Willingness to Take InitiativeKathleen Voboril
"If you can figure out how to be comfortable with ambiguity, general management will be a great track for you," our strategic management professor told us on our last day of class last spring. My new venture creation professor similarly stressed embracing uncertainty and forging ahead with a business idea. "You need to validate the market," he explained, "but at some point the only way to learn more is to get started." He enumerated companies whose business models had completely changed within two years of launching. Even our data-driven operations professor emphasized the "black swans" that are an inevitable part of project management.
My professors couldn't have chosen a better theme to leave me with as I prepared for my summer internship at an Austin (Tex.)-based private equity firm, though I didn't realize it at the beginning. My transition from full-time student to full-time summer employee was deceptively smooth: I had been interning part time at Techquity Capital Management all spring. I already knew all my co-workers and had a favorite parking spot. My desk was set up just the way I liked it, and I had my routine for de-jamming the copy machine down to two minutes on a bad day.
Vague Intern Job Definition However, while I had an easier time acclimating than most of my peers, my job definition was understandably vague: Techquity acquires, develops, and commercializes intellectual-property (IP) assets. The emerging industry of IP investment is still developing. As a fund marketing intern, my focus was on Techquity's message, its investor relations processes, and its competitive positioning, as well as the overall direction of the IP asset class and macro trends in the private equity world. Assigning discrete projects to each of these areas seemed inefficient—there were just too many overlaps. More importantly, each issue was fluid, so I needed to find a way to monitor all of them at once but quickly prioritize what was most important. On top of the fund marketing issues, there were additional one-off projects I was asked to look into by Techquity's fund managers.
In everything I did, I was blessed to be given complete free rein to figure it out. Of course, this didn't always feel like a blessing. At times, it was incredibly frustrating. I felt like a skateboarder on a half-pipe. I would ride up the wall a little, then roll back down to the bottom a few times before getting to the top.
For example, at one point, I was asked to evaluate several technology standards in terms of rights and obligations of ownership as part of the evaluation of a large IP portfolio. When I began the project, I had only a rough idea of what a standard really was. I didn't want to "waste a day" teaching myself about standards, so instead I made multiple phone calls to various experts and friends with technical backgrounds, so I could put some numbers and facts to paper. A week later, I had five pages of material and no idea what it meant. It felt like a long roll down the ramp, but I put everything I had worked on in a drawer and started over from scratch. Only after writing myself a cheat sheet ("standards for dummies") could I put any context to the numbers. Once I had my cheat sheet, the phone calls with experts were considerably more productive, and I was able to provide the information my team needed.
The Gift of Autonomy Looking back, I now realize that this autonomy was the greatest gift my managers could have given me. While they were always available to provide feedback, they expected me to develop the frameworks I needed to assess a situation, determine the best options, and provide a recommendation. Moreover, if something wasn't on our radar that needed to be, it was my job to point it out. After speaking with friends at other internships, I have come to the conclusion that this is fairly typical of what is expected of an MBA. We need to be able to take something off a manager's plate entirely, from soup to nuts. While perfection is not expected, willingness to take initiative is.
As my summer wound to a close, it became easier to appreciate the progress I had made. Though my work can't be collected and bookended, and despite the fact that much of what I've learned is intangible (IP pun intended), I've developed the kind of comfort with ambiguity that my professors spoke of last spring.
The next year of school will be rife with uncertainty: My group from our new venture creation class is planning to launch a new business (details to come). I will work with Techquity to continue to communicate and refine its message, and I will face a dynamic job market. In the middle of all this, I only have one year left to learn as much as I possibly can from incredible professors and equally amazing fellow MBAs. Knowing all this, I couldn't be more grateful for the experience my summer internship afforded me.
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