Editi Effiong: Experience- Even those bad job and internship opportunities are good for you

by Editi Effiong

Monday last week, on the verge of signing a major deal, the client’s procurement team sent an email requesting discounts on our costing. The team member who was following up on that transaction was not really a client management person — she had studied marketing, and was working with the strategy team. However, on this project, I’d seconded her to the client management team, and the CM lead on that project had called in sick.

Her immediate thinking was to escalate the client’s request to me — the right thing to do, but I asked her to handle it. Instead of calling the client to fulfil their request, I went through a 5 minute conversation of how procurement negotiation works, how to move from the 20% the client wanted, to 12% (via 10% temporary). The client called back in 5 minutes, and I listened in on the conversation, but she handled the negotiation.

Within a few minutes of doubting her abilities, she had handled and won a negotiation with a procurement team. It wasn’t her job, but the experience will never be lost, and the next time she’s faced with a negotiation, she’ll have experience to draw from. This is how experience works, you never know where the chance would come from, but when it does, you grab it.

This real story is exactly how we treat interns and young people who work with us. In honesty, I do not know any other way to ‘train’ people. People build experience by doing things — it’s hard to ‘learn’ experience, you have to experience it. The lady in the story above worked with us in 2014 as an intern for a few weeks, went off to school, and returned last year to a full time role.

Oo Nwoye wrote a very concise blog on this topic, which I think is important to read. Oo is much better at brevity and intellectual synthesis than I am, so if reading long prose is not your thing, you probably will be fine just reading his. But in adding to Oo’s points, I want to say it’s in every young person’s self interest to get as much experience as they can, in the shortest possible time, in order to grow in this brutal market.

One of the complaints I read when the internship issue was discussed what that companies give full time responsibilities to interns. The problem — what is a full time responsibility? We recently hired a data science intern, who is very smart but never had any experience with real life applications for the models she created. We had a pitch coming up, and she was drafted into the research team to build the data models for our proposals. She ended up doing the ‘night before’ vigil with us, and left office at about 9pm. The rest of us left at about midnight. Does this count as cruel and unusual punishment?

The next day, we had her join us for the pitch. This was a session with an EMEA Marketing Director of a global brand, and she got a chance to not just sit in this meeting for a real sales pitch, but also provide feedback. The question then comes — how could she have got this opportunity without getting the big girl task? How long would she have waited to get such an opportunity if she wasn’t getting real work done?

Experience is an important ingredient in growing a career. As college education becomes the mean, experience becomes the differentiator. It’s important then to learn much and learn fast. Every opportunity to learn is important. The lessons learned will prove invaluable in the future, whether they be good lessons or bad ones.

I learned this through, well, experience.
One of the most interesting periods of my life was in my last job before I started my company. It was a small company which imported mid-to-premium European pharmaceutical/cosmetic products and distributed same within Nigeria. When I came in, I was supposed to manage a technology/change management project and leave, yet after a few months, I was getting drafted deeper and deeper into the operations of the company, including marketing and supply chain management.

I quickly recognised that this was an important learning opportunity — how to run a real business. The beauty was that this was a greenfield, which allowed me to experiment with my ideas and grow on within someone else’s business. The risks for me were limited, so I spent nearly one year working, mostly unpaid, but learning furiously.

I entered everyday working like I owned the business, took on responsibilities wherever I could, including overhauling the entire supply chain, and helping the boss negotiate the companies first revolving credit system with a German company. To make this happen, I had to create marketing trend sheets for the first time in my life, and design guidance and forecasts for the next few years, which our partners based their credit facility on.

In the winter of 2009, I stumbled, red-eyed into my first export contract negotiation meeting and it changed the way I approached decision making forever. I was made product manager in Q1 2010.

My experience at that job wasn’t the best in the world. My bosses were brothers who had built a teenage monster out of nothing but sweat and grit, and had little time for managing people. I was a heady kid who was biting on so much responsibility, sometimes it was hard to chew down, and often got caught in the middle of family business feuds. But the prize was there — I had a two year timeline for myself to stay there and learn everything I could.

In October 2010, I put in a 3-month notice to exit the company. In the months leading up to my departure, I took on even more, learning as much as I could. On December 31, 2010, I took my stuff in a little box and said my goodbyes. Anakle started on January 3, 2011.
The summary of my time at my last job wasn’t always that simple. There were some very difficult times, sometimes abusive. I earned less than while I was running my own gigs, but it was important to build experience, even if it meant earning nothing for some of that time. I also did not appreciate the leadership we were getting, but this was also an important lesson, to know what to not do in my own business.

When I left, my bosses decided I owed them, even for the times I wasn’t paid (actually they owed me months of pay) — thankfully I could afford to write them a cheque for that. But it was important to look past that and see the good that the job did; when I started my business, I did it with very solid experience under my belt.

I still visit my old boss, and thank him every time for the opportunity he gave to me. I wouldn’t be earning 30x my annual pay from back then if I hadn’t built experience under him. When I first got into that job, I was wet behind the ears, when I left, I was blessed with battle scars and reinforced with grit.

So we’re talking about internships today and bad job experiences, and all I can say is that every experience is an opportunity to learn — if it’s a great experience, learn. If it’s a bad experience, take that experience, put it through a filter and learn how to not repeat that terrible experience with yourself or the people you lead in the future.

Our ‘people model’ at Anakle comes down to three simple words: smart, happy people — we hire smart people, and must keep them happy so they can continue learning and improving. It rules everything we do, how we treat people, how we learn, reprimand and even when we let people go.

I don’t think we’ve lived up to the full prescription of building a happy workplace, but there is a constant movement towards improving the exoerience. The real reason we spend so much time trying to improve experience goes back to my former job — I didn’t learn how to treat people there, but I did learn how NOT to treat people, which is an equally important lesson.

Against the general street advise I have seen about dealing with bad internship/job experiences, I would rather advise to go into any opportunity life presents with a focus on learning. Try getting as many internship opportunities early in life, take on as much as you can, learn everything, and always look at the big picture. Let your decisions be guided by your life’s goals.

Because, in the end, that’s all that really matters. You.

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