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Businesses everywhere are seeing a large supply of cheap expendable labor depart as interns have headed back to school. Often the butt of jokes, undervalued interns are criticized for being inexperienced, undertrained, and very temporary. However, my personal experiences with interns have shown that they provide valuable contributions to the company if the manager is mindful of a few things.

The Interns value to the company

Interns provide the invaluable gift of work hours. Not free, but cheap. Interns are the most straightforward answer to getting items complete that you just need additional employees for tasks in some form of neglect. An influx on work hours can provide the momentum to push that project past the small hurdles and goals to something sustainable. With the right manager, a good intern can provide a fresh perspective and have a desire to complete their projects before they depart.

However, as with all cheap labor, there is often a trap of providing just additional “busy work” which can be spent or projects that just keep the interns producing something, anything besides just breathing. Instead of working efficiently they might be asked to continue a long drawn out procedure.

Equally wasteful, is putting interns on side-projects that are not important enough for your full-time employees. If it’s not important enough for a full-time employee, then my team is not doing it. It’s not going to be a burden for an intern.

In an unfortunate situation involving a bad intern, you can still get some value by pulling other work off your more productive employees. Don’t throw too much valuable time after the bad.

Management responsibilities to them

There are many diverse reasons why an intern would want to come and work with a company. Future career prospects, the type of work at a company, and hopefully the company’s reputation for running an excellent internship program but I never know what drove them until I ask them. It is one of the first things I should be asking when they show up.

What are they expecting and how can you help them get that.

On this latest batch, I mistakenly fell into the trap of being “too busy” and forgot to complete this step. While we were able to provide many learning experiences and let them provide tangible impact to the business, I might have been able to do a better job at aligning work with their interests if I had not slipped up.

Immediate feedback is also a key component. Professionals write scores about how feedback can be uncomfortable for both parties. I find keeping the tone straightforward and prompting leading questions for improvement helped us finish projects better. Also, the intern doesn’t revert just back to receive mode. These conversations should be modeled more like ping pong, both parties should be speaking.

I’m not the best at stepping back and allowing the process to occur. Often I just want to jump forward and drive. Like most people I know, we feel we are good at driving tasks, and we want to get there faster. However, when I allow myself to get trapped in directing instead of questioning, the results are not as good, I kill innovation, and underserve the intern by thinking for them.

I am also somewhat selfish about my interns succeeding in the program. These are people who have been vetted and groomed by the company and have a large potential for future growth. Having a good network of new up and comers is a future investment in myself and my career. One day, I will need either the intern or someone they know to help out with a project or idea.

The more knowledge and experience I provide to the trainees.
The more I support their pursuit of goals.
The more I will be able to draw from them in the future.

Management and Leadership Testbed

During my one on one sessions with employees upward mobility is a top concern. (If it is not you have other concerns). There is no question that the largest resume builders are high visibility pet projects of management and interns are a close 2nd. Interns allow my full-time employees that trial run in leadership.

The largest misconception about the military is being stuck with a Drill Sergeant barking and spitting in your face 24/7. That can’t be further from the truth. My Marine Corp “internship” was marching around with an infantry platoon. I saw that the marines were teaching leadership from the top officer to the lowest ranking enlisted. My manager was a lance corporal with two months experience making sure I didn’t mess up. He was the one grooming me. That decentralized leadership and autonomy being taught all the way to the ground is a core competitive advantage that both Sailors and Marines share.

In my biased opinion, you should follow this model.

While the military has a constant flow of people moving in and out on rotations, my corporate team doesn’t get that luxury. The more junior analysts do not have anyone to train or practice leadership with on a rotating basis.

Interns solve this.

Suddenly, there is a new, inexperienced team member ripe for training. The influx of temporary employees, allows a manager to put even those junior analysts, in a role that requires the management of the intern. It’s a fantastic testbed for your full-time employees to learn to teach. After all, the worst thing that could happen is the teaching of bad habits, which leave after summer! Even a complete failure, will inform an employee which of their leadership tools were more or less effective.

Ready for the next batch?

Sometimes interns are viewed as a bother, someone to babysit during the summer as you move through your typical workweek. Although I understand the concerns about their limited experience and short tenure, I have also grown to view them as an essential part of our growing and developing m team and would urge you to seek interns out the best you can.

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