Leadership Lessons In Mentoring – ‘The Intern’

Posted on November 12th, 2015

Starring Robert de Niro and Anne Hathaway, comedy drama The Intern was released in cinemas across the UK in October. ‘The intern’ of the film, Ben Whittaker (de Niro) is a 70-year-old widower growing restless in retirement who decides to apply as a senior intern at an online fashion site founded and run by thirty-something entrepreneur Jules Osten (Hathaway).

‘So here I am… applying to be one of your interns because the more I think about this idea, the more tremendous I think it is. I have a ton of knowledge I can share… I want the connection, the excitement, I want to be challenged and I guess I might even want to be needed… Also, I want you to know, I’ve been a company man all my life. I’m loyal, I’m trustworthy and I’m good in a crisis. I read once, musicians don’t retire. They stop when there’s no more music in them. Well, I still have music in me. Absolutely positive about that.’

Appointed directly to intern under Jules (who is herself highly sceptical about the notion of ‘senior interns’), Ben sets about doing what he can to help his boss. Initially struggling to make any headway – Ben has been warned that Jules is very difficult to work with; she herself has warned him that ‘I’m not going to have a lot for you to do’ – the two begin to develop a fast friendship and the nominal ‘intern’ is soon becoming a real help for his boss.

Set in the fast-paced environment of a modern startup office, the main theme of the film is the importance of nurturing a sense of self-belief in your people. When Ben arrives at Jules’ company, he learns that she is really struggling to keep on top of things and has been advised to hand over management of the business to an external CEO. The company has grown so rapidly that her advisory team are afraid it might run away from them. The subsequent story of the film concerns how, with Ben’s support, Jules decides she wants to remain CEO, and that she is up for the challenge. He helps her to believe in herself more strongly.

Overall the film provides a brilliant example of how mentoring can work in the modern workplace, and how every employee can be involved in building a more successful culture.

Key Leadership Takeaways
  • Use courtesy. Ben makes headway in his relationship with Jules through a persistent and unfaltering courtesy. Even though he is almost completely ignored to begin with, Ben remains courteous and polite at all times – even practising his conversation style in a mirror. Ben is not looking for reward or recognition, but only to help Jules in whatever way he can, whether this means packing away boxes, driving her to work, or reviewing the company’s data purchase patterns.
  • Be supportive. Everyone needs a little encouragement from time to time and everyone is prone to self-doubt — even the CEO of a highly successful company. Jules makes the effort to do everything, to pack boxes and receive customer service calls. She even cycles around the office on a bicycle to save time. And when she is doubting her abilities, thinking that she must hire an external CEO to take over the job, Ben reminds Jules: ‘You started this business a year and a half ago by yourself and now you have a staff of 200+ people. Remember who did that.’ (Jules replies: ‘Who? I’m kidding. Thank you.’)
  • Know what you stand for. Ben has a very strong set of values, and though he is delicate in conveying his opinions, he is always ready to make firm and heartfelt arguments when needed. Ben has a core set of old-fashioned values which he believes in and sticks by: ‘I’m comfortable in a suit, so if it’s okay.’
  • Acknowledge hard work. Ben is always doing more than is asked of him, picking up on things that Jules might have missed. For example, he reminds Jules of how hard her underappreciated PA is working: ‘Becky was a huge help in this. You know she has a business degree from Penn..’ (Jules replies: ‘I know. I mean, I forgot, but I know. I’ll say something to her.’) Ben has his eye out for Jules, as well as for others working hard to support her.
  • Build a sense of purpose. Near the end of the film, when Jules is about to hire an external CEO to take over the running of the company (having finally found one she sort of likes), Ben reminds her that this company is her baby, that no one will care about it like she does: ‘To me, it’s pretty simple. Your company needs you and if you don’t mind me saying – you need it. Someone may come in with more experience than you, but they’re never going to know what you know. I never had something like this in my career. Not many people do. This big, beautiful, intricate thing that you created — it’s a dream isn’t it?… You should feel nothing but great about what you’ve done. Don’t let anybody take that away from you.’

This is a film well worth watching for any business leader interested in how mentoring can work in the modern office environment, and how everybody – even lowly interns – can be involved in building a resilient and thriving culture.

Read more about LDL Leadership & Management Training.

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