Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

5 Must-Dos for First-Time Intern Managers

I’ll admit it: I wasn’t a natural when it came to managing interns. They were my first-ever direct reports, and I made all of the rookie mistakes. I assigned too much work and too little work; I over-explained, I under-explained; and so on and so forth.

The good news is, managing interns—anyone, really—is a skill at which you can vastly improve with practice. But that’s no reason to start at the bottom. Learn from my experience, and read on for five ways to be a successful intern manager.

1. Have an Orientation

Regardless of whether there is some larger, more formal orientation at your office, your first order of business is to block out an hour or so to talk with your intern. Depending on how involved you were in the hiring process, you may want to begin with introductions. Next, walk through the work you do and the departmental goals over the next few months. Answer any questions about how you and your team impact the organization’s mission. Taking time to frame out goals reminds the intern how even menial tasks will contribute to the big picture.

Next, lay out your specific expectations—in addition to the stated responsibilities of the job. Are you a stickler for proper grammar in all communications? How do you feel about people popping by your desk with questions? Would you like to be copied on all emails? Laying out these expectations early on will prevent any mishaps and set you both up to succeed.

2. Ask (and Observe) His or Her Learning Style

Before you call the orientation meeting to a close, you’ll want to give your intern the floor. What are his or her goals for the internship? Are there unique skills he or she holds, or areas where he or she is extra keen to learn or pitch in?

Perhaps the most essential information you can gather is how he or she best receives information. Unlike with a long-term hire, where a supervisor would expect the employee to acclimate to a meeting-centric or meeting-phobic environment; with an intern, your focus should be on maximizing communication.

Meaning, even if you’d love to have your intern simply follow email instructions, if he or she needs to talk it out and ask a few questions to get it right, better you know this now. It will be worth taking the time to make sure he or she understands what you're asking for—as opposed to having to do the project yourself once he or she has turned it in (a frustrating experience all around).

3. Provide a Written Task List

Okay, so your intern says he’s an auditory learner. That means you should just discuss every project and then plan on having them completed exactly as you expected—right? Well, not quite.

Your intern is new to the organization and to working for you, so there will likely be some selective listening, even if it’s not intended. Therefore, every week, you should send (or update) a written project list for your intern. Include the following: The date the project is due; its level of priority; to whom the completed project should be sent to (a critical piece if you want to review projects before they go elsewhere!); and what umbrella it falls under. The last category is critical because it contextualizes the task and provides a stronger impetus to completing it correctly (i.e., filing is much more interesting when you know what project you’re advancing).

Bonus: The written task list will save you on days when you’re slammed. If your intern completes one project, you can direct him or her to the task list for the next one.

4. Lead by Example

Just because this one is obvious, doesn’t mean it’s not worth repeating. “Do as I say, not as I do,” doesn’t work. If you’re strolling in at the same time each day, you won’t have the credibility to tell your intern that arriving 15 minutes late is not okay. Similarly, it will be hard to discuss inappropriate attire with an intern when you’re seriously testing the limits of summer business casual yourself.

Moving beyond the obvious, you should conscientiously set the example of being a supportive boss and a team player. Some rookie supervisors mistakenly fear that talking up an intern will create competition for his or her job. To the contrary, talking up your intern’s great work demonstrates what a strong manager you are, which will open you up for more leadership opportunities. So, be sure to give credit where it’s due!

5. Ask for Help

Even if you’re trying to do everything right, you can find yourself managing an intern with a lackluster attitude, even apparent incompetence. When it’s just not working, the first person you should speak with is your intern. Maybe he or she is being difficult because of what he or she perceives as a lack of meaningful work. Perhaps what you see as a lack of attention to detail is your intern struggling to complete his or her tasks on time.

Remember, interns rarely have a huge base of prior experience. So, they may not have the tools (or confidence) to communicate with a supervisor—you have to take the lead!

Still having issues? The next person you should consult with is someone you look up to as a manager (ideally, your boss). This person can give you insight from experience, and your boss needs to know if he or she has saddled you with a nightmare intern.

When it comes to being a first-time intern supervisor, you’re combining someone with little experience in management together with someone with little experience being managed. However, this is a great experience for both of you to learn. So use the steps above to make it a great summer and build a strong working relationship with your intern.

Photo of people working courtesy of Shutterstock.