The Experience of a Lifetime: How to Hire and Manage Summer Interns

By: Marshall VanNahmen – Vice President of Operations , LeadJen

A valuable and relevant experience I had during graduate school was my summer internship between my first and second year of my MBA program. I worked hard, absorbed everything I could and ended the summer with a great experience that taught me many lessons which I still apply on a daily basis. Unfortunately, for every good summer internship experience, there is an intern fetching coffee for executives and filing papers for hours on end.

When I was asked to head up LeadJen’s summer internship program, I vowed that we would offer our interns an experience that would benefit them as well as LeadJen well beyond this summer. As we enter our second month, our interns are exceeding even my high expectations.

To develop an internship program that delivers value to both the company and the intern, I recommend these best practices:

Identify projects before hiring interns. Companies would never hire an executive without first identifying the requirements for the position. The same should be true for interns. Ask managers from throughout the organization to identify important projects that never seem to get done. These projects are ideal for interns, who can devote the time needed to see the projects are completed. Once projects are identified, discuss them with prospective interns to determine which interns are best suited to handle the work you have. The best intern is someone who’s looking for an experience, not just a job.

Get creative on financing the internship program. Interns should add real value to your organization, so look for ways you can make them a profit center. Our budget this year allowed for two full-time interns, but we were able to hire four because some of the projects included providing support on billable, market research work. Being able to work on client projects also was a big selling point during the interview process and helped us attract high caliber interns.

Set the tone with the first project. First impressions and an intern’s early experiences establish the tone for the summer. Assign an initial project that gives interns a better understanding of your organization and industry. Also, stress to the interns that their first project is meaningful and will be shared with a broad audience. This will pay dividends throughout the summer. The first project we assigned to our interns was a benchmarking study. The interns naturally learned about our business and competitors, and provided us insightful information while at the same time enhancing their knowledge.

Share the company vision often. Since interns are only employed for a few months, it’s tempting to get them in and start them working on projects, which is clearly important. However, interns can quickly become bored with projects that they feel don’t add value to the organization. Take time to make sure that interns understand why their projects are important. For example, LeadJen associates are extremely diverse, with various ethnicities, cultures and religions. During 2012, we are focusing on our company culture and this diversity is important. One of the projects we have assigned an intern is to develop an employee directory, which could be perceived as a dull project. After explaining why this is important to our culture, the intern came back with suggestions to make the directory more interactive and personal for each employee.

Foster healthy competition. Having a group of interns, instead of a sole student, tends to deliver better results. This is because a group of interns will brainstorm ideas and they naturally will measure themselves against each other. If your organization can only afford one intern, think about hiring two part-time interns instead. Also, set the expectation up front that the interns will make a short presentation to managers at the end of their summer experience. Another benefit of this increased excitement is that interns will talk about it among their friends, on social networks and in class, creating a positive feedback loop to drive a strong applicant pool during subsequent years.

Give interns permission to seek help. There’s nothing worse than interns who are out of work or can’t move forward on a project because their manager is tied up. Give interns a roadmap of people they can turn to if their manager isn’t available, and give them permission to pop into meetings uninvited or sit in on a conference call if their work is complete. Without this permission, many interns won’t have the confidence to seek help or additional experiences.

Provide a development opportunity for promising leaders. The internship program does require a degree of administrative and coordination efforts in order to succeed. Use this as an opportunity to allow a promising leader within your organization to lead the interns. That empowerment can be a positive signal about their potential and sets them up with the ability to mold and develop others in a meaningful way.

Finally, don’t forget that this is a learning experience for students. Arrange for interns to meet with key managers, even if it’s just for coffee, to learn about different areas of the company. Encourage interns to ask questions.

At the end of the summer, allow interns to make suggestions on how to make the program even better. Your summer internship program will continue to improve and so will the caliber of your interns.

Marshall VanNahmen is vice president of operations at LeadJen, a lead generation company that helps sales and marketing executives get value out of every prospecting interaction. He can be reached at 317-844-6885.

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