‘Why do I have an intern?’ Learning from the most junior person in the room

What did you learn from your intern this fall? That is the question. If an answer doesn’t come quickly to mind, you may want to ask ‘Why do I have an intern?’ before you hire a new one for spring.

One of the most disappointing, dispiriting experiences of my time mentoring university students employed as interns came at the end of the semester when we asked employers to submit an evaluation of the intern’s performance. Most had to be tracked down via text,  email, and voice mail before a perfunctory form was returned with a checkmark for ‘exceptional’, ‘good’ or ‘needs improvement’. It was the rare manager (1 in 50) who would actually take the time to share valuable, actionable feedback.

At the beginning of each semester, concurrent with the start of a new internship, you could illuminate a major city with the energy emanating from students about to embark on a new experience. As the weeks went by, the lights dimmed, as one by one, intern’s dreams fell short when tested in practice. In many cases it seemed that the intern was a ‘vanity’ addition to one’s entourage vs. a potential contributor to a strategic mission.

Here’s the thing. Most of these students were committing 10-15 hours of ‘unpaid’ time to their internship. In the majority of cases interns were balancing a full course load of 16-18 credits and a part-time paid position. Social life was the first casualty, but a worthy trade-off for the opportunity to gain valuable, ‘career related’ work experience.

With this level of commitment, why is there such a major disconnect in expectations between employers and interns?

In many cases the ‘unpaid’ label results in a lack of respect. Little thought goes into anticipating and planning the internship assignments.

A successful internship program/relationship is built on clearly communicated expectations and on-going follow-up/ feedback.

Why do you hire an intern? Perhaps to breathe some fresh air into the room. Maybe to keep you aligned with your values. Most important, to help you connect with your emerging customer cohort.

Victor Ho, C.E.O. of FiveStars was interviewed by Adam Bryant for his weekly ‘Corner Office’ column in The New York Times. Reflecting back on his experience, he shared

“…the strongest lesson I learned at McKinsey that I now share with every single new hire is what they call the “obligation to dissent.” It means that the youngest, most junior person in any given meeting is the most capable to disagree with the most senior person in the room.

So if I hire an intern, that intern is the most qualified person in the company to say, “Victor, I heard this was your mission, your values, and these things are off.” That’s just because the more removed you are, the less you drink the Kool-Aid. You have a fresh perspective.”

Before your fall intern departs, skip the cake, and use the the time for a face to face conversation about what you both learned over the past four months. Offer feedback that will guide your intern through to the next step in their career.

When you are interviewing your spring candidates, look for the most qualified person with “the obligation to dissent”.  Ask yourself ‘How can I structure the experience to maximize individual contribution and encourage interaction?’

Why do I hire an intern? To learn, and reconnect to the core aspirational organization values.

 

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