So you've decided to have one or two college interns join you next year? It's definitely then time to start thinking about what you will have them do, and how you will evaluate their performance.
All of these suggestions assume that you are hiring an intern to hopefully recruit a full-time employee for the future, rather than just covering a seasonal employment need.
Where Should They Work?
There are two ways to approach intern assignments. One is to put them working on the job you'll eventually want to hire them for full-time. I personally think that's a mistake in the sense that it's too "narrow" of an assignment.
My preferred approach is to give them a "big picture" look at the firm. This involves having them spend at least a day or two in each major department. From the reception desk to top management's desk, and everywhere in-between, the view is always different. Not just the view of the company, but the view of that intern. Give the intern and the company a chance to have a 360-degree view of each other. This will maximize your chances of making sure the intern is a good all-round fit for the company. If you plan it right, it'll be the best multi-week interview you've ever conducted.
What Will They Do?
If you just drop an intern into the construction or manufacturing department's lap for 3 weeks, you'll probably be wasting everyone's time. Have a representative from each department serve as the intern's "personal trainer" or tour guide for at least 1 full day, so that questions can be asked and answered. The experience will prove educational.
Also, make sure each division that will keep the intern for more than a day or two has a meaningful activity or task for the intern to complete. Many years ago, I toured an office and they spent the entire time telling me how they entered data into a computer. I knew how to enter data, and the explanation of the software meant nothing to me. If they had had me sit down and enter my own information into the system, I would have been able to grasp the process much better. Most people learn best by doing, not by listening to a slick presentation about how great a software package or a job function is.
The most commonly heard criticism of internship programs from students is, "It seemed like there wasn't anything for me to do" or "The people who worked there didn't have time to teach me anything." Make sure you keep them busy and engaged.
Mentoring Is Critical!
Truly successful managers and executives almost always have a mentor in their lives. A mentor is someone they can go to for advice and counsel when needed. One of the most successful executives I know is 50 years old and still has a mentor in his life. The one piece of advice I give all my students is to find a mentor they can trust and to never, ever be without one. My biggest successes in my career I can attribute in part to a strong and caring mentor. My biggest failures I can almost always attribute to the lack of one.
If you really want your intern to succeed, they need a mentor in the company who can help them by reinforcing successful behaviors and by discouraging unsuccessful behaviors in a nonthreatening way. If your intern wears the wrong clothes to work (as so many of my Human Resources friends tell me they are prone to do), someone needs to tell them. So make sure the mentor is someone who can do that firmly but tactfully.
Learning is a lifelong process, and you cannot expect college students to know everything as soon as they arrive at your doorstep. I once had a student who went to an interview in a pair of khaki pants and a white t-shirt, because those were the nicest clothes he owned. He was 19 years old, incredibly smart, but had no family whatsoever and no one to teach him about interview etiquette or proper dress. The employer who would offer that to him through a mentoring program would ultimately get a great (and grateful) employee.
A couple of hours worth of "here's what works around here—and here's what doesn't" gives your intern the benefit of catching up on what everyone else already knows. Whether it's the boss's hatred of visible tattoos or his extreme passion for discussing sports, give the intern the chance to not fail politically by sharing this important information about the "unwritten" rules.
To illustrate this point, I'll share the story of "Barb," who was a student of mine many years ago. She and another student were summer interns at an insurance company. At the end of the summer, the company invited the other student to stay on with the company, but the invitation was not extended to Barb.
I got the company's side of things, and here's how they described Barb and the situation:
She's an intern for heaven's sake, and went to her bosses' supervisor to complain about her boss's behavior. It's not cool around here to break the chain of command. Also, she thought she was too good to do the work we gave her.
I talked to Barb, and got a somewhat different story. It was true she felt the work they gave her wasn't challenging, but she really didn't know that it was not okay to complain about it, until I told her so. She was genuinely surprised by that fact, and my guess is mom and dad probably had led her to have an overinflated opinion of her skills and her net worth on the food chain of life in general. That wasn't her fault, and it's certainly not the company's job to teach her that. But she was smart, and eventually became a good employee for another company once she had just a little bit of professional coaching.
The other half of her story left me with my jaw on the table. The reason she complained to her boss's boss is she felt that she was being approached by her boss for a date. She did the only thing she knew how to do, which was report it to the next person up the line. And (right or wrong), the news apparently didn't go over well.
Admittedly, that was over 15 years ago, and attitudes toward that kind of thing have toughened up tremendously. But I can only imagine how differently things might have turned out if she'd had the benefit of a friendly mentor who said, "Go to H.R., not the next supervisor in line" or "I'll talk to the company about getting you reassigned to a different supervisor."
Understanding the Generation
I have made it a point to spend time researching the current generation of college students in terms of how what motivates them. Your company needs to do that, too. And you can do it now, while looking for an intern, or you can do it later when all the college graduates have taken jobs with companies that cater more to their needs.
What motivated you even 10 years ago may not work for today's 22-year-old. Don't be afraid to explore demographic trends and, when in doubt, ask them what they think. This internship program isn't just a learning experience for them—it's also one for you.
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