As I mentioned in my bootstrapping video, interns can be an incredible source of free or inexpensive labor and I recommend that most small business owners take advantage of this talent pool. However, the relationship is only going to be effective if both parties benefit.
Resist the urge to think of interns as the dumping ground for grunt work just because they may be the lowest ranking members of the workforce. If you truly want to benefit from bringing interns into your small business you need them to take on worthwhile tasks. Because interns are typically only around for a few months at a time, utilizing them strictly for grunt work is likely to result in spending more time teaching them how to work the copier and fill out expense reports than they save you in doing them. The true benefit of an intern comes when you are able to give them a project that is important to the company and benefits from the youthful perspective of an intern, is a temporary project that requires skills your core team doesn’t have (a website revamp, for example), or simply requires more hands/brains than your small company has to commit to it.
Betsy Aimee has an article on the Forbes Woman blog called 6 Ways to Be a Great Boss to Your Intern and many of her tips for making the internship a great experience for the intern are the same tips that will make the internship a great experience for you. Her 6 tips are:
- Prepare – While Aimee encourages you to prepare a solid description of what the intern’s duties and responsibilities will be so that s/he is able to gain skills and develop professionally from the internship, solid preparation is equally as important from your end. You need to know what your goals are so that you can build the job description around them. Frankly, if you don’t have an idea of what project(s) you need the intern to accomplish, why are you hiring an intern in the first place?
- Make the intern feel welcome – Making the intern feel welcome is clearly the right thing to do as you want everyone on your team to feel comfortable. Additionally, a happy and comfortable intern will be able to do his/her best work and you need to get to know your intern quickly so that you are able to take advantage of his/her hidden strengths that may not have come up in the interview process. So definitely take your intern (and any new employee) out to lunch on his/her first day and make sure that s/he feels that your company is a place that s/he can contribute ideas and make an impact. Even interns need to feel valued at work if you want them to produce their best work.
- Schedule regular check-ins – Checking in with your intern is a way to be a good boss because it lets the intern know that you care, but it also allows you to make sure that things are going smoothly. While an intern may be incredibly smart and talented, s/he is still new to your organization and may be new to the industry as a whole, so things will slip through the cracks. Checking in along the way ensures that you’re not making your intern waste your company’s time by reinventing the wheel and that the intern hasn’t overlooked something s/he would have no way of knowing but that could have a big impact on the project.
- Provide meaningful tasks – Again, if you’re not utilizing your interns to their fullest, you’re doing your company just as big a disservice as you’re doing them. Don’t hire an intern in the first place unless s/he can really contribute something to your organization.
- Don’t assume prior knowledge of anything – People can’t always know what they don’t know, so don’t assume that because an intern doesn’t ask a question they know everything. Even if you’re successful at building a relationship in which your interns feel safe and are able to ask you questions without feeling like they look dumb, they’re not always going to know the right questions to ask. Clearly, how much needs to be explained is going to depend on your intern – an undergraduate who is in the work world for the first time is likely to need much more hand-holding than an MBA student with years of previous experience – but when in doubt, it’s better to over-explain than to under-explain.
- Be a mentor – Okay, this one is really more beneficial to the intern than to your company, but it can be extremely personally rewarding to mentor someone, so if you find an intern with potential, take him/her under your wing. You never know, that intern may eventually become your star employee.
Here’s one final tip of my own: just like with regular employees, hiring is the key. Make sure that you put in the effort upfront so that you’re working with talented and ambitious people or you won’t get what you’d hoped out of your interns.
What are your tips for running a successful internship program at your small business? Share them in the comments below.