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How to Effectively Manage and Mentor a Summer Intern

Katy mentors and educates young professionals and helps those beginning their careers and financial journeys to make informed decisions.

Start an intern's first day off right by introducing yourself.

Start an intern's first day off right by introducing yourself.

Effective Interns

An internship program of any size has the potential to be a huge asset to a company. You get cheap or free labor, and your new hire walks into your doors open-minded and eager to prove themselves. So why do most interns feel under-utilized, and why do many managers report not getting much value out of the interns working for them? Most of this stems from ineffective practices by management that don't empower interns to do great work.

Effectiveness From the First Day

Do you remember your first day as an intern? If you had an internship you were probably very nervous on the first day and had no idea what to expect. As a mentor or manager of an intern, you need to be prepared long before their first day, because you do know what to expect. You know what you need your intern to be doing and you know the culture and attitudes you want them to adhere to in order to be successful. The following steps will put you both in a position to make that happen.

1. Introduce Yourself and the Company

This should be obvious but you need to dedicate time the morning your intern arrives to meet them. Nothing starts off an internship worse than sitting at a desk (or worse, not knowing where to sit or not even having a desk yet!) waiting for someone to tell you what to do.

Find them right away and let them know who you are. Give them a rundown of the company and the team they will be working on. They might already know some of this but it gives you both a place to start with the easy stuff.

2. Learn About Them

Throughout their first day, and probably their first couple of weeks, your interns will be mostly listening. Make a point early on in their internship to give them time to talk about something non-business-related. Where do they go to school? Is this internship out of state for them, or are they staying at home? This person has a limited time to perform tasks for you before they return to school; you're going to have to put some effort into speeding up the rapport-building process.

3. Learn About Their Skills and Their Goals

Before you can turn them loose, spend some time with them to understand what skills you can make use of outside of their resume. Go through the skills listed on their resume and have them expand on them. You both should be able to start talking.

How to Talk to Interns

Basically talk to interns like you do your peers, with a few extra considerations. Most interns are some combination of confident and insecure. They are eager to prove themselves but don't know how. Implement a few of the strategies and phrases below when you're helping your company's intern through their summer work.

"You Probably Already Know This, But..."

This is a great way to start any sentence to an intern if you're not sure how to proceed in the situation. This is helpful if you're thinking: "Surely someone already told him this so I'll skip it." or "Am I going to offend her by assuming she doesn't already know this?" or "This should be so obvious no one needs to be told, right?" You take the pressure off of the student by starting off by showing you have confidence in them but you can still communicate important information to keep them moving in the right direction.

Explain It Like I'm Five

Okay, maybe not five. But make sure you are explaining it like they are 18–22. They probably have limited experience in an office, on a big project, in front of a client, and speaking in acronyms. That's not their fault, that's why they're there learning now. It's your job to ease the transition of college into your company so the intern can focus on producing great results.

When Questions Come Up

It is not enough to end long-winded instructions on how to accomplish a task with, "Any questions? No? Okay, see you at the weekly meeting with it done." Of course, they are not going to have intelligent questions right then; they haven't actually gotten into the meat of the work yet. What they need to know is what to do later when they run into an issue. Should they highlight it and move on? Ask Google? Ask the manager? You? An important skill for every employee to develop is autonomous problem solving, but you need to lay out the outline that is acceptable in your company.

Quality Internship Projects

Coming up with work for interns can be tough. We tend to throw menial tasks at them to avoid spending the time we need to explain how to do more complicated tasks. That's okay to do sometimes when the work needs to be done but try to get the follow three types of tasks incorporated into their workload.

1. The Ongoing Project

Every one of your interns should have a low-priority long project going on in the background of their workload. This is a project that might take a little bit of spin-up time to learn how to do it and it doesn't necessarily have to push the limits of what they can do or develop a skill. In fact, the goal is to have this project be something they can do mostly autonomously. This project is essential for every intern because they are always going to have downtime between the higher priority projects. Or they will be stuck on a high-priority project when there's no one available to help them.

Think about it: you probably have plenty of lower priority somewhat dull tasks that you go to when you're stuck on something more important, or you need something mind-numbing after a highly engaging morning. A similar task structure can make your interns more productive.

2. The Resume-Worthy Project

Your intern might be working for crap pay, fetching everyone coffee, and writing lame memos every day, because that's what she wants to do for the rest of her life. If that's the case, then by all means keep giving her tasks like that, so that when it's done all she can put on her resume is "data entry" and "file management." More likely, she took this internship to tackle a challenge and earn experience. That experience needs to translate into black-and-white accomplishments she can put on job applications in the future.

You know your industry and what hiring managers want to see. You are in a great place to help the interns under you develop skills to get hired later: maybe in your company if it's a good fit, or maybe somewhere else. Find a project that they have the beginning skills to handle, that can be wrapped up before they leave, and that will have actual results they can record in a resume and talk about in future job interviews. Give them something to own.

3. The Get-Out-There Project

The exact form this project takes varies widely based on industry. But if you can try to find a project that gets interns up from their desk and talking to people or seeing things. At the least, it should be a project that requires them to interact with people besides their mentor, hopefully outside of their team. If you really can't find something it might just be attending meetings with the client and just observing.

At the End of the Internship

Letter of Recommendation

Applying to jobs or graduate school often requires a letter of recommendation from a previous employer. This can look really good coming from someone an intern worked with and knows.

Their Future at Your Company

Unless it was a totally miserable experience for them, most of your interns will be anxious to know if you want them back for their next summer or if there is likely to be a full-time job offer on the table after graduation. Before the intern's last day, invite them to have a discussion about where they see their future and if the company has any open roles that would be a good fit. There might not be something immediately available, but help them understand the next steps to pursuing a career at the company.

© 2016 Katy Medium