Interview with Michael Van Grinsven about the Northwestern M

by | March 30, 2010

Welcome to Part Two of Vault's interview withMichael Van Grinsven of Northwestern Mutual Financial Network!

NMFN has a unique, longstanding internshipprogram.  Founded 42 years ago, theprogram allows interns to be independent financial representatives--somethingno other internship program offers.  Isat down to talk with Michael Van Grinsven about the internship program, howthe program has changed over the years and what effect the recession has had onthe program, the company and the interns, themselves.  This is the second and last in the series.

Vault:  How has Northwestern's internship programchanged over time?  Particularly over thepast few years.  It is 42 years old andvery solid, how has it evolved?

MichalVan Grinsven:  Acouple of examples come to my mind right away. One is that when we interview, we have adapted and applied a groupsetting for initial meetings.  We findthat students are probably more inclined to come in for that informationalsession than for what we might have had in the past, which was set up in anindividual, one-on-one interview basis. So we'll have some group meetings, or group interviews almost, to beginthat process.  And that has opened up anopportunity for more people to take a look at us, and it allows them to asksome questions or hear questions that they might have thought of or might not have thought of.  That's helped us.  Some of this is based on scale: We can seemore people.  But it also is that there'sa much higher comfort level. 

Then once they get to a certain point, we do theone-on-one interviews.  And a lot of timeswe give them assignments.  They reallylike assignments.  Which is reallyinteresting.  For example, we might say:"You've probably done your research on Northwestern Mutual and you wouldexpect if I was to tell you about Northwestern that I would tell you all thewonderful things about the company and you'd expect me to, and to the degreethat you would hear it, you'd filter that to whatever extent.  But it really doesn't matter what I thinkabout Northwestern.  If you joined us oryou become part of us, it's what you think. So what we're going to ask you to do is we're going to send you out withan assignment and the next time we're together, I'd like you to presentNorthwestern Mutual.  Why the company,why the internship and then why you.  Andwhen you come back, we'll give you 10 minutes to share what you have found andwhat your thoughts are."  And sothat's been just a huge open door for them. Again, you know, a lot of them will go to the website or go withwhatever material we give them.  Butthey'll all come back and just be excited about the company. 

Most students we come in contact with tell usthey've got good communication skills. We do a lot of training on presentation work, we do a lot of training onsales techniques and how to build clients. When [you come back for the presentation part of the interview process],we'll be able to give you some feedback on how we see you, even just aspreliminary as it might be.  What aresome of the strengths we see in your communication style, your presentationstyle.  What are some things you mightwant to keep in mind for the future.  Andso when they come back--and most of them do a good job--they'll do that andthat'll help us get some clarity about what they think about the company andthen we can give them some feedback.  Soif they don't go further, we feel we've given them some value: To say, "Inthat selection process it wasn't the right fit. But they did tell me, 'Here is what I'm doing well, and here's a couplethings that I could improve on.'" And I think they like that.  We'vehad a really positive response.  They'llsay "OK, this isn't just about you holding all the cards and if I say theright thing, then you’re gonna offer me the internship.  It's kind of a chance to present and you cangive me some feedback and I can get a connection with this company.  And if it fits, great; and if it doesn't here'ssomething I can take from it."

Vault:  A lot of students today are just sendingtheir resumes out into the void and then they don't hear anything.  So to get feedback is great, particularlyfeedback they can take to the next interview if things don't work out.

MVG:  Another thing that comes to mind is parents..  You're probably well aware of that [ed. the increase in helicopter parents--andyes, I am!].  We'veactually embraced that and we do have a parent/significantother/spouse/whatever it might be event that we hold early in the year.  I've been to several of them across thecountry.  So probably either right beforetraining or right during training, they'll invite the parents either to theoffice or to a country club or wherever the event is being held.  And they'll describe the program for both theparents and the interns.  Then we'vetypically had the interns go with a group to talk more about the internship andthings that are coming up.  And we've gota session just for parents.  The parentsask some great questions--they want to know certain things.  Like, OK, how does the internship work?  This is what my son or daughter has told meand here's what I still don't understand, or here's what I've heard from otherparents or from other information you've sent. And that's been really helpful. And we do continue to communicate with them.  Typically there's some sort of newsletter oremail sent out to the larger group to say "Here's an update on what'sgoing on with the program." 

But what the parents have told us is: "Idon't know what you guys are doing, but my son or my daughter is getting up atthis time when they used to sleep in. They're getting up, they're putting on the business suit, they'regetting professionally engaged.  Theirconversations are much more structured, they're not just randomthings."  The parents are actuallyimpressed.  Even in the short time thatthey've had contact with us, they see their son or daughter developing.  And there's no better compliment than to havea parent see that. 

Vault:  It sounds like the interns feel a lot ofownership for their work that they don't always feel in many internshipprograms and in college life in general. Northwestern Mutual interns really feel that this is their work, that no one elseis really doing it for them, it's not structured, it's not arbitrary.  It's theirs and theirs alone. 

MVG:  Part of it is the compensation.  Some internships are unpaid.  In this one, we have a stipend that we startthem with and then they earn commissions on the sales.  And that can be very scary for the parents orcan be very confirming for the parents depending on what their work experienceis like. 

We have always used the broad numbers.  You can earn $2,000 to $5,000 in asemester.  So if you do this over thesummer, that's a fair amount that you'll earn between the stipend andcommissions.  If you succeed and you gofurther, you can do more.  We had anintern who earned over six figures!  Hewas out on the West Coast and this guy was a--I don't know if he'll ever comearound again, he's like Halley's Comet, only comes around every 75 years.  But he was a unique individual...he was verydriven, he's doing well with the company today. 

Vault:  That's a great success story.  It's very impressive. 

MVG:  There are lots of successful ones.  Each year we'll have our top 10, and they'reprobably earning $25,000+.  And that'svery successful, we're very happy for them. But what they do see is, they see "OK, if I could do this, whatcould I do post-graduation?"  Andthat's where they get excited.

Vault:  A question that I hate to ask, but kind ofhave to is: How has the recession and the economy affected the internshipprogram if at all?  In some situations,it's been a good thing for internships. Companies are hiring more full-time their interns for full-timeemployment, for example. 

MVG:  It is interesting.  From a recruiting standpoint, it's gonewell.  We're on track for our goal as acompany.  We think we'll be at 4,000interns by 2016.  This past year, we hada little over 2,500 and this summer and through the 2010 calendar year, wethink we should have about 2,800--that's at least what the pace wouldindicate.  So I knew that recruiting wasgoing to continue.  I thought, ifanything, the recession would open up some doors for some students who mighthave had other opportunities.  And basedon the opportunities available, they would pick us and we would pick them.  What I wasn't sure was their productivity wouldbe affected. 

With the recession, our market analysis tells usthat typically people will sell within five to 10 years of their natural age,which is very straightforward.  So if I'mthinking, "OK, if I'm 21, 22, that means the 25- to 27-year-old is mynatural market.  And then if I do somejoint work, I might be able to work with people in their 30s."  What we found is it actually went up thisyear.  We had just under 10,000 clientsthrough our interns the previous year; this last year we went over 11,000.  So it went up and actually grew better thanthe recruiting growth.  So it wasn't justby having more interns.  Some of it is, Ithink, their training.  They may have hadto work harder to get the clients, but that probably worked to their benefit becausethey're better equipped to work the business. 

I was preparing myself for that, to say:"OK, how will this play out?" And we tracked it every month. Week by week, month by month, and everybody was very pleased.  But I think some part of it is that we'vecontinued to work on the training side of these interns and helped them to getin front of their clients. 

Check out the firstpart of my interview with Michael Van Grinsven, in which we discussedwhat makes the internship program special and what NMFN interns learn, achieveand take away from the experience.

TheNorthwestern Mutual Financial Network is one of Vault's2010 Top 10 Finance Internships. Read the full Vault NMFN internship profile here.

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