Trouble is, bringing interns on board is a lot trickier than you might think. And do it wrong and you can waste a lot of time and money—or even risk alienating clients.
The key, according to Rich Sloan, co-founder of StartupNation, a leading advisory site for entrepreneurs, lies in your management techniques. “Interns can sap as much energy as they contribute if you’re not careful,” he says. “You really need to have a clear plan in place.”
That involves the following steps:
Map out the intern’s duties. Before the person starts, make sure you know—and have put in writing—exactly what the job will entail. The most effective tack is to assign the intern to specific projects—finite tasks that should take a month or so to complete. Sloan points to a recent hire whose first assignment was to research potential competitors to a new business offering. The job was done so well, he considered hiring the intern full-time.
At the same time, be flexible. During the course of the first project, try to observe the individual’s particular skill sets. If something comes up that seems more appropriate, then you can reassign the person to a new task.
Appoint a supervisor. That might be you or the person ultimately responsible for the tasks the intern has been assigned. Whoever the manager is, however, those supervisory duties have to be taken seriously. Perhaps most important, check in regularly with the intern -- daily at first, then weekly as time goes by and you feel more confident in the individual’s abilities.
Start them out with code of conduct. On the first day, explain the rules—everything from dress code to when they’re expected to arrive at work. Even if some points seem silly, it’s best to err on the side of too much information. (No flip flops or playing music, for example). If they’re going to have contact with clients, be sure to explain the expectations for behavior under those circumstances.
Begin with a team. You shouldn't allow your interns to fly solo right away. Instead, help them get their feet wet by assigning them work that can be shared with a team, at least initially. Once your or their supervisor sees they have a handle on the project—and you have confidence in their judgment and skill level--you can allow them to assume more responsibility and operate on their own.
Try to do this as quickly as possible. “The intern will come to the business with a lot of excitement,” says Sloan. “You don’t want to dissipate that feeling. You want to leverage it.”
Consider the size of your company. If your business is small, it might be best to hire one intern at a time. Sloan recalls one summer when he brought on three MBAs at one fell swoop. But, with just eight employees at the time, the company had trouble supervising them effectively. “If we’d just had one intern, we’d have had the resources to make sure that person was productive,” he says.
Step in quickly if there are problems. That can mean anything from a mistake made on a project to inappropriate behavior in the office. Give them the chance to correct the error. “There’s no need to be draconian,” says Sloan. But, if the problems reoccur, you might need to consider letting the person go.
At the same time, remember that much of an intern’s success depends on you; in fact, you may be partially to blame for problems if you haven’t been managing them correctly. In that case, you’ll need to evaluate your processes and make some adjustments.
Ultimately, running an internship program takes a good bit of work. But, with careful planning, you can turn the experience into a success for both parties and, perhaps, a way to groom talent for the future.