7 Tips on How to Lead a Rewarding Internship Program

May 26, 2021
The C2FO Team

Internships have evolved significantly over the years. Here’s what you need to know about today’s interns and how your company can benefit from a well-organized program.

Once perceived as menial, “pay your dues” roles, internships today are finely tuned, career-development positions that can provide long-term benefits to both interns and companies.

The days of interns completing small tasks or filling seasonal needs are mostly gone. Forward-thinking organizations are now using thoughtful internship programs to learn from their interns, cultivate them as potential future full-time hires and enhance the company’s reputation as a destination workplace.

Most major companies across a wide range of industries utilize internship programs year-round. Interns can contribute to high-level meetings, travel to meet clients, help solidify partner relationships and much more. At many organizations, interns work in accounting, finance, design, engineering and manufacturing, enjoying access to associates at all levels of the company.

As your company prepares to welcome interns for the summer months, here are seven ways to make your internship program a win-win for both the interns and your organization.

1. Appoint a leader

Choose someone who can connect senior leadership’s vision with the company’s needs and provide interns with valuable experience and takeaway accomplishments.  

Lasting up to 12 weeks, internship programs frequently involve individuals and locations that change or rotate. Add in the application and selection process, and a summer program can be months in the making. The selected leader will be the go-to contact, one who is patient, flexible, detail-oriented and can reach out to nearly anyone in the organization. This leader is often a member of human resources who can manage or coordinate recruitment, assignments, scheduling and events. A highly organized veteran associate is an ideal choice.

2. Have an investment mindset

In exchange for compensation and staff time, internship programs can deliver short-term productivity and far-reaching benefits. 

Throughout the program, you and your team can observe each intern’s skills, work style and impact on others to determine their future, full-time suitability. If all goes well, an intern who is already company-trained can later be hired with confidence, reducing the need for other recruiting and hiring efforts.

Internship program investments can also:

  •     Produce goodwill in your community
  •     Be a source of content to help tell your company’s story
  •     Positively impact your brand and reputation as an industry leader

3. Recruit actively but selectively

Finding the right fits for your company culture is essential, given interns’ brief tenures and ongoing collaboration with your team. Many companies attract, recruit and nurture students during their high school years. Others offer preparatory programs that allow students to work on-site. More common are career fairs held at college campuses, where recruiters or alumni can establish a student-company connection.

When interviewing candidates, seek grit over perfection. While students’ grades may be stellar, discovering their passion — what moves them to action — is often the stronger indicator of their potential. Ask these questions:

  •       What do you want to accomplish during your internship?
  •       What discipline(s) of ours interests you?
  •       How did you become interested in our industry?
  •       In what campus clubs or activities do you actively participate?
  •       How do you keep up with trends in our industry?

Their answers — more than their classroom scores — can be telltale here, along with soft skills like attitude, communication style, adaptability and problem-solving.

4. Be organized and welcoming from Day 1

A rewarding internship program begins with a structured plan that informs participants of schedules and goals. The plan should focus on the following:

1.) Who’s working together 

2.) What are their goals 

3.) Timelines and milestones. Weekly schedules should be defined, with time budgeted for unexpected changes or pivots.

Before your intern arrives:

  •     Send an award letter or email including their start date, time, office location and any necessary forms
  •     Obtain their company email address
  •     Have a laptop, security badge or other necessities ready
  •     Enable access to the company intranet or appropriate resources
  •     Engage and assign mentors, both peer and next-level
  •     Prepare an introductory announcement

Upon arrival, provide your intern with a workspace and even a welcome kit containing business cards, employee handbook, company T-shirt, or other “feel-good” swag. Also, conduct an onboarding or orientation session to cover company history, goals, culture and processes.

5. Make the work meaningful

Delivering difference-making results and experiencing the pride of ownership makes the intern’s experience valuable. However, this won’t happen without meaningful assignments.

Today’s interns are tech-savvy digital natives who have more natural curiosity than prior generations. As Gen-Z students (born 1997 and later), they often reject “We do it this way here” attitudes and will quickly see through busy-work assignments, losing interest.

To make the intern’s work interesting and meaningful:

  1.     Tap into their passion: “We know that you like to find, organize and analyze financial data.”
  2.     State a consequential company need: “Improving cash flow is high-priority for us this year.”
  3.     Identify success and how it’s relevant: “Our goal is to collect accounts receivable 10% faster and reduce our borrowing.”

Then, provide your interns with the tools needed to solve the problem. This approach can connect them with systems, practitioners and higher-ups to help develop options and a recommendation.

Also, consider asking interns to evaluate your current business practices. Have them buy from your website, review the employee manual or assess customer communications. You’ll garner valuable information that otherwise could be expensive or hard to obtain.

6. Provide coaching and involve executives

With career preparation at the heart of any internship program, nothing you provide may be more impactful or helpful long-term than coaching or evaluations.

For all their talents, interns are inexperienced at the school-to-career transition. Accustomed to their fellow students’ ways, interns may need training on how “things get done” in the workplace. That may mean reviewing how to write effective emails instead of texting, structure a report or executive summary, manage relationships, or respect internal protocols, timelines and priorities.

Interns’ projects should include scheduled reviews to assess progress or determine redirection. Feedback from mentors should be direct, generous and candid within a “this is how we win” context.

Schedule time for a group presentation to senior executives or leadership. For a given cohort, allow each intern equal time to present in a format involving facts, clarity and brevity.

7. Allow time for fun and connection

Performing focused work in a concentrated timeframe can result in an intern feeling siloed or detached. To alleviate this, hold organized gatherings designed to bring participants together for a common purpose or even just for fun. 

These activities can be intern-only or involve a mix of interns and staff that inspire a sense of belonging, camaraderie and inclusiveness, such as:

  • A weekly or biweekly lunch featuring department leaders who can speak about their team’s responsibilities, deliverables and opportunities
  • An all-hands event at a food pantry or other socially-minded organization where an afternoon’s work benefits the community, followed by a happy hour
  • A team-builder outing that better acquaints staff and interns from across the organization and can involve role-playing or reversal
  • A good-natured competition or social activity that culminates with a trip to a ballgame, comedy club or another venue

In conclusion

By conducting an organized internship program, both staff and interns will be rewarded with a sense of accomplishment and know that you’re focused on growing the company for the long term.  

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