Interview with Michael Van Grinsven about the Northwestern M

by | March 22, 2010

The Northwestern Mutual Financial Network has aunique, longstanding internship program. Founded 42 years ago, the program allows interns to be independentfinancial representatives--something no other internship program offers.  I sat down to talk with Michael Van Grinsvenof NMFN about the internship program, what makes it special, and what NMFNinterns learn, achieve and take away from the experience.  This is the first in a series of two.

Vault: Tell us about the Northwestern Mutualinternship program.

MichaelVan Grinsven:  Thepurpose of the program has always been to try to give a student an opportunityto really test what it's like the do the job. We've had great success.  When theprogram was originally started, there were different pilots and approaches tosay how it would work best.  Do you wantthem to be an understudy to a rep?  Doyou want them to be an associate rep? What came back is students said, "We liked when we were most likethe rep."  So our interns arelicensed and have bonding liability insurance so they can be a representativein the marketplace and sell the product, whether it's insurance or investmentproducts based on their licensing.  Sothat's the piece that makes our program pretty interesting when I contrast itwith other companies in our peer group. 

About this program, probably the biggest thingwould be that function--they're inthe job--so when the time comes to make a career decision, they have gotten asclose as possible to what it would be like, should they go full time...They canactually relate to what it's like to pick up the phone and ask someone for anappointment, which is good and bad. 

When we look back on our interns, one of thethings we help them try to understand is that there is a natural businesscycle.  That in selling, in financialservices or any type of business, there is a percentage of people you're goingto call on that will become clients, there is a percentage that say no, and apercentage that may become clients then change their mind.  And there's the emotional side of that.  How do you manage when someone says no?  How do you manage when someone says yes butthen they change their mind?  That's thepart that what we find for our interns is: If they can build 10 clients intheir internship with us before they go full time, they've had enough yes's andenough no's and enough of those others to say, "OK I understand what it'sreally like.  So when I do make thisdecision and I experience it again now on a full-time level, it's not as if Ihaven't been there before." Certainly for those that do join us, that's a really hugeadvantage. 

One out of three of our interns that's withingraduation zone will make it a career. And the other two-thirds go on to do something else.  And what a lot of our interns tell us is thatin the process of meeting and developing this client base they're meetingpeople that offer them another opportunity.  Which is a positive for them...And that's oneof the, I don't want to say hidden benefits, but it's one of those unpublicizedbenefits, if you will, that we're glad will help students.  Because if it isn't going to be a fit for us,if we've been able to connect them with an opportunity they wouldn't normallyhave, that's a home run for them.  Again,because they're in the marketplace, they get those opportunities, versus ifthey were back in just our office where the only sphere of influence or thescope that they would have is the people that are with Northwestern.  That wouldn't be an opportunity they couldopen up.

We surveyed [our internship alumni] about threeyears ago.  And we went back and said--Ithink it was with the 40th anniversary so that probably makes sense--went backand said: "For those who didn't join us, tell us about the internshipexperience.  And is there any connectionto what you're doing today?"  And wewanted to get the demographics and the data that we could, as far asfinancially what they were doing, the type of professions they were in, thetype of learning they had while interning with us, though they're not with us professionally.  It was impressive for us to see how many ofthem were speaking favorably.

Vault: You talked about training--thatinterns have to be licensed and insured to be financial reps.  Being an independent rep is really achallenge for anyone.  Are there othertraining programs that interns undergo? 

MVG: Well, there's the initial training and thelicensing part.  And then after that,every week they'll have continued training. So they'll have training in their local office.  And there's a series we call a Fast Track,but it's a whole series of modules on client building, relationship building,product building and planning processes. So depending on where they're at, they continue to learn about how doyou build your business acumen and your client relationships.  How do you get deeper knowledge about theproducts.  And then the other side is howdo you plan and what are some of the tools and the resources that, based on theneed of that prospect, you'll probably need to have some of these diagnostictools that can help you figure out what would be the right recommendation.  But that typically is, again, on a weeklybasis.  A lot of it is as they continueto spend more time, there's that customized training where they might have someissue that they come across where a field manager or supervisor will sit downand say, "All right, here's the resources that you need, here's what youneed to understand."

A lot of the agencies will have monthly trainingsessions for all their representatives and invite their interns to join aswell.  And typically they're half-daysessions, a combination of some technical knowledge and then they'll probablybring in guest speakers or some outside people to visit with them.  And then that's an opportunity for them tonetwork with the rest of their associates in the office that they probablywouldn't have contact with on a daily basis, but through that, they can meetthe rest that they know of but don't have a lot of day-to-day interaction with.

In July, around the third week, we have ourannual meeting where we invite all of our representatives and the interns toMilwaukee for about a four-day event. And inside that four days, there's about two days that the interns arevery specific.  We have a college awardsceremony, where we'll invite all the interns and field managers.  We'll have about 3,000 people come to theevent and a combination of the leading interns, leading teams, the leadingoffices and then the leading managers are all recognized.  I don't want to call it the Academy Awards,but it has that kind of flare where there's special treatment and a lot ofrecognition.  They have a chance to getrecognized for the work they've done.  Inaddition, they go to all the other meeting events, and there's about 10,000people at that entire event.  We also havesome training sessions there. 

Vault: With so many people, Iimagine the vibe is very intern-focused. A lot of the programs really try to build a social aspect for the internclass.  I imagine that because you haveso many interns--you said 3,000 interns in regional offices around thecompany--that it's very valuable for them to all come together and meet.

MVG:  That's been a very valuable piece.  And depending on how successful they are,they may be the most successful person in their office and have the mostclients, so they feel as if they're kind of at the top.  Whereas now they meet these other individualsfrom other parts of the country and now they have an opportunity to bechallenged or to learn from these other individuals.  And that's been a part of the culture.  There's a lot of sharing of best practices orsuccess practices.  I was surprisedmyself, I thought, "Gee, why would all these people tell each other whatthey're doing well?  Because aren't theycompetitive?  Don't you want to kindakeep your competitive edge?"  Andactually, the culture of the company has been pretty good about this over theyears.  So the interns can see the topinterns or other interns and say "Here's how I'm managing my clientbase.  Here are the things that I'mlearning working with my clients and learning from my field leadership.  These are the things that I figured out on myown.  Here's what I'm doing now."  And that's particularly what goes a long wayfor these students. 

Vault:  Tell me about the structure of theinternship.  It's not a traditionalsummer internship.  It's a summersemester and then through college, right?

MVG:  The high season is the summer.  I myself joined at the beginning of asummer.  So during that timeframe you canwork full time.  And then during theschool year, 15 to 20 hours a week or whatever your time would permit.  And for me that worked out well.  Because for a lot of our interns who do startin the summer, they start to go out and they meet people and they start tobuild these relationships.  And with thebusiness cycle that we have, it's typically more from three to six weeks, sothe person you meet in August, you may not be able to meet them and then theymake the decision on what they're going to do before you go back to class.  Whereas [as a NMFN intern,] you can continueit on, you just have to pace yourself to match your school calendar.  And that's one of the other parts that theinterns have talked about--and that I remember this myself.  It is a double-edged sword because you are incharge of your time.  So you can donothing or you can be very productive. 

That's a fine balance when you're coaching theseinterns.  Sometimes you have to fail tosucceed.  And that's actually one thingthat we talked a lot about recently: Teaching these interns what it is to failand then to succeed.  Because it's thefailing that's been a challenge and it's always been a challenge.  Someone said that perhaps it's more of achallenge today.  That we have to preparethese students to understand that by failing you're succeeding.  And that sometimes, some of these experiencesthat you're having aren't a reflection of you, they're a reflection of theprocess you're going through.  So noteveryone says yes on the phone for your appointment, and it's not that you're abad person.  And it's not a case that youdidn't say things the right way.  It's justthe reality of that.  And we try to helpthem inside their heads by asking, "What are you thinking, what are youfeeling?  If you've been turned down foran appointment by people you thought would see you, how do you respond to that?"  So when you pick up the phone and makecontact with someone else, you're not carrying that experience into this newconversation.  And those are valuablethings for all of us to learn, but particularly for a young person who maybehasn't done that before.  Those areimportant things to set up that environment for success.  That they realize, OK, this is normal, andthis is what will happen in my process of contacting so many people. 

Stay tuned for the second installment of my talkwith Michael Van Grinsven, in which we discussed how the program has evolvedand how the recession has affected the program.

The Northwestern Mutual Financial Network is oneof Vault's2010 Top 10 Finance Internships. Read the full Vault NMFN internship profile here.

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