Fetching coffee and making copies: are these the tasks that come to mind when you think of internships?
If so, you’re not alone. For years, organizations have viewed interns as a source of cheap (or free) labor, perfect for offloading office drudgeries. Because the interns were walking away with “experience” to boast about in future job interviews, employers didn’t feel much of a responsibility to invest in them.
However, there’s been a shift to this thinking in recent years. Most places with robust internship programs have begun to realize that they get what they give. People now see that if you work to create an engaging experience for new talent, you’ll get to really see what people are capable of and potentially find yourself an outstanding new hire. And of course, the intern benefits too: they are given the ability to see what it’s really like to work at a particular organization or within an industry and they gain meaningful professional skills that prepare them for the modern world of work.
This isn’t just a theory, either: more and more, the trend is to hire interns into full-time positions, as an alternative to the traditional recruiting process for filling entry-level positions. Leaders can be more confident in who they are bringing on board after a summer-long stint than after just a few hours of interviews.
As a result, many organizations have begun to revamp their internship programs with engagement in mind. They know that most eligible interns are young people hungry to gain new skills, so they’ve been finding new ways to expose them to multiple facets of their organization and work alongside a range of employees to maximize their learning. In some cases, this might mean a “lunch and learn” with the VP of Product Development; in others, it might take the form of being given a crash course in the Adobe Suite from a head designer.
Leaders have also begun to realize that the younger generations have a powerful desire to contribute meaningfully and make a real difference through their work. Consequently, a larger focus has been placed on giving interns “big picture” assignments that will have a direct impact on the organization’s strategic goals. Not only does this approach empower talented interns and make them feel valued, but it also encourages them to take ownership of their work results and inspires them to put forth their very best effort.
These are all transformative changes in how organizations manage interns. But there’s something that is still too widely ignored when it comes to interns: giving and receiving feedback. Increasing the number of opportunities for feedback can have a powerful positive effect for both your organization and your interns.
To begin, we need to let go of the idea of the teacher-student dynamic that characterizes most internship programs. While interns undoubtedly can learn a lot from you, consider that you can also learn from them. Since many of them are Millennials (or even Gen Z-ers), they’ll probably have some insight into what types of products and services young people would like to see on the market. They might be able to weigh in on a proposed advertising campaign to determine how it might connect with a younger audience. You will learn something, and you’ll also help your interns feel more integral and engaged during their time with your organization because they’re not just offering up their labor—they’re contributing ideas.
Interns can also provide meaningful feedback about your internship program or organization as a whole. Take the time to find out what they value in terms of long-term career growth, and adjust your internship program accordingly. Ask them if they felt inspired by the organization’s mission or felt that they could communicate openly with their supervisor. Perhaps you thought you were doing a good job of integrating them into your organization, but they felt siloed and unappreciated: find out what may have contributed this, and make changes with you next intern cohort.
In addition to giving interns more of a voice in your organization, consider offering them more in-depth feedback. As we’ve discussed, organizations are increasingly relying on internship programs to evaluate candidates for long-term positions. A great way to determine if an intern is a good fit for your unique workplace culture is using a 360 evaluation in which all of the people they worked with provide feedback about the intern in question.
One of our client organizations has actually experimented with this approach. They currently have a two-year internship program that has four different rotations and have built out a 360 survey that is used at the end of each rotation. They use this survey to find out an intern’s professional competencies based on multiple people’s perspectives, and to determine if those skills map to the company’s overall leadership model. In other words, managers use the survey to say, “This is what an effective leader looks like here, and this is how you measure up.”
This doesn’t just help the organization’s recruiters by giving them a clearer framework for evaluating interns and deciding who should be kept around. It also helps the interns get a taste of what career advancement means at this organization and adjust how they approach future rotations, giving them a greater chance of succeeding and contributing to the organization’s strategic goals. Furthermore, taking the time to give feedback in this way demonstrates that people are invested in their work and professional development. Infusing your internship program with more opportunities to give and receive feedback demonstrates that you are interested in learning from your interns and committed to facilitating their growth, both of which can spur deeper intern engagement. Ultimately, these channels help both sides of the equation achieve their goals in a way that feels genuine and meaningful.