Interns are people too, and they are often really good people.
No, I'm serious.
As I talk to our college interns, I am constantly surprised at what other companies and organizations have their peers doing with what could be such an amazing mutual experience for everyone involved.
Interns are not for getting coffee.
Yes, at times, I will ask my intern to do some things like clean up the files on our shared drive or post a bunch of photos to a Facebook page, but even those are teaching moments.
I rarely ask my interns to do something that would not be in a similar job description if their internship was a paid position. In fact, and I’d like you to sit down for this, I actually shy away from giving them things that don’t give them useful experience because every time I do, I am decreasing the value that I am bringing to the table and therefore decreasing the amount that I can reasonably ask of them.
Let me say this, at Em-Media, we are still developing our program. We’re not even close to where we want to be, but we’re actively working on getting there. We’re doing that through a mixture of our own experiences, feedback from our past and current interns, and a healthy dose of borrowing from those companies and organizations that are already doing it well.
I’m intentionally putting a lot of effort into developing the Em-Media intern program for a few reasons, the least of which is boosting our bottom line with free labor and my hatred of walking 100 feet to the coffee pot.
Internships should be an equal value exchange just like all of your other healthy relationships. There are some very basic attitudes and foundation pieces to incorporate into your program development to give your company the best shot of making that happen.
1. We are all teachers and learners.
To be fair, let me just say that I love to mentor. My background is in education. I’ve always gravitated toward teaching, coaching, and advising. Ask me what some of my greatest professional achievements are, and I’ll point you to the social media profiles of some of my past students, athletes, and mentees. This makes working with interns especially rewarding for me.
The secret to being a good mentor is to never treat those who trust your guidance as actually being in need of your guidance. I always treat them as if they are destined for far greater things than I could ever imagine, and that along the way, they will teach me as much as I teach them. The moment you stop seeing yourself as the only one with something to offer, something dramatically shifts in the way you see and treat the interns you have and also affects the interns you recruit.
2. Stale experience is no better than untested skill.
The dirty little secret of an effective intern program is that you need the interns more than they need you. Sure, you are providing social proof to their skills and experience. Yes, they have to be closely monitored, and they do take additional resources to manage well. And, yes, it can be frustrating to train a batch of interns just in time for them to move on at the end of the year or semester if you can’t afford to keep them. But guess what, you’re frustrating too.
Your interns haven’t had a chance to become cynical yet. They haven’t had their crazy, outside-the-box thinking smashed against the rocks of conservative clients and corporate sterility enough times to care about “reining it in and playing it safe”. And, no matter how much you try to keep up to date on social platforms and technology, you are behind and outdated. Trust me.
They are leaner, faster, and more in-tune than you are, and you’re calling the shots. The world is telling them they need your approval to succeed, and that’s the one story most of them have accepted as a necessary evil. Your experience is just as important, but be careful not to think that it's more important.
So, you either go into this relationship mutually frustrated, or you leverage what each other has to become better. Interns make you young again. Interns can keep you fresh and bring new ideas to the table. Interns can teach you new ways of doing things and streamline your processes with new technology. But they have to know that you’re open to that. They have to know that you expect that from them. They have to know that you’re expecting them to make you better in return for the value that you can bring them--experiences beyond the hypothetical.
The goal is to infuse an organization’s collective experience with the new ideas and material that your interns can bring. If you’re not careful, and without planning, you get the interns untested skills working numbingly on the same stale ideas that were effective five years ago. That’s when everyone gets frustrated and decries the entire internship process.
3. Make things not coffee.
Having someone doing tasks outside of their skillset makes them feel undervalued. I understand that it can take some additional time early on to direct the talents of your interns, but the ROI of that time spent early on will make it worth your while.
Approach each intern or group of interns differently because they actually are all different. Use this as a time to experiment with some new content, platforms, or ways of doing things. Give them some ownership of a project.
Recently, we teamed two of our interns together to pitch us a project, one from inbound marketing and the other from production, and told them to come up with a brand awareness campaign as we push into the Pittsburgh market. They pitched us the idea. We singed off and told them they had two days to come up with a working timeline. They delivered, and we have been hands off other than to check in to see their direction once a week and to be available when asked. This is their project, and they know that this is their major deliverable during their time with us at Em-Media.
Yes, they are still helping with other clients and projects, but this is their baby. This is something they can get excited about and show what they can do. This is their chance to build their confidence in the "real world". How you treat those first few experiences will go a long way in forming their expectations of what their career could look like.
And, for our part, we get an entire campaign that didn’t take any time out of our week. It gives them something they can be working on at all times as well as some real piece of evidence that they can create and manage campaigns if you are unable to offer them employment after their internship is over.
4. The program is in the process.
The process that you create for onboarding, working, and providing feedback at the end will determine the success of your internship program. Em-Media’s internship program is still in the very early stages of formalizing these processes because we’ve only had a couple rounds of interns come through and we are building from those experiences and feedback.
I’ve built enough teams, companies, and programs to know that your process and systems for operating can make or break your ability to accomplish your goals and to be productive and profitable. This takes a lot of time of front with the guarantee, if done well, that it will save you time and money on the backend.
Take the time to do an orientation. Assign mentors to each intern based on skill set and personality. Invest in personality and skill testing for your interns to give them and your organization a better understanding of who they are, how they work, and where they are best suited. Have regular feedback sessions where you each have a chance to talk about the wins and challenges that they are facing. Create closed social media groups and invite executives to interact with the interns to show what they are doing as well as get more informal advice and mentoring.
Create an intern-friendly culture at your company where they feel valued not only in what you say but in the process that you have set up to help them succeed. If you do that, you will attract the best talent.
No one wants to get coffee. Everyone wants to feel valuable.
5. Be relational, not reactionary.
The strength of your company is built on your stability, and I believe that stable companies usually have some of the best internal relationships. Bad relationships lead to toxic work environments. Toxic work environments lead to turnover. Turnover leads to decreased production and a lost sense of continuity and depth of experience.
This carries over to your internship program as well. If you don’t approach your internship program with the idea of creating relationships that will last long after the internship has come to close, you are missing the boat.
If you find yourself saying, “Just give it to the intern,” you are doing it wrong.
Interns aren’t there for your convenience. They are trusting you to provide them with guidance and experiences that they don’t believe they can get on their own. They aren’t our indentured servants, they are a great way to pay-it-forward and pass along what we have learned. Interns are a chance to learn about the things that will be commonplace in 10 years before the rest of your industry knows they exist.
Everyone wants to reach millennials, but no one seems to want to work with them--or at least they think they don’t. I think that’s crazy.
First of all, I’m not entirely sure millennials are all that different than those that came before them. Secondly, they are a mirror of who we are because we raised them. Thirdly, they have so much to teach us about how this brave new world of connection and instant access will work and grow.
I for one will feel a lot better if this new knowledge is given some context and focused into making the the world, our communities, our industries, and the way our companies do business healthier and more profitable. Knowledge without the wisdom of collective experience is a dangerous thing. Collective experience without youthful energy will always grow tired and ineffective.