Overdue Leadership Lessons

fork-in-the-road-3A LinkedIn Request To Remember

This week I received a LinkedIn request I didn’t expect.  A business owner I knew from fifteen years ago reached out to me, explaining that he was connecting with former interns from his business.  That’s the power of social media today.  Connecting with the new and reconnecting with the old.

Except, there was something slightly off about this particular connection request.  He said he was connecting with “former interns.”  Was this a joke?  You see, I remember, in fact, quite clearly, the experience of interviewing for an internship with this man.  I can still see myself in his office, sitting in a small chair facing his desk. Him seated on the other side, asking questions like “if you had to grade yourself, using A, B, or C, on your knowledge and skills, what grade would it be?”  Me, saying “most definitely an A+”, thinking I was wisely setting myself apart from other internship candidates by adding that plus.

I also remember, once again, quite clearly, not being selected for the internship program.  Maybe I should have used two plusses…

So, why, now, was he reaching out to me as a “former intern?”

I wrote back.

Me: Good morning, I will certainly accept your invitation to connect, but I should mention that I was not an intern.  I did, however, apply for an internship back in 1998, but was not offered the position.

Him: There may have been a slip-up on our end because I know that we wanted you to join our team.

This was startling news.  Back then, I wanted that internship more than anything.  This was to be the big internship that would put me on the path to success in the marketing world.  At the time I was double majoring in both Marketing and HR.  Marketing was the main focus, and HR was the “extra major.”  After college, sans the “big internship,” I slogged away, trying my hand at a marketing-ish job, working for a commercial printing company.  Without a great internship experience under my belt, that was the best I could do.  After a year of trying that, unsuccessfully, I shifted my focus to an entry-level HR job.  Many years later, I’m a career HR guy, and loving it.

But, what if?!  What if, there hadn’t been a “slip-up?”  What if I’d had that big marketing internship?  Where would I be today?

My wife, in all her morbid wisdom, suggests that maybe that’s the job where I would have met my future killer and I wouldn’t be here today to write this blog.  She has a way of putting things into perspective.  One of my best friends pointed out that had I not gone into HR he and I would likely have never met. He’s one of the coolest guys I know, and I’m lucky to have him in my life.

And let’s not forget that I love my job, and I think I’m good at it.

The Leadership Lesson

So, there you have it. Everything happens for a reason, as they say. I think the lesson reinforced by this Ghost of Internships Past is that our experiences make us who we are today. And that, instead of harping on our missed opportunities, we should be celebrating those we were given, and learning lessons from both.

Also, as leaders we should be in touch with these low moments, as much as the high ones, and reflective of how each shaped us into the leaders we are today.  If you haven’t considered it lately, take a moment to look back on your life and your career, and ask yourself “Where did I struggle? Where did I trip or fall?  And what did I learn from those experiences?”

My lost-internship experience falls into the category of when I tripped and fell.  From that internship I learned lessons in rejection and humility.

Looking Back

Looking back, I may have oversold myself a bit.  When asked how to grade myself, perhaps the smart choice would have been a B.  This would have signaled that I was confident, but that I knew I still had room for improvement.  This experience should have been my first warning sign that I had some valuable lessons to learn about being a successful member of an organization.  Unfortunately, I did not recognize the signs at the time.  So, it seems, the lessons in humility had only just begun.

In my very first job after college I had a difficult time gaining acceptance with the more senior members in my peer group.  In fact, they outwardly disliked me.  This was foreign to me because I had not previously had difficulties making friends.  But from this, I started learning the hard lessons that credibility and respect are not automatic – they are earned.  I left that job after only one year for two reasons: I did not like the work and my peers were unforgiving.

Unfortunately, many of the challenges that plagued me in my first job carried into the second.  I continued to have challenges with my peers, and this time, also with my bosses.  Despite the ongoing hardships, I stayed with this job for three years because I knew that I needed to build my resume and gain some hard skills.  Over those three years I kept learning about credibility.  For the first time I really understood the words integrity and ownership.  And by this point was developing the hard HR skills I would begin applying the rest of my career.  Even better, I was being introduced to fields that would slowly evolve into my professional passions.

Finally Getting It

When I joined the third company after college (where I still am today), everything changed.  Before I started, I self-assessed and took to heart all the hard lessons I had learned in my previous jobs.  I knew that I had the rare gift of a fresh start, and so I made some tough choices about how I was going to perform from then on.  My first goal was to build credibility and trusting relationships with my peers and bosses.  I did this by working smart, striving to be the best, and by being respectful.  My smart choices began to pay off and this allowed me to grow.  That led to new projects and assignments, and from those I furthered my skills and gained new strengths in the fields that excited me the most.

Today, I hold a senior leadership role in my company, and feel I am contributing to its success through work I enjoy.  I proudly use myself as an example of a person who can fail early, learn from their hard lessons, recover, and succeed.

I’ve come a long way, and I can now trace things back to that one internship that got away.  So, thank you Ghost of Internships Past for accidentally rejecting me from the internship I wanted more than anything.  As it turns out, what I needed more than anything was a good hard lesson.

Join the conversation:

Where did you struggle, trip or fall?  And what did you learn from it?

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