It’s almost summer and excitement is building. “I can get some help around here,” you find yourself thinking. "Sweet!” The next thought, however, isn’t so sweet. “Oh, wait, they don’t know anything! How am I going to get real help if I have to oversee everything they do? Isn’t that more work?”
Have you ever found yourself in this place? How do you make sure that interns not only have an enriching learning experience, but actually contribute to the overall work that needs doing? As we wrap up our summer internship season, I can share a few tips to get you to that “Sweet” spot.
Preparing for a successful internship program involves advance planning. I’ve found that things I stopped thinking about long ago are not obvious to interns in their first professional job. The social norms on a high school or college campus aren’t the same as they are in an office. Don’t assume that interns will just “catch on.” Spell out the office expectations right at the start. Punctuality, informing the team of unanticipated absences, being clear on the office dress code, and staying away from social media during office hours–unless it is part of the job–are a few of the items we address as part of our orientation. Yes, I’ve actually mentioned that a belt is required and flip flops are not office footwear.
1 - Assign interns mentors who are early in their careers.
A buddy can provide advice on questions interns might not want to ask their supervisors. It also gives our younger team members an opportunity to build their mentoring skills–a win-win.
2 - Be clear with interns about how work they’re doing impacts the overall organization.
Spending hours working out the logistics for an offsite meeting might not feel important, but knowing that the successful meeting met a particular organization objective gives it relevance. Digging through 10 years of reports might sound tedious, but it is also the opportunity to identify work trends, build a useful database, and produce a final document that supports future planning. The bigger picture helps interns know they are a vital part of our shared success.
3 - Make sure there is a mix of long-term and short-term projects interns can complete.
Set concrete goals along the way for long-term projects so they can measure their progress. I love to scratch a task off my to-do list and always assume our interns will too.
4 - Include the intern in planning which tasks they will undertake to play to their strengths and meet their learning objectives.
On the flip side, I don’t hesitate to assign them the occasional mundane task too. Every role has a combination of interesting and menial work, and learning to do it all with excellence helps them build the skills they need to succeed.
5 - Provide learning opportunities and encourage networking within all levels of the organization and with colleagues, partners, and clients outside your organization, just like you do for your full-time staff.
Today’s intern might be tomorrow’s employee. Even if we don’t have a position on the horizon, things change unexpectedly. Interns turn into great employees with shorter onboarding times and learning curves.
6 - Expect mistakes, provide encouragement, and be prepared to learn from them.
Creating the supportive environment for constructive feedback and providing the opportunity for interns to do it right is crucially important. This might be the first time they have failed in a long time. Make it a positive experience and an opportunity to build a habit of lifelong learning.
I asked our interns for their perspectives, and they said:
Be clear and specific on assignments. If research or talking with other team members is necessary, make sure interns know that is both expected and supported.
Make sure assignments are in writing. This gives interns a reference point to find clarity. You don’t have to do the writing–having interns document their assignments as a first step helps build mutual understanding as well as their skill sets.
Include interns in meetings and take time to make sure they understand what transpired. Spending time together after a meeting to answer their questions helps build understanding and prepares them to participate more fully in our work. When blocking your calendar for meetings, be sure to include this extra post-meeting time in your planning. You are likely clear on the next steps generated in a meeting, but your interns might not be.
Include their voice–you have access to a new perspective that can challenge the overall team in a good way. Use it! Encourage them to be curious and be prepared to act on their insights.
Our internship program provides us with extra manpower and fresh perspectives while providing our interns with a beneficial learning experience. Hopefully incorporating these suggestions will result in a “Sweet!” outcome at the end of internships for your organization and interns.