Greg Kaplan’s Note to Son Zach Upon Starting a Summer Internship

August 30, 2017 | Articles

My 19 year old son Zach just finished his first summer internship. Back in May, a few days before he started his internship, I sent him this email…

Zach, as you begin your first serious internship, I wanted to share some advice. When I started my first job, I wish someone would have sat me down and explained to me how to be successful in a workplace and what people expected of me. While home and college were great preparation for learning and rigorous thinking, they were not good preparation for being successful at work — I realized early that the office environment just has different rules. Unfortunately, I had to learn many of these lessons the hard way in my first few years of work. Hopefully, I can help you avoid some of these painful lessons:

1. Remember that the office is a different environment than home, high school, college, hanging with friends, etc. and there are different and more professional expectations of you here. Although you may make friends with folks in the office and although some of your colleagues will act like the office is the same environment as home or college, never forget that the office is different and people have different expectations of you, even if they don’t explicitly tell you. So this has lots of implications…

2. Be on time…always. To work, to meetings, everywhere. You are being judged on what may seem to you to be trivial things, so make sure they are all working in your favor. Do the simple things right like showing up on time. In fact, taking this a step further, be a few minutes early to everything — you always want to give the positive impression that you are on the ball and showing up early is one way to do this.

3. Similarly, don’t be the first person out the door at the end of the day. Best case scenario is that you are frequently the last person out the door. You want to give the positive impression that you are very committed to your company and your work and staying until a job is done is one way you will be judged. Don’t give the impression that you are watching the clock and counting the moments until you can leave.

4. Don’t do personal things at work. This includes browsing the Internet, responding to personal email and texts, playing games, personal phone calls and checking Facebook. It doesn’t matter whether it is on your computer or your phone. You are expected to focus on the company when you are at work — save these things for home.

5. Don’t ever put anything in an email or any other electronic message which you would be embarrassed or ashamed by if the email was forwarded to every employee in the company. Before you hit send, always consider if this is a message which might be considered offensive, embarrassing, inappropriate or undermining to someone else at the company. Always assume that someone might forward your email to the everyone else (or that you might mistakenly hit “Reply to All”).

6. Similarly, remember that email is a great way of disseminating information or getting a simple question answered. It is a terrible way of resolving disputes, being critical or dealing with any situation which might be emotional. Always try to do these things in person or at worst, over the phone, but never over email. Everything over email is open to misinterpretation and it often makes situations worse. Talk to the person directly.

7. Remember that at this point in your career, you have very little relevant experience. Yes, you might be smart and have great academic credentials, but your bosses and co-workers expect that you will spend the first few years on the job learning and absorbing and building credibility. Be very selective about offering up your opinion on the company, your department and the various policies and strategies when it is not solicited. Even when your opinion is solicited, be cautious and remember that most people around you have much more experience and a track record of success. Simply said, until you have put in your time and until you have some successes under your belt, you should assume that no one wants to hear your opinion.

8. Your boss is expecting you to help her be successful. Focus your efforts on that task, rather than primarily focusing on your own goals. Spend some time thinking about what is success for your boss and work towards that goal. Anticipate the needs of your boss without her telling you. Make your boss’s life easier, simpler and better and it will help you succeed.

9. Similarly, assume that you are responsible for the relationship with your boss. Figure out how to make it work successfully. Is your boss someone who likes information verbally or written? Does your boss like frequent interaction or very little? Does she like emails in the evening from you or is annoyed by this? Does your boss like meetings or hate them? Does your boss prefer to hold you accountable to specific goals or ambiguous ideas of what success is? What is your boss’s relationship like with her boss and colleagues? What can you do to help her with those? What pressures, business or personal, does your boss have? How can you help?

10. Attitude is everything. Be positive. Don’t complain. Look for solutions. Work hard. Volunteer for additional tasks. Focus on team and company success, not your own

11. Remember you are the low man on the totem pole. You are expected to do the tasks nobody else wants to do. Yes, you might think they are beneath the education you’ve received, but nobody cares — they have all done this stuff earlier in their career and expect the pattern to continue. Someone has to do this stuff and you are the likely suspect. Embrace this reality and do the tasks well with a great attitude.

12. Exceed expectations. On every assignment or goal, do better than expected. Over the course of your career, you will continue to get better assignments, bigger roles and more credibility when you consistently exceed expectations. A track record of success combined with a great attitude is a prescription for advancement.

13. No one wants to hear your excuses or explanations as to why you didn’t get an assignment done well and on time. As your career advances, you are expected to figure out how to hit expectations, even when there are factors outside of your control. Make it happen. In the rare circumstance when you miss expectations, accept full responsibility and commit to improving.

14. Avoid drama and try to have your colleagues rooting for your success, not your failure. It is much easier for your boss to promote you or give you a great assignment if he or she knows that your colleagues like and support you. Even if you have great work performance, your boss will hesitate to promote you if you are not “playing well with others”. Assume your boss doesn’t care whose fault it is if there are interpersonal issues — she just wants to take a path of less resistance and promoting you when others don’t like and support you is not this path.

15. Learn about company norms early on and follow them. How do people dress to work? Do people eat lunch at their desks or leave the office or not take lunch at all? Does everyone get involved in the company charity? When you are very successful in your career, you can choose however you want to dress at work. Until then, follow the company norms — stand out for your great work, not because you are a perceived as a rebel.

16. Be resourceful. If you hit a barrier during an assignment, find a way around it or find another path. As long as your solution is ethical and would be supported by your boss, push forward. Don’t go back to your boss every time you hit a roadblock — she would most often prefer you to find the solution on your own. If your boss has to get involved all the time to solve your problems, then it defeats the purpose of delegating assignments to you.

17. Don’t ever violate ethics in pursuit of your job. In addition to simply not being right, an ethical violation will follow you throughout your career and is never going to be worth it. Moreover, don’t even come close to the “gray area” of ethical violations or do something which might even be perceived to be unethical. Create a reputation for always being on the right side of ethical issues

18. Remember that your career will likely last 40 years or more – take a long term view. Now is the time to learn, to absorb, to create relationships and to build credibility. All the cool things you want to do now will come – just be patient.

Zach, some of these suggestions above might sound like they are cynical and “gaming the system.” For example, showing up early and leaving late sounds like the only focus is on facetime, not real productivity. Additionally, you might say that some companies should value your opinion, not shut you down. While I hope you go to work for a very enlightened company which cares less about facetime and is interested in the opinions of all its employees (I tried to set up this environment at Redbox), you should assume that your company and at least some of its employees will take a more traditional view in the workplace, which is that the new guy has to earn his stripes by showing up early and keeping his head down rather than offering up opinions. I wish all companies had great cultures like Redbox did and didn’t waste time on silly things like facetime and managing politics, but over the course of my career, I have learned that this simply isn’t reality. I’d rather you are prepared for this reality and learn to be successful within it versus expecting companies to be very enlightened and then potentially being disappointed.

Good luck at your internship, Zach. I love you and am so proud of you!

Gregg Kaplan is the founder and former CEO of Redbox, the automated DVD rental kiosks. Over 11 years, Kaplan grew this business from scratch to nearly $2 billion in revenue.

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