6 Tips for Building an Invaluable Team of Interns

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Find the right interns, treat them well and you'll find you learn as much as they do. By Clare Polyak (Chief Marketing Officer, Imagine If Inc)

Early in my career, hiring interns was not at the top of my priority list of job responsibilities. It was such a slow and sometimes even painful experience to hire, teach and guide new interns. I found that frequently, by the time I felt they were ready to handle more substantive responsibilities, their time with us was over. And then, once again, I’d be back to recruiting.

If it wasn’t for the fact that my first real job out of college, as a Marketing Coordinator for Jones Soda Co., emerged from my non-paid internship there, I wouldn’t have felt as compelled to repay my “intern’s debt” so to speak. But I did, and therefore I continued on, wanting to make it work, and eventually, after learning a lot along the way, I did.

I truly believe that building an invaluable team of interns can have a huge impact on a company’s success. I wanted to write this post to share with the many others (I know you are out there), who have experienced (or are still experiencing) the same pain points I did while trying to build a successful internship program.

I’ve outlined a few of the key things I’ve learned throughout my journey and hope you find them helpful. The bottom line? Building a great team of interns doesn’t have to be difficult.

In fact, while you may think the relationship is one-sided, while you are investing your time in teaching and instructing them, you may just be surprised you how much you end up learning from them in the process. I know I was.

Think Outside the Traditional Hiring Means

While traditional means of recruitment (college job boards, your company’s website, Craigslist etc.) can bring you a qualified group of intern applicants, many times, I have found that it’s the more unconventional approaches that bring you a more robust set of potential intern candidates.

One way I’ve found great interns? Going back to school! Volunteer your time at your Alma Mater in a class that speaks to you. I was offered one of my early internships after presenting an advertising plan to a panel of local business leaders in an advertising class while studying for my undergraduate business degree. One of the panelists actually followed me after class to tell me about the internship, which I would have otherwise known nothing about. It became a win/win/win situation. The business was able to cherry-pick applicants from this class (unbeknownst to us), the students were rewarded for their hard work leading into the real world, and the university was able to foster both the value in it’s class as well as placing students in qualified internships.

Learn From Your Own Experiences

One of the worst memories from my early twenties was working as an intern at a large financial organization (which shall remain nameless), where I made cold-calls day in and day out, in a small room, by myself. I logged my work on a spreadsheet and had less than thirty minutes of genuine interaction time with my superior every day. For years after, I had nightmares of that internship and that room (in every nightmare the room got smaller).

Now, when I join a new organization, I vow to grow an internship program (and sometimes correct the current one) so that an intern feels included, not isolated, and that he or she has the opportunity to interact with the team, share ideas and contribute. That change can start with an action as simple as having their workspace nearby so they feel like a part of the company and can experience the team culture. This is key to helping someone grow professionally.

Create an Intern Reference Guide, or What We Call “The Intern Bible”

Something that I created early on in my career of managing interns, and something I still use today for our team of interns at StayFaster & StayAtHand, is a binder that contains all of the relevant information an intern needs to succeed on a daily basis.

The information in this binder varies from the big ticket items, like information on the company and our mission, all the way down to the simple “first day” questions they will inevitably want to ask. Including even the most basic information like directions to the bathroom, mailing addresses, how to use the shipping machine, how we answer phone calls, what the social media passcodes are, etc. will end up saving you (and the intern) a lot of time and back-and-forth.

All of this minutiae can wind up clogging your day (and make an intern feel less empowered if they have to come to you with all of these questions). Let them save the questions for items that are more relevant and time sensitive.

Be Clear in Your Own Mind What the Expectations for Success Are

Defining expectations at the start of an internship will help ensure that you and the intern are on the same page and that the intern has a clear understanding of the goals as well as the timeline you have set for achieving them. I have always strived to create a strong line of communication and understanding that there are two sets of expectations for interns whom I work with.

The first expectation I set has to do with task management (handling the job itself) both on a day-to-day level as well as over the duration of the internship. The second set of expectations that I set is based on credibility. I always try to make it clear early on that an intern needs to prove themselves to me that they can handle the tasks I’ve set before them in a way that not only meets, but exceeds, the goals I set for them. Only then, once that credibility has been proven, will I give them more responsibility. I also let them know that  hired them because I believe they are incredibly capable of doing that.

The level of responsibility and opportunity for growth can be endless. I’ve always strived to make it clear that the title “intern” does not omit them from climbing the corporate ladder. But it’s up to them how far they will go!

If they work to exceed those baseline expectations, they are able to break through that barrier. It’s up to the intern to decide what they choose to do with their time and how to make the most of it. Of those who exceeded expectations, many I eventually hired in full-time roles, many I mentored for years to come, some placed at other organizations, but for all, wrote strong letters of recommendation upon their exit.

That is/was my commitment to them. If they go above and beyond, so will I. The internship became what they chose to make ofit.

Let Interns Recruit Interns

If you’ve had one successful intern, oftentimes an intern who is graduating or otherwise moving on, they know of three to five others who are in the market for a valuable internship. If you’ve done your job correctly as a coach, mentoring and training them, they will see this position as an ideal place to refer their highest-value friends and you’ll end up with a new group of capable interns to carry the torch.

Don’t be Afraid to Let Your Interns Teach You

My college days were synonymous with Napster Music Sharing and Myspace. Only toward the end did Facebook appear exclusively for students. I’m not the least bit embarrassed to say that my first foray into Hootsuite, BufferApp and similar services were taught through the eyes of my interns.

Interns are, very frequently, students, and thus by nature fearless, and ready to learn and absorb. They are a great resource for tapping into a younger demographic as well as current trends (online or otherwise).

Don’t hesitate to pick their brains about what is important to them. The learning doesn’t have to only go one way!

Final Thoughts

We’re still tailoring our program every day, and learning from both the mistakes we make and the successes we achieve through the work of an invaluable team of interns. The most important lesson that has stuck with me through every program is that you should never to be afraid to learn from someone younger or with less “real world” experience than you have. It would be a disservice to both you and your team.

Empower your interns, give them the opportunity to grow with you, your company and beyond. You can do this by setting clear expectations and supporting them through the learning process. The bottom line is by creating a really good internship program starts with you. Being a good teacher and a good student is what it’s all about.

What are your experiences of internship: as intern, employer or both?

Photo credit: Ivelin Radkov via Shutterstock.


About the guest blogger: Clare Polyak is Chief Marketing Officer for Imagine If Inc, the maker of StayFaster.com and StayAtHand for iOS, a powerful suite of tools that create the smartest way to get your next hotel stay. Her vices include startups, every aspect of design (graphic, advertising, interior, etc.), unconventional marketing campaigns and her family. You can catch up with her on LinkedIn!