Lessons from a 16-Year-Old Intern: What NOT to do in Business – Aug 2021

[Our Back to the Future trivia results are at the end of my column, including announcing the winner of a free ticket to PENworks 2021!  Read on!]

So my daughter finished her summer internship last week – an office job in an accounting/finance department of a midsize business, and her first “real job” outside of babysitting and watering neighbors’ plants.  I won’t say where to protect the innocent, and you’ll see why in a minute.  Most of the experience this summer was fairly “normal,” as far as these jobs go.  But I noticed an unfortunate trend emerging a few weeks in: she was learning bad habits from the fulltime staff – nothing terribly harmful, but behaviors that probably wouldn’t serve her well in the professional work world.  And behaviors that – because they were being taught by those in management roles – represented the opposite of “best practice” (worst practice, I guess) in leadership.  But then last week the bottom fell out…

This month’s column will focus on what not to do in business – bad habits for professionals and downright lethal habits for leaders.  After all, sometimes you learn the most from studying and reverse-engineering failures to turn them into insights.  I’ll get to the motherload story in a minute, but first, here were the bad habits around which I originally was going to shape my article:

Looking busy – at one point in the summer, she got negative feedback from the HR director that she shouldn’t be idle during work hours.  Apparently, she had completed her assigned tasks for the day a little early, asked for more work but didn’t get any from her direct supervisor, so then was surfing the Internet on her phone when the HR person walked by.  She got in a little trouble from the HR director – and evidently so did her direct supervisor.

So, in a pact with her supervisor, she learned to stretch out the work to “look busy” throughout the day: a two-hour task could now take four or five.  Moving papers around on the desk.  Checking and double-checking.  Redoing work to add time to a task.  Doing some of the work, then taking a break or walking around before doing some more of the work.  Obviously, this has a ridiculous impact on productivity.  And it certainly is a bad habit that – when extrapolated across an organization’s workforce – is a massive drag on outcomes.  Don’t do it.  And if you manage others, please, please, please don’t teach and encourage them to do it.  Instead, as leaders:

  • Focus on giving better task assignments;
  • Empower your team to proactively find and do value-adding work on their own;
  • Encourage self-development if there’s “downtime” – take a class, watch a video, learn a new skill; and
  • Reinforce and reward the right behavior.  If your team has learned that looking busy is valued by the company (rather than actually producing outcomes), they’ll keep doing it.
  • And if you’re an individual contributor (not the leader), then seek more and bigger assignments, take it upon yourself to pursue value-adding work, and – if you just have no work to do – proactively seek professional development opportunities that benefit you and the organization.

Controlling resources – a corollary to the looking busy bad habit was trying to “hold onto” workers, as if they were assets that shouldn’t be redeployed to other/better activities.  In other words, instead of allowing an employee to jump in and help other teams or other parts of the organization, my daughter was told by her supervisor to keep focused on her tasks in the finance department.  I think his comment was something like “don’t offer to help others.  You work for this department and I don’t want to lose access to you, so if someone asks for your help, tell them that it’s ‘not your job’.”  Yeah, the crazy “it’s not my job” comment.  It completely stifles teamwork and collaboration across organizational boundaries.  Don’t do it.  Instead:

  • Encourage teamwork and collaboration inside and outside the department or team; in fact,
  • Encourage cross-functional, cross-organizational assignments, problem solving, and continuous improvement teams;
  • Share resources throughout the organization, creating more flexibility, more inclusion and diverse perspectives throughout the enterprise, and more developmental opportunities for all employees.

Leaving workers in the dark — we all know that effective, two-way communication is critical for team and organizational success.  Employees cannot achieve or exceed expectations if they don’t know what those expectations are!  In addition, employees cannot make the best decisions for their day-to-day work if they don’t know or understand what’s going on inside and outside the organization.  This company had a really bad habit of under-communicating, and an absolutely insane of example of this was in not telling the interns when or where they were moving the company!  Yes, you read that right.

My daughter knew they were moving office space at some point during the summer, but every time I asked her what the status of the move was, she kept responding that they haven’t told the interns anything yet.  So imagine the shock when – on a Monday morning – she shows up at work only to find the office locked: they had moved the office over the weekend and failed to tell the five interns!  Fortunately, she got ahold of her supervisor and the new office location was only a mile or so away.  But how in the world did management forget to tell their interns?!  Instead:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.  And then communicate some more.  You simply cannot overcommunicate as leaders, especially on major issues.
  • To ensure that your messages are received, use what’s sometimes called the Theory of Seven: communicate seven times in seven different ways.  People hear messages differently, and different media influence how messages are received.  Mix and match messages and delivery channels to ensure that different groups of employees hear and absorb them.
  • Ensure that communication is frank and two-way, allowing workers a chance to provide their feedback and input.  Don’t just talk to employees, but talk with them.

Those were three things not to do if you lead people.  But then came the motherload.  On the next to last day of her internship, all five interns were called into the conference room by the HR director.  Apparently four of them (my daughter included) were being accused of not doing their work (see bad habits #1 and #2 above).  As it turns out, they were doing work by helping to unload and unpack boxes from the office move – at the request of a different manager outside of their direct departments.  And they actually had a great time doing it, talking with each other, forming relationships, feeling accomplished in seeing the product of their efforts.  But apparently the HR director saw things differently and scolded them all for not staying in their assigned departments and doing whatever it was that they were hired to do.

The HR director came down pretty hard on them.  She went on to – in my daughter’s words – disrespect and somewhat degrade the interns, questioning their work ethic, threatening to fire them (yes, one day before their intern assignments were complete), and otherwise scaring and humiliating them.  What kept going through my mind when I heard the story was: I thought Theory X management – managing by fear rather than by collaboration and engagement – died 50 years ago (clearly, it’s alive and well out there).

In wrapping up her story, my daughter noted the irony of a company that opted to take on interns, treating them instead as unvaluable, insignificant, and expendable resources.  She also noted the unfortunate paradox of providing the interns the exact opposite learning experience they desired in the first place.

The insights here were stunning, if not completely obvious.  Leaders should:

  • Value their people – an organization’s success depends highly on an engaged workforce, which includes interns (and part-time employees and volunteers and all segments, groups, and types of workers).  And a workforce will only be engaged if they have a safe, trusting, and cooperative work environment.
  • Focus on learning – provide opportunities for the workforce to learn, develop, and gain new competencies and skills that benefit the not only individual employees but the overall organization.
  • Create an environment for success – one that focuses on mission, provides rewards and recognition rather than fear and punishment, and reinforces an open and healthy culture that fosters engagement, inclusion, and collaboration.
  • Empower their people – turn your people on and then turn them loose.  With a little direction, coaching, and freedom, employees usually will accomplish more than leaders expected of them in the first place!
  • Serve as role models – leaders should focus on mission and the customer, practice and reinforce ethical behavior, uphold the organization’s core values, create and nurture equity and inclusion, build long-term relationships, and be authentic – that is to admit their own failures and missteps, but also encourage learning and growth from their team’s failures and missteps.

To her credit, my daughter didn’t take the bait and quit a day early.  Instead:

  • She slept on it overnight (showing patience, restraint, maturity),
  • Went to her direct supervisor the next morning and told him that she didn’t think she did anything wrong, but apologized for getting him involved (showing maturity, professionalism, and savvy in navigating office politics),
  • She brought in a dozen donuts for her co-interns and the general office (showing teamwork and her recognition of the value of relationships, not burning bridges, and leaving a good note), and then she
  • Wrote a long, but professional and very frank email to the director of the third-party internship program (showing the power of feedback and the value of continuous improvement).

Her email is attached, for those interested in how a 16-year-old handled the situation:

After every day this summer, I asked her what she learned, and she really never had much to say – other than a new filing system, a new Microsoft tool, or something minor like that.  But in the end, she learned a great deal about how organizations should (or shouldn’t) work.  And she did get an incredible educational experience – just not the one she signed up for.


BREAKING: Thanks to those who tried their luck (skill?) at last month’s Back to the Future trivia contest.  There were only 10 questions (try it if you’re still inclined: link here) and only one person – of several dozen! – got all 10 correct.  Congratulations to Kristy Thorson of Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester – you receive a complimentary pass to the PENworks 2021 Conference – BACK TO THE FUTURE: Innovating Today; Imagining Tomorrow!!  For those still interested, more information on this powerful conference is here.

What other insights/tips do you have regarding the insights from what not to do as leaders?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Stay healthy and never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network


Catalyst for Success Since 1987!

Photo credit allbusiness.com, thetotalentreprenuers.com, l4sb.com