Starting your career as an intern is an excellent way to get your foot in the door. But it’s up to you to move yourself the rest of the way over the threshold—and into a seat at the table. Can it be done? Sure! Just look at the inspiring story of Mark Reuss, who joined General Motors in 1983 as an intern, rose through the ranks and just this month was named president of the automaker.
Mark is just the latest former intern to eventually lead the company at which his or her career began. Others include GM CEO Mary Barra, Mars Wrigley President Berta de Pablos-Barbier and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. While each of these titans of the business world was working with their own set of unique circumstances, their stories hold lessons for anyone starting out on their intern-to-executive journey.
Here are some common themes that can help any intern searching for ways to fire up their career.
Drop the intern branding. While no two intern positions are exactly the same, there seems to be a common mantra to which all interns pledge their allegiance. It’s the “I’m-just-an-intern” branding. If you fall into this category, stop now. Your position is temporary and doesn’t speak to the full range of your capabilities. Instead, focus on your ideas, what you do and how you help. Challenge yourself to omit the word “intern” when introducing yourself. Try something like, “I manage all the office supply records and am currently training to take on the administrative responsibilities.” If pressed for a title, you can offer, “I’m currently interning here.” Notice that’s different than saying, “I am an intern.” which implies your permanent residence in that position.
Collect experience rather than titles. Understand that advancing from intern to executive is a journey. Avoid obsessing over promotions and titles. Instead, get greedy about learning as much as you can. Make a habit of volunteering for the nasty bits; those less-than-glamorous tasks are often the best place to gain new skills and insights into what makes the company tick. These opportunities will help you think holistically about the company and get comfortable with learning and stepping outside of your comfort zone — all skills you’ll use on the regular as you evolve into an executive.
Seek responsibility vs. praise. Starting off in a new career, new company and new surroundings can be unsettling. It’s natural to want to know whether we’re doing well or not. But avoid constantly seeking praise. In the end, praise means very little in business. In business, what matters most is whether people want to work with you. Do they trust you to take on new and expanded responsibilities? If they do, then consider that your “praise.” By the time you’re an executive leader, you will hear all manner of praise thanks to your position of power. That doesn’t necessarily mean you are making the right decisions. What you’ll really need is the trust of your staff, consumers and investors. That trust means they stick with you even when your decisions don’t pan out. That trust means you do more business, get more backing and garner larger investments. Practice from day one measuring your success by the trust people have in you vs. the compliments they shower on you.
Carve out your own path. If you’ve just graduated or are about to, you’ve been groomed to follow a certain path. All schools carve out this path for their students as a way to increase the likelihood they complete their program. Sure, you may have chosen your major and a few electives, but the process and progression were laid out for you. That won’t be the case in business. You will need to make the decisions that best drive your career. Becoming an effective executive is difficult and demands both deep and wide experience. If you plan to work and grow within the same company, you’ll want to show you’ve sought out a broad range of leadership experiences.
Develop a growth mindset. The growth mindset concept, popularized by Carol S. Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, holds that through hard work and effort one can learn and evolve one’s skills. Contrast this with a fixed mindset, where people believe their basic qualities, like intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. By choosing a growth mindset, you’ll build resilience and have an easier time viewing setbacks, rejection and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow rather than pronouncements on your self-worth.
Taking an intern position is a fantastic way to start your career. Where it leads is up to you. And that’s maybe the most exciting part of any career move!