I openly refer to myself as the Chief Executive Master Overlord (CEMO) of the internship program here at SME Digital. Admittedly, that might be an overstatement, but the fact remains that we have successfully nurtured our two interns over the past few months into full-time positions. And that isn’t a happy mistake; it’s the completion of a happy plan.
We promote our internship program as “not your typical internship” and we mean that. No coffee runs, no copier duty, no disrespect, no boring stuff. As a small yet powerful team, the success of our interns is absolutely tied to our own successes. Recognizing that is step one to running a prominent, fruitful program, but getting there takes planning and forethought. I’ll share with you some of our strategies and learnings, and I would love to hear yours (the comment section is yours).
“Choose good interns” might sound obvious, but it is not common sense. We have had two interns in the past eight months, and they have been stellar. They fit, they grew, and they worked themselves into a full-time job. But we passed over several solid candidates to get here. Why? Our number one priority is to find the best fit for our culture.
We’re a strange breed here at SME Digital. We have no regular work hours, unlimited vacation (replenishment) time, and we hold ourselves to one single standard: the WOW. Our process and journey is hyper-loose, but our standards are sky-high. The truth is that this structure (or lack thereof) just doesn’t jive with everyone. We had to find the right people at the right time, and that means focusing much more on the candidate than any of their paperwork.
Know your culture more than you know anything else. If you’re a round hole, don’t accept a square peg no matter how attractive that square peg looks. If you prioritize anything over good-fit, you’re just asking for a bad fit.
Open The Books
Handing our interns the keys to the castle, the open book, the secret sauces – whatever illustration you want to use – is itself a secret sauce. Can complete transparency feel weird, even dangerous? Sure. But it’s about trust. And if you have chosen wisely (see above), then trust should be a non-issue. Let your intern in, open the doors, let them explore. They’re adults; treat them like it.
Bottom line: Trust begets trust. If you are looking to groom an intern into a profitable team member down the road, you need to open that two-way street of trust as soon as you can. You’ll gain quick and lasting respect as soon as you give it, so give it.
We have a lot of moving parts to our organization: client calls, measurement/analytics, strategy sessions, design work, information products, models, workflows, etc., etc. And I’m sure that your brand is no different. Though we typically have an anchor for our interns (i.e., marketing, measurement), we allow them as much exposure to as many tendrils as possible. Not only does it benefit us to spread the work and enthusiasm around, it also allows some space for them to explore.
Neither of our interns had tunnel-vision coming into the program, but both of them have emerged with a solid idea of what their passion really is within the marketing space. That would never have happened if we had kept them super-structured and hidden away.
Both have spread their wings in ways that we could not have predicted. Unfettered, yet guided, exploration inside of your company…let your interns do that. And watch what they become. They’ll find their way, and oftentimes they’ll lead the way.
Think (Really) Big
Sure, we all love interns for maintenance work: weekly reports, daily downloads, meeting notes, transferring data from X to Y, then from Y to Z, etc. But how often do we waste their youth, energy, and ideas? It’s not always easy to hand the big work over to those who are newest to your organization, but hopefully their hands are raised the highest. Project-work is a great way to instill trust, respect, and give them a chance to really shine, to make a true impact, and to challenge themselves.
Find a hole, find a need, find an opportunity, and hand it right over. You’ll be surprised with the outcome. Interns have a strong desire to WOW. Give them the chance to not only wow you, but to wow themselves, as well.
This might just be my therapist talking, but creating a safe environment is crucial to the success not only of your internship, but of your company at large. In safety, people can screw up, and that’s ultra-empowering. In a safe place, people can question, and that’s often enlightening. And in safety, people can hold space for multiple answers and ideas, and that’s inspiring.
Ensure that your organization is safe. Call it radical honesty, or simply call it honesty, but there must be ample room for transparency, freedom, and truth. Those who have been with your brand a while might stick around during shenanigans, but newcomers won’t stand for it. And they shouldn’t. Offer your interns a safe shelter, and they will protect you at all costs.
Running an internship program should be high on the mutually-beneficial scale. You get work, they get experience; you get fresh ideas, they get to express them; you get a new point of view, they get exposed to reality. If set up correctly, it’s a win-win on all fronts. But for that to happen, you must find the right fit for both sides.
Be the place to attract your people. Then watch the magic happen.
Do you take advantage of internships through your brand, or have you completed an internship yourself? What learnings would you add here?