I don’t need a list to tell you what will make an intern successful. I don’t need a list to tell you what traits will get my attention, and I certainly don’t need a list to tell you what will make an intern memorable.
There’s one thing, one trait that each great intern has no matter what their background and skillset.
They want to be mentored.
Don’t get me wrong, positive qualities like ambition and a strong resume are nice, but they're really only helpful when coupled with a desire to learn. Somehow, the desire part of professional development always gets pushed to the bottom of our interview checklist. For me, it is at the top.
I find it much easier to teach skills than I do to find interns that are open to the kind of criticism and critique that it takes to see real growth and achieve their maximum potential.
Here are 5 ways to tell that your intern is really looking for a mentor.
1. A mentor-worthy intern will ask a lot of why questions.
My wife and I have a blended family of six wonderful children. On a daily basis, I get asked hundreds of questions ranging from, “Can I have a glass of milk?” to “Why am I not allowed on Snapchat?” I answer both, but I enjoy answering the second more as a father. I would rather answer a why question because I am able to give them pieces of the puzzle that can be applied in more than one area of their life.
The same is true for an intern. The very nature of their position will require them to ask a lot of questions about how you do things or want things done--though this quality should be lessened over time if your intern program is structured correctly. What immediately gets my attention is when an intern wants to know the thought and philosophy that goes into why we do things the way we do.
Maybe that sounds really annoying to you. If so, you probably shouldn’t have interns or mentees.
2. A mentor-worthy intern doesn’t have compensation as their primary goal.
We currently don’t offer any kind of formal compensation to our interns. We are still a small agency, and while that is my ultimate goal, we’re not quite there yet. For that reason alone, I am aware that we are going to lose a lot of great interns to larger companies that have even a small stipend in a more attractive market.
I see a lot of companies lower their expectations for their interns because they can’t offer monetary compensation. Instead, we try to offer some other creative ways to add value to our interns like personality assessment tools, industry certifications, and networking opportunities in the community.
However, over time, I’ve noticed that this is far less of an issue than I thought it would be when it comes to attracting quality internship candidates. I believe interns truly begin to look at the experience provided by the company rather than what the direct compensation will look like.
3. A mentor-worthy intern wants honest, constructive feedback.
I’m not interested in an intern that is there just for the credit or to say they had an internship. They bore me, and to some degree they make me frustratingly angry because I feel like I should have done a better job of finding someone who could have really sucked the marrow out of the opportunity.
To hold my attention and be memorable, you better show me that you’re hungry. Now, a few paragraphs ago, I told you that I didn’t necessarily care about ambition, and that remains partially true. I wanted to give you a little context first. Ambition can very easily turn into wanting something at any cost and the least amount of effort. It can be blind. It can be obnoxious, and it can be premature.
What I am specifically talking about is someone that is hungry to learn. I want someone that puts everything they have into every project because they know that the feedback from me or their mentor is going to be honest, challenging, and constructive.
People bash millennials all the time, but for my money, I have found them to be very open to these kinds of relationships. Many of them have been coddled their entire life and handed out a box full of participation ribbons. They want more, and if you can give it to them, the good ones will keep coming back for more.
4. A mentor-worthy intern wants to prove themselves to you.
This one is tricky because it’s a two way street. You have to earn this one by setting up a solid program and building a strong relationship with your interns.
But, honestly, until you have one of these interns, you don’t truly know how rewarding an internship program can be.
Now, let’s be clear, there are people pleasers out there. That’s not who I’m talking about. I’m talking about the intern that you’ve challenged, the intern you’ve seen so much promise in that you reject an entire piece they’ve worked on because you know they can do better, and the intern that keeps coming back for more no matter how frustrated and even angry they get at you. All of those situations are teaching moments.
I once had a mentee bring me a piece of writing that she was so proud of, and while it was strong writing, it didn’t meet the contextual needs of the client. The tone was off as was the point of view.
I believe I told her that it was a fine piece of writing for another project, but that it wasn’t what I was looking for from her, and then I proceeded to make it bleed with grammatical errors. She was furious and hurt. She balled up the paper and threw it in the garbage. She didn’t talk to me for two days. On the third day, she showed up to my office, slammed a piece of paper down on my desk and walked away.
The piece was brilliant. I called her in, smiled, and told her that it was her finest work to date and that I expected this level of thoughtful work moving forward. I also told her that she had proven she was worthy of more difficult assignments.
We still talk to this day, and she still runs things by me. The moment someone respects you enough to want your approval is the same where you decide what kind of impact you want to have on their life. It's a pretty cool thing, but a responsibility none-the-less.
5. A mentor-worthy intern does more than expected.
Interns aren’t employees. You need to remember that first and foremost. They are students or interested in learning more about what you do. In fact, from a legal perspective, forgetting this can get you into a lot of trouble, especially if it is an unpaid internship.
However, I found that the really good intern partnerships are born out of an understanding supervising-mentor and a driven intern-mentee. If it’s the other way around, things are can be toxic and expectations are rarely met.
Some interns have a curriculum to follow in order to gain a certain number of hours toward course credit. Others do it for the experience. To be honest, I don’t find one or the other is any more or less likely to be driven to go above-and-beyond. It all goes back to wanting to get as much out of the internship experience as possible.
I have had several intern-mentees that I have had to tell to go home at night. I have had some that I had to remind that they should be out being a college student while they could. I have had some that acted more passionate about the work we were doing than those getting paid.
I have also had those who just stopped showing up without any notice. In those cases, I kindly let them go after two or three attempts to mediate the situation. I don’t have time to babysit.
Screening intern candidates is a very difficult task. It is more difficult, in my opinion, than interviewing for paid positions or hiring freelancers. There is a limited body of work, their resumes are mostly fluff, and they aren’t getting any direct compensation most of the time. However, if you can find those diamonds out there that really want to learn and grow from their experience, you have a chance to create some very special relationships and a very special culture inside of your organization.
More on that coming soon.