FYI: Interns are not paper cups.

Stop treating them that way.

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This is the story of how I went from intern-awkward to intern-awesome. And the truth is, it barely has to do with anything I did — and mostly with what I didn’t do.

From manager to manager, I want to confess it took me a few years to truly understand the power and potential of having an excellent, motivated and talented intern on my team. Each year, I accept one academic-year intern and 1–2 summer interns. Each year — it gets so much better. Internship programs are on an art and an investment, so if we do it well, we really all gain.

The mistake a lot of fresh managers make is, “they’re free labor, what’s the risk?” Except interns are not ‘free’ because we don’t exist in a slave economy.

There is a cost to hosting interns; even if you somehow aren’t paying them with an hourly wage, a subsidy, or even lunch and travel benefits, you are paying with office space, supplies, computer use, and accountability if something goes wrong. You are paying a student in college credit or required experience to advance to the next stage of their young career. This may not show up in your budget, but an intern absolutely makes an impact on office atmosphere, productivity, and culture.

Bottom line: If we treat our interns like ‘free labor’, chances are, our employees also feel like ‘under-appreciated slaves’.

The biggest mistake I made when I started accepting interns: I didn’t really use discretion and I didn’t take the interview process seriously. I did the same thing a lot of other managers do — I thought, “worst case, they sit here all day and I don’t lose; I just don’t gain.”

In the words of probably the worst internship manager ever — Willy Wonka — WRONG. The toll on the rest of the team is enormous when the intern is a drain because,

  1. her skills don’t line up so she isn’t useful,
  2. he isn’t mature enough to be more than a distraction to your office,
  3. she actually wasn’t interested in what you do and just wanted to fill credit.

Have a phone call, bring them in to meet you. Pass their CV on to your team mates, and do a social media check. Like any other hire, this one may be temporary but will have an impact — whether negative or positive.

Bottom line: If you take the time to interview correctly, your interns will be an excellent addition, with lots of outsider perspective, curiosity, motivation and energy, bringing along their fresh skills and native talent.

In the beginning, I accepted interns and they ‘reported’ to me. Except, as a director, I didn’t have any time to really sit and give them prep, training or guidance. I’d rush past, en route to a management meeting, and see them sitting at their desk, doing the digital equivalent of twiddling their thumbs.

The big change was actually getting my entire team involved — in hiring and managing. I share the CV with the whole team to weigh in. We welcome the intern together in a team meeting, and s/he sits with each team member one- on-one as an orientation. This was a great way to figure out her/his skills and where they’d be best applied, as well as come up with relevant projects. Our interns are expected to join every team meeting and contribute like any other employee in the room. And when s/he speaks up — we listen.

Bottom line: If you manage a team, let the team work alongside the intern and figure out at the ground level where s/he can have the most impact in their work.

Sure, you can sit a student down and give them data entry. No matter how much you assign, they will always need breaks or they might finish it faster than you calculated. And then what?

Before we start, I ask my intern candidates what they want to see they accomplished when they look back at the end of the internship. Then we create a ‘master project’ with a roadmap and the right team members to guide them.

Bottom line: Let your interns take initiative and design their ‘master project’ for the summer. Make sure you can support it.

Interns are basically future employees in the workplace. Look at all your co-workers — even the very worst ones. They all have some innate talent and some skills they’ve picked up through experience. Your interns are future that. You have a crazy amount of power now to help nudge them in the right direction. Exercise their talent, dig in to find where their skill potential is hiding and pull it out. Then — use it!

Bottom line: Interns are you, just a decade or so younger and less experienced. Find their super power and push them to use it.

  • If you manage a larger team, let one of your team members manage the intern. Choose someone with management potential — it’s a great exercise and CV perk for your full-time employee.
  • Kick off the internship with a ‘welcome packet’ that is design to offer background on your industry, competitors, and company. Send it before the intern starts. It’s also handy for first-day work while s/he waits for computer setup, etc.
  • Leave time for check-ins; schedule a half an hour at the beginning of the internship, mid-way, and on the last day. These meetings with a corporate manager are sometimes the best perk you can offer a student intern — insight into your experience, feedback on their work, and a chance for them to ask questions.

Big thanks to all my wonderful interns over the years.

Written by

Taking notes. I’m curious. This is a series of insightful articles with career and marketing themes. I write (a bit more often) at lizraelupdate.com.

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