Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Take the Experience First

It doesn't take much for me to find a reason to cite one of the grandmasters of American business — Harold Geneen, leader of International Telephone & Telegraph Co. in its heyday decades of the 1960s and '70s. Close readers of Directors & Boards, our monthly e-Briefings, and this blog come across numerous citations to the managerial wisdom of Hal Geneen — such as this, and this, and this.

My thoughts again turn to Geneen in reflecting on the hornet's nest being stirred up by the New York Times article on unpaid internships. The essence of the article is that most companies that have unpaid interns are likely violating federal law on minimum-wage and other working standards.

Here is the passage from the NYT article that is riveting attention: " 'If you're a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren't going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,' said Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the [Labor Department's] wage and hour division."

This shot across the bow of Corporate America is not being well received. We can count on the Wall Street Journal to mount a more rational counterpunch. Its "War on Interns" editorial today takes the emminently sensible position that unpaid internships aren't "exploiting young people. It's letting young people exploit an opportunity."

The late and great Hal Geneen would agree. Here is how he once put it: "You get paid with two coins in life — money and experience. Take the experience first. The money will come later."

There is an extension of this unpaid intern controversy to board life. Many executives believe that serving on nonprofit boards will eventually yield an offer to join a corporate board. Others pooh-pooh the notion that nonprofit board service is a stepping stone to a public-company boardroom. Where I come down on this, not surprisingly, is in the Geneen camp — take the board experience first.

First of all, accept the nonprofit board invitation if you believe in the mission of the organization and, second, if you believe that you can help support and advance the organization through your board involvement. A distant motivation is if you think it will get you higher up on the opportunity scale for a corporate directorship. That may happen — just as an internship may open up employment options — but "take the experience first" and have a spirit of openness for whatever might come later. If Geneen is right — and one didn't do well betting against him when he was in his prime empire-building years with ITT — you will be rewarded later.

I will be monitoring how the unpaid internship debate plays out, but I will continue to share Geneen's sound advice with the students I teach at Temple University.