them. It's a symbiotic relationship.
No one is taking on an intern to just add one more real estate space in their office. You're there for a reason. Pin them down to find out what that reason is - so when you find yourself getting the coffee too often or filing papers or being the local runner, you can remind them (and yourself), why you were hired.
If you'd like to book me as a speaker just enter your details here.
If you liked this piece, do read more of My Musings.
A version of this article first appeared on my LinkedIn page.
It was 9 PM when the phone rang.
"Hi daddy", I said, wassup?
"Where are you darling?"
"Still in the office dad. Came in at 7 this morning and still got stuff to wrap up."
I heard a split second hesitation, and then the words, which ring in my ears even today, 22 years later...
Dad was a Tata man through and through. Worked with the company for over 30 years and legend has it that all TAS (Tata Administrative Service) personnel were sent to him as part of their final internship - if you survived Jal Master, you were ready for the battles ahead. So went the folklore. I know that IIM-B students looked forward to his guest lecture visits there - he brought insights straight from the markets to the classroom.
There was an element of truth in what he had said, I had to grudgingly admit. But I found it difficult to break away from the cycle I had created for myself. It had been 5 years and I hadn't taken a day off - except when I had the measles.
It's Hard to Break That Cycle You've Created
Ten years after that phone call, things hadn't changed much. Except now, I was the boss. And I made sure of one thing - I expected people to come in on time and I expected them to finish their work and leave at a decent hour. Everyone except myself.
I thought I needed to be on call seven days a week and because a large part of my media career was managing news channels, I was, for the most part, on call 24 hours a day.
Come home...He's Not Looking Good
Until the day my mother called. "He's not looking good," she said. "Come home." I was Senior VP at National Geographic Channel at that time, and I'd already given in my papers and agreed on a 6-month notice period. My replacement had been hired, it was the handover period. I asked my boss to let me go a month earlier. He agreed without hesitation. I spent 4 months at home with my dying father - trying to make up for all those days, months, years I had had "no time" to go home. And I learnt four key lessons in those four months:
1. You're Not That Important
Don't be afraid to take those 21 days of holidays that is your due. No one is that important. The skies will still hold and you'll be surprised how little has changed when you return. Same shit, different day - as the media adage goes.
2. Be The Best You Can Be
If you're good at what you do, no one dares to hang around waiting to take your place. So just be bloody good at what you do.
3. Build A Good Team
Focus on building a good team around you - one that is able to function without you around. While heading STAR TV Ops, I was once told by a colleague: "You're making a mistake teaching your assistants everything you know. They'll just replace you someday, and at a lesser salary." If you're afraid that your organization will replace your decades of experience with a tyro just learning the tricks, you need to quit in any case.
4. You're Not Indispensable
No one's indispensable. No one. Not even you. The organization will find someone to fill in your shoes. Perhaps they will need two or three people to manage what you did single-handedly (think about that for just a minute), but you WILL be replaced, AND soon.
Conquer Your FOMO
Of course you have "no time". You have to "make time." For yourself, for your family, for your soul. Stop saying "I wish I could come on that trek with you." Actually, you can. It's just that, you won't. What's really holding you back? Fear? Of what? Of losing your job? Of not being missed at that man-com meeting? Of not getting that project you were hankering for? Conquer that fear.
Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone
Step out into the high mountains, with just your trusty feet powering you on and intermittent mobile signals. And you will realize that there's a whole world out there. A world beyond the four walls of your cabin, in that towering building overlooking nothing, on that 14th floor where you can't even open the windows. And that's when your soul will thank you, for taking the time - to make time.
Dilshad is an inspirational speaker and is invited by corporates and institutions to speaks on topics closest to her heart. Being a cancer survivor, her talks focus on doing what you always thought was "impossible" and turning that into "I'm possible" (with due credit to the great Audrey Hepburn!)