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It was 6:00 AM on May 22nd, 2017 and I was out of bed before the alarm had begun ringing. On most days I hit snooze once or twice, but not today. Today was the first day of my internship at Quicken Loans, the largest mortgage lender in the country. It had been five months since I had signed my acceptance letter and I could not wait to learn about the world of mortgage banking. Most of the first day was filled with learning about the company, how to use the computer systems, the jargon of the industry, and finding my way around the office. Around 3:00 PM, they sent us off to meet our respective leaders for the first time. My boss’s name was DJ. I was very excited to intern with DJ because he had a great reputation as a leader, was one of the highest-ranking people for his position, and had a wealth of experience in mortgage banking. Four other interns and I made up our intern team assigned to DJ for the summer.

We introduced ourselves and DJ explained there was one very important piece of information he needed from us to make the summer experience as effective as possible. The question he asked was simple, yet it took me most of the summer before I truly understood the power of this question. He asked us:

Why are you here?”

I thought hard about what I would say and how I would respond. A million responses raced through my mind. Finally, I enthusiastically replied, “Well who wouldn’t want to be here? It’s Quicken Loans! Everyone knows this is a great company to work for, provides great customer experience, and is making a large impact on the city of Detroit.” I was proud of my answer and thought it would impress my newly-assigned boss.

Attending a Sales Conference

DJ shook his head and laughed, then waited for someone else to answer. All four of us took a stab at the question, and more-or-less had the same answer with slight variations. He leaned on the conference table, smiled, and said, “You just listed all of the blanket reasons for being here. Yes, all of those are true, but they are true of everyone here. Sure, everyone knows Quicken Loans is a great company, but what I am looking for is for you to tie in your personal story to being here today. Why is it that Quicken Loans is the next chapter in your book? How does Quicken Loans fit into your story?” He told us to think about this question and come back to him with an answer sometime over the next week.

DJ pivoted to other topics, explaining what we would be doing, who we would be working with, and outlining some of the basics of job, but I just could not shake what had just happened. Why was the question of “why” the first thing he had started with, especially if he already knew how we were all going to answer it before we even answered?

I began the internship and jumped into the work with both feet, though DJ’s question weighed heavy on my mind. After a week of mulling it over I came up with my answer. I swung by DJ’s office and recited my newfound purpose: “Quicken Loans is the next chapter in my book because I want to learn how to sell, communicate effectively, and grow my business acumen. I know that Quicken will help me achieve these goals because, when I attended the Quicken Loans Sales Workshop earlier in the week, I learned a lot about sales, listened to leaders speak who were able to communicate very effectively, and met a former banker who went from a brand-new banker to a ‘top 5 banker’ in the company in 6 months.” It was a mouthful, but it was all true, and most of all, it was mine.

DJ carefully wrote this down on a sticky note that had my name on it, put it in his desk, and simply said, “thank you.”

Me and the Intern Class (DJ is in the Middle)

June and July flew by in a blur of new experiences, learning all about the mortgage industry. My intern class was constantly learning, building new skills and being challenged to forge their leadership styles. DJ proves to be a great leader who worked hard to keep a fun atmosphere while helping us grow. I had not yet figured out the correlation, but I did notice a subtle pattern emerging with other leaders in the company. A few of the Directors, several of the Vice Presidents, and all the Senior Vice Presidents I met had a similar sticky note about each of their direct reports. It seemed no coincidence that the higher up the leadership chain, the more likely they were to know the “why” of their employees – and yes, even the interns. I still did not fully appreciate the importance of this pattern, but soon would.

August had just begun and my summer school schedule started to heat up. I was on the home stretch of my summer classes all while I working on a critical project at Quicken directly with a VP that was due before the end of my internship. As if that were not enough, fencing practice had started, and as one of the leaders of the team, I knew the demands on my time would increase. It was all a bit overwhelming, and the toll of a busy schedule began to show at the office. I was slower than normal at completing my morning reports, I wasn’t engaging with the team in my usual upbeat manner, and instead of asking for as many tasks as possible like I always did, I was doing only what was asked of me. DJ pulled me aside and asked what was going on. I told him I was stressed, that I had a lot going on at work and school, and I just could not find the energy. He went back to his desk, grabbed something out of the drawer, and came back into the office. I was surprised to see that it was my sticky note from three months prior with my “why” written on it.

He asked me if I remembered what I wrote, and embarrassingly, I could not tell him. For most of the summer I was in tune with the purpose I had given him, but in that moment, I had become so overwhelmed and focused on all that was going wrong that I lost touch with the reason I began down the path of my internship. DJ knew exactly what was happening and had me read my sticky note aloud. DJ explained, “the reason I had everyone write down their ‘why,’ and made sure that ‘why’ was tailored to each individual, is because when the going gets tough this is what keeps you moving forward. It is easy to perform well when everything is going right, but when things go wrong, you need to remember the ‘north star’ you are following.” I was amazed at DJ’s insight and his ability to snap me back to what mattered most. He pat my shoulder, smiled his characteristically warm smile, and I returned to my work completely recharged.

Getting Ready to Fence

I finished out the internship with a renewed focus and new-found enthusiasm. The VP in charge of the mission critical project on which I was working even asked me to return to present the project with him at his quarterly review meeting. I was the first intern to present at a meeting of this level in the history of the company, and the VP said it was because of the quality of my work during the last few weeks of the internship.

The internship may have ended, but that lesson has stuck with me ever since. I am currently a Junior at Wayne State University, and this past fall I was bestowed the honor of being named captain of the fencing team. Learning from DJ, I had every person on the team write down a goal for the season and why they are on the fencing team. I have used their responses to establish individual relationships with each person and motivate them on a more personal level. During weight training, if they are not lifting as much as they could, instead of yelling, “come on, you can do more,” I approach them and say, “I guarantee that if you work harder in the weight room, you will get stronger which will help you get closer to [insert specific goal].” Or if we are at a tournament and they suffer a tough loss, instead of just telling them to “shake it off,” I remind them why they are here and help them remember their North Star; just as DJ did for me. This almost always puts things into perspective, propelling my teammates back into the high-performance zone. Using the “start with why” technique as a foundation of my leadership style, I have been able to connect with every individual at a very personal level to truly understand their reason for being there and help them realize their full potential.

This season, I am happy to report that we are undefeated and have a better record than we did at this point last season. All credit goes to my amazing team for the hard work and dedication they put in every day, but I’d like to think that DJ played a small part in our success by helping instill a sense of personal purpose in each one of us.

About Brendan Johnson

Brendan Johnson a Junior studying finance at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan where he is a finance tutor and the captain of the men’s fencing team. When he is not in the classroom or on the fencing strip he enjoys playing chess, reading books, and the occasional Xbox game. Brendan can be reached at: bman610@gmail.com.

Thank you to DJ for allowing me to feature him in this article. Click here to view his LinkedIn profile.