Wednesday, August 15, 2012

View From the Inside: Summer Interns and No Exit

What is consulting? It is the intense observation of seemingly reasonable processes to detect unreasonable, inconsistent, or obsolete components. The secret is now
out. Every year we recruit newly minted juniors from undergraduate programs (“interns”) to see if they can do this. This year’s interns came from U of M, Boston College, Harvard, and Bowdoin. Each year’s program consists of non-profit work combined with relevant basic research. The summer is a 10-week stress test, where we and the interns find out if there is a good fit. Harry Hollenberg and Lucy Pullen run the program, and they allow me some interaction with these folks – too much interaction and I become an uncontrolled disruptive influence.

During one session with the interns I was shocked that none had ever heard of Fred Astaire, never read Shogun, and never watched Casablanca or The Godfather. Some had read Sartre’s No Exit, but left that play with no lessons learned. I was concerned about balance – if they were in an elevator and sick to death of the business meeting, could they chat about something relevant and not superficial? So, I put them on a summer reading program. The text box is a lift from an email I sent them (but did not copy Lucy or Harry).

The summer went by, they worked on their non-profit assignments and MyGuy. Hmm, did they remember my assignment? They were released from work last Friday and reported out on their assignments. I got emails from each of them by the end of the day. Following are some excerpts.

“As you might have gathered, we struggled to find time to complete your suggested reading assignments. However, we were all appreciative of the recommendations …. As a math major, I continually seek to find other ways to balance the quantitative orientation of most of my classes. So, some quality literature suggestions are much appreciated. In response to your fifth question, the application of classic literature in my life is in furthering my written and oral communication skills. Classic literature is often a window into a style of speaking and writing that has been abandoned in this text-heavy era. Moreover, as much as society has changed in the past few decades, people truly have not changed that much. Emotions and connections are relatable across generations and it’s important to read literature to help further your understanding of people and the human intuition. I know that’s a lofty statement, but I truly believe that understanding how people think and what motivates them is a key to success in almost every aspect of life, business or otherwise. Even though “smart people don’t read”, perhaps the ambitious ones do. “

“I was honest when I said you would get a response, but I was also honest when I told you the quality of that response was up to interpretation. I am sure that while you are disappointed to hear that we haven’t all made a considerable dent in your reading list, you are aware that our time was limited this summer. I apologize for that failure, but I would also like to utilize the excuse that our hotels didn’t have copies of Casablanca or the Godfather. I did ask. With enough sparknoting/googling we could have cheated our way through your questions, but I’d rather read these books than the one-page online summary. NO EXIT: L’enfer, c’est les autres. As you know, I have already read this book (Huis Clos, as it was meant to be read!), but in relation to work, this book teaches us that certain places or people can be your hell. I have my own environments and personality types that give me that no exit feeling. Working somewhere where everyone is constantly in competition, where people are pretentious. We are taught to want to work in those 30 story NYC buildings where you can’t approach your CEO and have to wear a suit every single day, but is that really fulfilling? Long term, I think that that is a secret no exit. Regardless, my definition is constantly evolving. Part of this project was dealing with your no exit moments, and part of life is about knowing what no exit is for you and how to avoid it. “

“I have three very large books sprawled out on the back seat of my car and I just received three library letters asking me to renew those books…again. In terms of the extra credit, you set a high bar for us interns. It was so high that it became unreachable and when it became unreachable it vanished. I could sift through the internet in order to piece together bits and fragments of the answers you’re looking for. I could concoct a story and hand you a “bar.” Perhaps, I could learn to wave this bar as gracefully as Astaire would have. He’s quite the performer isn’t he? Then again, Erving Goffman would suggest that we all are. Yet, Fred is not just a mere performer. He’ll put on quite the show and then he’ll step back and let his partner shine as well because the show is only exceptional when all the players are moving harmoniously. Some would suggest that true brilliance is not born out of agency but out of well integrated community. Even if you’re trapped in a room with two others and conflicts are arising, you’ll break free if you transform the dynamic. You have to understand your peers’ strengths, weaknesses, aggravations, and delights. Only then you’ll realize that this room has resources that can be tapped into and your peers can see things you may not be able to see.”

Hmm. Even if you’re trapped in a room with two others and conflicts are arising, you’ll break free if you transform the dynamic. You have to understand your peers’ strengths, weaknesses, aggravations, and delights. Only then you’ll realize that this room has resources that can be tapped into and your peers can see things you may not be able to see. I never thought of No Exit in that way. I suspect Sartre was hoping we all would.

Bottom Line: I should not have been concerned. At the end of the day, the interns wowed me. For MyGuy, they developed comprehensive dealer report cards based on internet reviews and mystery shops. They went on the road and visited 20-30 dealers and observed seemingly reasonable processes. And, they were able to detect inconsistencies that we had not seen before. They thought, and thought well.

No comments: