In many ways, the success of your company relies on your ability to hire top talent. That includes up-and-coming talent just starting out their careers: interns.
When done well, an internship program can be a huge asset to your organization. “The companies that are best able to leverage [internship] programs will reap a host of short- and long-term benefits, from accessing in-demand skills without having to make a hiring commitment, to establishing a pipeline of future hires that you know already fit your company culture,” said Anthony Naglieri, Senior Director of External Affairs for Cultural Vistas, an organization that works with over 1,000 companies, including tech startups and Fortune 500 companies, to facilitate international internships.
But managing interns is a big responsibility, and if you want your interns (and your internship program) to be successful, you need to manage them well. “As a leader, you are in a unique position to shape the intern's experience of your company, your field of work, and his or her first experience of leadership,” said Lisa Schmidt, Toronto-based organizational transformation coach. “As such, you have a critical role in orienting your intern to both the role they are taking on and to working life.”
So what exactly does effectively managing interns look like? To start with, it requires thoughtful and deliberate preparation, planning, and execution. Here are six key tips for leaders new to people management on how to manage interns for the first time — and ensure that the internship is beneficial to both your organization and your intern.
1. Lay the foundation for success.
In order to foster a successful internship experience, both for your intern and your organization, you have to start the process long before the intern’s first day.
“If you want to reap the benefits [of an internship], you need to invest the time,” said Naglieri. “Before your intern steps foot inside your office — or in these [mostly remote] days, logs on for the first time — have a clear and structured work plan that outlines goals, expectations, and responsibilities.”
You’ll also want to include any basic information they’ll need to successfully do their work, like a map of the office (if they’re working in person) or log-ins and tutorials for the digital communication tools you use throughout the day (if they’re working remotely).
On your intern’s first day, schedule a time to sit down, either in person or, if you’re working remotely due to COVID-19, on video chat, to review your goals and expectations.
And remember, internships are a two-way street, so make sure to set aside time in the conversation for your intern to set their own goals and expectations for their internship experience.
“Invite the intern into a conversation to explore what they want to accomplish while they are with you, and what they most want to contribute,” advised Schmidt.
Naglieri echoed this sentiment. “You can and should leave room to tailor the plan and goals to the individual’s specific interests; however, it’s important to have a foundation in place,” he said.
2. Connect them with others in the organization.
To ensure that your intern gets the most out of their experience, expose them to as many learning opportunities as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to introduce them to different people in different roles throughout your organization.
“As a first-time supervisor, be mindful of how others on your team and within your organization can contribute to and support your intern’s learning and integration into company culture and operations,” said Naglieri.
Get to know your intern and learn about their career goals and what they hope to gain from their internship. Look for ways that you can mentor them and support their goals, but also connect them to other people within your organization that can shed light on their ideal career path or introduce them to new ideas and career possibilities, enriching their overall experience at your company.
“One effective way to do this is...slotting time for them to informally meet one-on-one with mentors,” said Naglieri. “You want your intern to feel comfortable bringing questions directly to you, but equipping them with a go-to colleague or two and relationships at the onset will pay dividends early and often.”
3. Be the example.
As their manager, your intern is looking to you for guidance on how to be a professional, succeed within your organization, and successfully navigate their workload. To set up your intern for success, both during their internship and as they progress in their career, it’s crucial that you provide a positive example of professionalism.
“Role-model the kind of behavior you expect from [your intern],” said Schmidt. “For instance, be punctual, true to your word, and focused on solutions. Your intern is learning from everything you say and do, [and] this is your opportunity to demonstrate that you walk the talk.”
When managing an intern, you need to be at the top of your game. That means arriving to work on time, and not strolling in 15 minutes late every day. When you schedule meetings with your intern, whether in-person or remotely, be punctual and prepared, and don’t cancel last-minute or show up late. And when you send them instructions for a project, model the kind of work quality you expect from them and make sure to proofread your own work for any grammar mistakes or typos.
As their manager, you’re the intern’s model, and possibly their first example, of how a professional in their field should work, behave, and perform — so you need to take that responsibility seriously and act accordingly.
4. Challenge them.
Depending on your intern’s professional experience and skill level, it may make sense to have them help with administrative tasks, especially at the beginning when they’re just starting out and settling into their new role. But ultimately, they’re there to grow, learn, and contribute to your organization, and in order to do that, you need to challenge them.
“The intern is there to both contribute and learn, so ensure there are learning opportunities that fit with the intern's interests and skills as well as tasks that advance your department's goals,” said Schmidt.
As your intern gets more comfortable, work together to identify tasks and projects that will challenge your intern, give them a sense of ownership in their role, and help them contribute to your organization’s goals in a real and meaningful way.
“Identifying projects that interns can own from start to finish over the course of their internships is a great way to ensure they always have an outlet to stretch their skills,” said Naglieri. “Sometimes it’s as easy as identifying and discussing pain points and needs, and allowing them the creative freedom to develop a potential solution to solve them.”
5. Meet regularly and pivot as necessary.
When you're managing an intern for the first time, it’s going to be a learning experience, both for them and you. That’s why it’s necessary to check-in regularly. Not only will regular check-ins make your intern feel more connected to their role, but it will also allow you to get real-time feedback from them on what’s working and what’s not, and how you can pivot to continually improve their internship experience.
“Things change and you will want to have specific touch points [with your intern]...to ensure your training plan aligns with these changes, and continues to meet their needs and that of your organization,” said Naglieri.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to how often you should check-in with your intern, but as a general guideline, plan to have a quick check-in at least once a day for status updates and to see if they have any questions, and schedule a longer one-on-one meeting once a week. If you’re working remotely, consider having more frequent face-to-face conversations via video chat; working remotely can feel isolating for some people, so checking-in with your intern regularly over video can help them feel more connected to their role, their work, and the company.
6. Manage your intern — but be flexible.
Now that you know how to manage an intern for the first time, you’re armed with the information you need to make the internship experience a positive one for yourself, your intern, and your organization.
Just keep in mind that, because it’s your first time managing an intern, there’s going to be a learning curve, and it’s important to stay flexible as you and your intern figure out how to navigate the experience together.
“Remember, this is a learning experience for both the intern and you,” said Naglieri. “Don’t be afraid to adjust your original plan as your intern immerses [themself] in your organization and you learn more about their specific skills and interests.”
There was a time when being an intern meant fetching coffee, doing the tedious grunt work no one else wanted to do, and staring at a computer screen bored for hours when their supervisor forgot they were going to be in the office that day and didn’t plan for any projects they could do. However, things have changed, and it’s now possible — and imperative — to expand the role of an intern to be so much more meaningful and fulfilling. And as their manager, you can play an important role in shaping their career and work experience in a positive and lasting way.
By being thoughtful and deliberate in the creation and implementation of your internship program, you can create an enriching and rewarding experience for your interns, your team, and your organization. Above all, treat your interns with respect, value their ideas and contributions, and make them feel like a welcome and integral part of your team. Who knows? You may even learn a thing or two from them and expand your own horizons in a positive and lasting way.