"When a tree falls..." - Tips to humbly brag and ensure your time as an intern does not go unnoticed
“When a tree falls in a lonely forest, and no animal is nearby to hear it, does it make a sound?”.
This famous thought experiment was first seen in the 1910 book “Physics” by Charles Riborg Mann and George Ransom Twiss. This quote acts as the foundation of this piece as there are parallels that can be drawn across society, with the finance industry a prime example. Unfortunately, you will not be afforded the luxury of debating whether a tree does or does not make a sound, in finance it simply does not. Let me rephrase the saying to read “the intern has done some amazing work, but their manager is unaware of this. Has the intern done any amazing work?”. Perhaps this answer is slightly clearer than the analogy of the tree and the forest, but in short, the intern has not.
Hence why as an intern or a junior it is integral to ‘Talk your Book’, this refers to the practice of portfolio managers describing their holdings in addition to the state and performance of their overall portfolio to investors or fund managers. However, in this piece I will address this saying from a more colloquial angle. In this context, talking your book will refer to making one’s manager or important stakeholders aware of the ‘portfolio’ of tasks, work, and odd jobs you have done or are working on for the team, desk, department, or firm. This is to ensure that they are constantly aware of the work you have done previously and currently embarking on. It is crucial that they are aware of other tasks that may be consuming your time in addition to principal tasks that you have been set. It is integral to your success as an intern to be humbly boastful about what you have done and to use this to get even more from your manager, all of which is useful in securing the final role.
Why is this important?
Surely if I do good work, it will get recognised? Someone on the team will forward it to my manager or eventually, they will ask what I’ve been working on all week? Again, unfortunately not. This is not academia where everyone is given the same task and everyone’s contribution or submission will be given a ‘fair and honest’ review by the lecturer or marker. During an internship, placement, and graduate scheme you will be dealing with managers who have you at the bottom of their priority list, and if you are extremely unlucky, not on the list at all. This is because finance is a high stakes environment, and everyone has to earn their keep. So, seniors often do not have the capacity to spend considerable amounts of time making you feel comfortable. Often the emphasis is on sourcing your own work either from your direct manager, another manager, or subordinates on the desk, working for them and submitting work back to them throughout the program. Many managing directors do not wish to spend considerable hours training or checking up on you, so often the expectation is to get on with tasks by yourself or with the team. This is fine, but often in these scenarios interns will work until the early hours of the morning, provide high-quality work for a project or a team and just like a tree in a forest, go unheard for much of their time on the desk and unrecognised for their efforts. This is all the more important in a virtual setting where you definitely will not be seen physically. Hence, it is crucial that an intern makes their manager aware of their efforts in order to gain recognition for their work. As a result, the intern maximises their chances of converting their internship to a full-time offer.
Okay, so how do I go about this?
I would probably send it as a PDF document, simply because I prefer that format, but an end of week email will be also sufficient. Try to keep this clear and concise because as mentioned previously, you are probably towards the bottom of your manager’s priorities list, and they do not want to spend considerable time reading through the transcript of your conversation with an analyst (especially on a Friday afternoon). Bullet points are an effective way to present information if you want to be concise, as they are clearer to read than massive blocks of text. Personally, I wish I had done this more and felt even more ashamed when my mentor alerted me at the end of the internship that I should have initiated more of this type of contact. So, a weekly frequency is fine. Again, do not be afraid to identify times you have worked collaboratively, but also be sure to highlight times you have worked as an individual (because ultimately the decision will be made to hire or fire you, and not your team). In this weekly update, I would detail the conversations you have had around the department; maybe mention something interesting you learnt. I would also mention any tasks you were set, the results of those tasks and anything extra you did outside of the internship program or your desk rotation (if you think it will add value).
To avoid coming across as arrogant or smug, what I look to do is frame everything as an opportunity to learn. Therefore, always attempt to provide the necessary information but use it as a way to ask questions. Showing off what you did, but also showing humility and understanding that you do not know everything and that you are not the finished article. I would frame a question along the lines of:
“I read the report on the ‘benefits of CDS derivatives in a post-Covid world’ and made notes on it for the fellow interns, however, I don't quite understand why a fund would look to buy protection on a triple-A rated bond as it does not seem to have any default risk? Could we potentially arrange a quick call to discuss the notes made on the report and walk me through this concept”?
You are showing off what you have done and your contribution, but you have framed it in a way that shows you are still humble and hungry to learn more. By doing this, you have put your actions at the forefront of your manager's mind, kept them in the loop with what you have been doing all week as well as opening up a dialogue. The latter has two direct benefits. One, allows you to ask for more facetime with your manager; this allows you to schedule more calls, host more meetings, and just be more present on the desk. This is integral in building a personal relationship with your manager, something necessary in them assessing whether you fit the culture of the firm and can assume a full-time position. And two, provides you with an opportunity to leverage this for more learning opportunities. Internships are about how quickly you can grasp new concepts and put them to work. By completing your tasks you can use this as an opportunity to ask for more work to further your learning and sharpen your skill as a junior financier. This starts an ongoing cycle of work and feedback, which sees you build your knowledge base and become more equipped at the job, making your manager feel confident in making that decision to take you on full time.
‘Making a noise’ manifests itself in many different formats, for example, when asked to work in a group of interns for a group presentation, you can format all the slides, conduct the research and even write everyone’s scripts and still be seen as someone who played a minor role in the presentation. If an individual is quiet or lacks the knowledge to assume a vocal role in the presentation, all of their preparatory work for the showcase is ultimately futile; it is possible to be seen as a passenger in this vein.. As a result, something I always looked to do is highlight what I have done specifically during the presentation as well as highlight how I have worked with others on their parts or my part as well. Ticking boxes for individual contribution as well as collaboration and teamwork. This can easily be done by saying something along the lines of “after we decided to…., I took it upon myself to…”. This is how it may play out in a group scenario but there are several other scenarios in which you are expected not to brag, but to highlight your contribution. If you can successfully do this, your time as an intern will not only be enjoyable but you will be recognised for the hard work and dedication put in. I understand that finance can be cutthroat but, the focus should not be to put anyone else down as that is just an immediate red flag for any managing director looking to add you to his ‘team’. Make sure you also do not come across as overbearing, you are still an intern, and there is very little you can do that is going to be substantial for the team. If you come across cocky it will do you more harm than good.
So, while on your internship this summer, make some noise, good noise. Be bold, visible, and loud in your approach. Humbly brag about your accomplishments and use this as an opportunity to learn more and gain valuable facetime with your manager. Be confident, do not shy away from showing collaboration and teamwork, Ultimately, ensure that the emphasis is on you and your achievements because it is your internship. If you execute some of the tips provided, it is highly unlikely that the tree collapses in a lonely forest. The animal will hear it and take notice, so make some noise and make sure somebody hears it!