What's Love Got to Do with Internships?

A Kenan-Flagler MBA student compares his dating lifeand ultimately finding the woman of his dreamswith landing the most compatible internship

My dating career was always an accident waiting to happen. Like my neighbor's dog's daily attempts to catch a car, I raced towards the exciting and flashy, without much of a plan for what would happen if I actually caught it. I was normally left with little to show for my efforts except the vague understanding that I could have just been run over even as I prepared, yet again, to dart into oncoming traffic.

During my internship search, I vowed to open up my old dating rule book to make sure that I didn't make the same mistakes again:

Rule 1: If she's too hot to be dating you, she's probably nuts. Whenever I found myself out on a date with a model look-alike, I'd peer down at my paunchy stomach and poorly ironed slacks and think: "I must just be lucky." Wrong, wrong, wrong. In the internship world, you may be offered way too much money or responsibility after a very brief interview. You may see financial projections from a startup that point to an '09 eclipse of Microsoft and then meet the board of directors that believes it. If a situation looks too good to be true, look harder.

Rule 2: Be a good listener, because she's probably nuts. I was once under the mistaken impression that, when dating, it was my job to be funny and charming and impressive. Then I learned that it was much more impressive to take an interest in her. Then I learned, to hell with being impressive, this listening thing is a great way to find out whether she's crazy! Same goes for interviewing for an internship: Eventually you'll realize that an interview is a two-way street and that careful listening and smart questions help you avoid head-on collisions.

Rule 3: Normal girls are boring. The ultimate catch-22: Once you apply Rules 1 and 2, you may find yourself drinking tea in some apartment with little ceramic cats on the bookshelf and pictures of normal, loving, well-adjusted family members on the refrigerator. As you look down at the Scrabble board and then back up at her perfectly normal face, you begin remembering that tattooed waitress who was all choked up about that one-night stand with her therapist. "Maybe she's over it now," you think as you suppress the urge to flee.

In internship terms, some of my colleagues sat in the catacombs of a blue chip company that gave them an average offer after a perfectly normal interview—and now had 300 interns and no idea what to do with them. I don't think they looked back on their internship search and said: "Man, am I glad I played it safe!"

The Love Connection

Eventually I found my Mrs. Right. I'm grateful for the pain and confusion that being a dating dimwit caused because now I can see how lucky I am. This was a valuable lesson given the peaks and valleys of my internship search and experience.

Like a search for that special someone, the road to my internship was littered with archetypal breakups.

Breakup 1: Timing is everything. Sometimes the time just isn't right for romance to bloom. When I landed an interview with GE at last year's Innovation Challenge, I felt like I was walking on air, but the internship offer, and potential future job, was located in Connecticut. Despite GE being my most-respected company and the internship being in innovation, which I love, it was in a financial-services-related field (done that) and in Connecticut (I don't want to move back to New England).

Breakup 2: The other guy. After coming home, I pulled together a group of Kenan-Flagler MBAs to try to start up a sustainable marketing services firm. Note to future MBA entrepreneurs: Once your classmates do the math on the debt that they're accruing, that blue chip internship offer they're sitting on starts looking better and better. Others may simply find a more suitable fit elsewhere. The bottom line is that you will be left for another, better man.

Breakups 3, 4, and 5: I'm a moron. In many ways I was excited to start fresh, knowing about Kenan-Flagler's Entrepreneurial Fellows Program. This was a big draw to me when applying because it is an opportunity to work on two companies simultaneously, both in North Carolina, while doing group projects with other budding Kenan-Flagler entrepreneurs.

I didn't attend introductory meetings, didn't participate in venture capital competitions, didn't spend time with the program manager, and didn't help sell course packs to raise money for the Entrepreneurship Club. In short, I did everything to send the message: "I am the wrong guy for this program."

Somehow oblivious to the fact that the program manager wouldn't touch me with a 10-foot pole, I recommended that the local solar company that I was most interested in join up to get an intern. I also told a local biodiesel company that we could work together through the program. You can imagine my surprise when I was asked to go elsewhere for employment.

Starting All Over…Again

I needed to regroup. A few things had remained consistent throughout my search: I wanted a position that involved some combination of strategy, marketing, human capital, innovation, and sustainability. The main value I brought to a position was my strength in entrepreneurship and innovation, and the areas I needed to get experience in were sustainability and human capital. With this in mind, I took the sustainable human capital model that my team and I developed in Mod 3 and pitched it to a local boutique HR consulting firm that had run a leadership retreat for our Kenan-Flagler Premier Fellows Program. Their company and my idea were a match made in heaven; my start date was set for two weeks after the end of classes.

Hot Love in the Summertime

My experience at Surve Consulting involved a surprise: I used the MBA tools taught to me in our core curriculum early and often. Last year, I sat through some finance, operations, and accounting courses wondering when I would use what I was taught and then found that not only was I using them, I actually remembered them! In class, I could never get into financial or operating model building, but suddenly I found myself eager to build them in the real world.

Visiting clients and working with them on management and talent development issues had nothing to do with my former life as an Internet entrepreneur and proved emotionally and intellectually fulfilling.

My biggest flub came in my first consulting assignment when I noticed a lot of problems with a client company and shared them in a point-blank fashion with the president. He was impressed but also reminded me several times over the subsequent months how I "kicked" him around in our first meeting. There is a subtle art of honest revealing and tactful concealing in consulting that took me several weeks to get a handle on.

Most of my time was spent working on building a scalable revenue share plan with our partners while creating new incentive systems for employees that focused their efforts on profit instead of top-line revenue, and my greatest accomplishment came in completing that system and beginning to implement it with our consultants and partners.

Cold Feet

At the end of the summer we began talking about my working during the school year, and potentially coming on as a managing principal upon graduation if my performance remained high.

Getting that offer was a major goal of mine, but once we started discussing it I began to see the reality of the situation. When you join a lifestyle business with the goal of taking it national, you and the founder need to be on the same page. The more I thought about the changes I would make to the company, the more I felt they would adversely affect his quality of life and happiness. He didn't agree, but by the end of the summer I made the command decision to move on, even though I'd rediscovered what it felt like to work on things I deeply cared about. It was a tough call, but I think it will prove to be the right one.

I'd be lying if I said this was an easy process for me, but as with the highs and lows of my past dating career, I think I've come out of it an improved partner for my future match. I've done my best to fail forward, learning from my mistakes and reflecting on my process. I feel naked wandering the halls of my program, a second-year student without a clear next step. But I think I've learned my lesson about prematurely rushing into opportunities, and I want to revel in the freedom that comes in this moment. I've been reminded that attachment can easily blossom in the heat of excitement, but that it takes the nourishment of consistency and dedication to cultivate the kind of career I'd like to fall in love with.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.