Looking back on my early career, I realize that many of the skills that have helped me stay employed in the “real world” didn’t come from what I learned in lectures, but from the internships I pursued while I was a student. I was lucky to have great intern supervisors that allowed me to learn (sometimes through trial and error), believed in my potential, and gave me hands-on experience that’s helped me succeed.
So, now that I have my own interns to manage, I try to provide them with an experience that’s just as great as the ones I had. And I appreciate now more than ever that a great experience doesn’t just happen. If you’re a first-time intern manager, read on for tips on how you can help your interns be successful (and develop your own leadership skills at the same time!).
Before your intern sets foot in the door, think through what, exactly, her job will entail, and what duties you’ll have her take on. Create a job description and develop a work plan that outlines her responsibilities and goals for the duration of the internship. Sure, it might be more convenient to just have her do whatever comes up (or start cleaning up that spreadsheet you’ve been avoiding), but creating a structured plan is important for several reasons. You’ll make sure that you’re providing your intern with work experience that’s actually valuable, you’ll make sure you’re using her time well, and you’ll give her a guide to reference through the internship—plus you’ll have a clear set of standards for evaluating her performance.
2. Make Her Feel Welcome
During your intern’s first few days, carve out a few chunks of time on your calendar to give her proper training and instructions. Start with an overview of the organization and the department, a tour of the office, and an introduction to your colleagues. Consider taking her to lunch or coffee—this is a great time to learn about her and her career goals and make her feel comfortable before the real work begins.
Then, at some point on the first day, review the work plan you’ve developed with her to go over her assignments and goals. Make sure this is a two-sided discussion, and encourage her to give feedback and ask questions along the way.
3. Schedule Regular Check-Ins
For an intern, there’s nothing worse than being forgotten about in the file room (and I know—because it happened to me!). So, you should plan to check in with your intern every day, plus have a more formal sit-down meeting about once a week to keep her informed about upcoming projects and make sure she has clear direction on existing ones. This might seem like an added constraint on your time, but it’s important to help your intern feel like part of the team and stay on track with her goals. Plus, you’ll need to do this when you start supervising employees, so it’s a good idea to get into the habit of managing your time wisely so that you can complete your own projects and still devote time to others.
4. Provide Meaningful Tasks
While administrative duties like making copies and updating databases are part of being an intern, your intern won’t grow or learn much if that’s all she’s doing. So think through some valuable projects she can take on—even if it’s just a piece of a larger project. Try to assign her tasks that relate to her career goals or her strengths, or ask what she’s interested in learning more about and give her something in that vein.
Beyond the benefit of having some help for your job, finding substantive tasks for your intern to take on provides you a great opportunity to learn how to delegate. Remember that being a leader doesn’t mean doing everything yourself—it means empowering others and bringing out their talents.
5. Don’t Assume Prior Knowledge of Anything
Keep in mind that this may be your intern’s first foray into the working world, so things that seem self-explanatory to you (mail merging, tracking changes) might not be to her. I’ve been guilty of being too hands-off with my interns, then finding out later that they didn’t always ask questions for fear of appearing dumb.
Avoid this by assuming that everything needs to be explained, and then give clear instructions for your expectations, the process for completing the task, and the deadline. After you talk through a project, ask if she has questions, and let her know that she can always come to you with more after the fact, too. (And if she does—make time to answer them patiently! You should mean that when you say it.)
6. Be a Mentor
Above all, strive to be someone who your intern can learn from. Take the time to answer questions and teach the things you wish someone would have taught you at that stage of your life. And think about aspects of your workplace or job that you might take for granted—attending the quarterly meeting, sitting in on a client presentation, even updating the website—that could be a learning experience for your intern. Providing both formal and informal growth opportunities is part of helping someone learn—and part of being a great boss.
Making sure your interns have a great experience is crucial for their careers. But remember that it's important for yours, too! Working with interns provides you with the opportunity to develop resume-building management skills and to learn more about the manager you would like to become.
Tell us! What are your tips for giving interns a great experience? What have you learned about your leadership style from managing interns?