This week I’m giving a talk to Kellogg MBA students about building a strong personal brand during their summer internship. I’m looking forward to the session. Here are some of my main points.
A lot of things need to come together to have a successful run at a company. You must have supportive managers and good opportunities, and then you have to do great work and capably lead teams.
The most important thing, however, is building a strong personal brand.
People who have a great reputation move ahead. They get the high-profile opportunities. When things go well, it reinforces the positive perceptions. When they make a mistake, people tend to ignore it or find excuses. “That supplier is always a problem” or “The pandemic caused that new product to fail.”
Those with questionable brands have a different experience. They don’t get the best opportunities. People are quick to check their work and find mistakes. When things don’t go well, they tend to take the blame. “I always had questions about Dave.”
It can be exceptionally difficult to shake these perceptions. Brand associations, whether for Nike, Patagonia or a person, tend to endure.
The question for students, then, is simple: how do I create a positive brand? This week I’ll provide six pieces of advice.
1. Focus on the people first, the business second
The first task in a new role should be forming relationships with the team. If people feel that you care about them, they will probably like you. They will help you along. For an intern, this is essential for the simple reason that in a ten-week period you won’t know very much about the company. Everything you do will depend on the people around you.
Don’t show up with the idea that you know the answers. You don’t. The people around you do, so focus on them.
2. Get the numbers right
For a new person, it is critically important to be accurate on the numbers. If you make mistakes early on, you can quickly develop a reputation for not knowing the business or making mistakes. These negative brand perceptions are some of the most damaging.
So be careful with numbers. If you are going to say a number, or put a number in an email, be very certain that you know the number is accurate. What is it? Where did the number come from? Is that a reliable source?
3. Be enthusiastic
A positive, happy person is a great addition to any team. If your brand is associated with energy and positivity, it will be magnetic.
So, embrace positivity.
When someone asks how the summer is going, the correct answer is, “Amazing!” or “Fabulous! What a great business and team” or “Best summer ever!”
Nobody wants to hear that you aren’t getting much guidance or that it is absurdly hot in Dallas or that the company might be heading for disaster, even though it might all be true.
Just because something is true doesn’t mean you should say it.
4. Ask for help
People love to help, so ask. As an intern, you should be proactive on this.
The research in this area is fascinating. If someone gives you a tip or suggestion, it tends to be a bad experience. You feel bad and they feel bad. If you ask for help and then someone gives you a suggestion, you feel good, and they feel good.
5. Stay in your lane
As a summer intern, it is tempting to provide your opinion on lots of topics. You might notice something in a company presentation that you talked about in class, or you might have an idea for a new product.
In general, if it doesn’t involve your project, keep these thoughts to yourself. Remember, you are new and don’t know much about the company. Your opinions really don’t matter. More important, you will annoy people by jumping in with a perspective or view.
It is useful to remember that sage advice, “Talk less, smile more.”
6. Present well
Your presentation is your moment to shine, so get this right. At some companies you will have several opportunities to present. At other firms there might be just one.
It doesn’t matter the format. Presenting slides is pretty common, though more and more people are using written documents. The challenge is the same.
I’ve written a lot about presenting, so I won’t go into everything here. Just remember that the presentation is critical for shaping your brand. Find the story, create simple pages, check your numbers, pre-sell the entire thing, to everybody.
If it all works out, you’ll form a positive brand, and this will help you whether you go back to the company or not.
Don’t stress about it too much – remember that with an internship if it doesn’t work out you’ll have another chance to start again at your full-time employer.