Learning how to manage and advise interns in 2019

Since the inception of Fint Cloud Accounting, we’ve had numerous interns from volunteers to high school students to international university students.  Interns can be so difficult to manage due to their short work-term, lack of real work experience and misalignment in expectations.  I hear this same feedback about interns across the board.  In this blog post, I want to share my own experiences and how I’ve tried to overcome some of these challenges.

Commonplace challenges of internships

Here is a summary of my experience with my first batch of interns that hopefully captures some of the challenges that I’ve had.  *Note that real names are not being used in these examples.

Sarah was a recent graduate with experience in retail, but wanted experience working in an office.  I thought it would be a great idea for her to be my administrative assistant, to which she agreed.  I even got her an opportunity to shadow a professional administrative assistant.  Turns out, Sarah didn’t know how to manage a calendar and she hated talking on the phone. She was reluctant to reschedule appointments if it required a phone call and she hated this position so much that she turned down the opportunity to shadow a professional.

David was an experienced manager in the retail industry, and wanted to learn more about bookkeeping.  After he did the bookkeeping training, I assigned him a task that had some urgency to it and while I checked in with him during the week the task was not completed by the due date.

A new approach to internships: Allowing interns to lead their own internship experience

These stories are commonplace when managing interns.  In the cases that I had, I felt that the issue lies with me trying to drive the direction of their internship too much.  I took this as a learning experience for myself and created a new approach for managing new interns.  Here are some guidelines that I’ve adopted:

  1. The bulk of tasks assigned to interns now are general training tasks or tasks that have low urgency.  Interns are expected to take their own initiative with these tasks, and they have one dedicated hour each day where they can ask any questions they might have.
  2. We discuss our expectations weekly.  This is a two-sided conversation about what they expect to get out of the internship and what I expect from them.
  3. Should the intern be ambitious about taking on additional tasks, we work together to figure out assignments that they can do during their term that would add value to the company.

The key in my new approach is that the interns now are leading their own internship experience.  With this approach, the internship experience becomes the priority (as opposed to adding value to the business).  I found that this worked much better for us.  It allowed me to discern interns who need more time with the training or just want to do the bare minimum to the interns who were looking for more.  I do not push interns to do work, but I help guide interns to a more fulfilling internship experience.  I also provide continuous weekly feedback on their performance.

Advice to interns

When I give advice to interns, I think about what helped me the most when I started my professional career.  What was it that made me stand out from my peers?  And this may vary from industry to industry.  The one thing I stand behind is thinking about how I can add value to the organization and then making sure that it is recognized.

For me, this meant taking notes when my manager was talking and actually understanding what it is that he does.  From there, I can figure out what I could do to make my manager’s work-life easier.  This means thinking of ways to add value to the organization that even my manager has not yet thought of.

I tell my interns that getting recognition for accomplishments is just as important as the work that goes into doing these tasks.  Each week, I ask my interns to write a short update on what they have accomplished last week and what they aim to accomplish this week.  In a competitive field, this is what made me stand out against my peers.  As a manager now, an update like this allows me to understand that my team has a direction, and also that it is the direction that I’d like for them to take.

Some might say that I take this bit of advice too far.  More recently, a friend asked me why I always say things like, “I would like to cook this dish, FOR YOU,” or “Let me know what you want for dinner so I can cook it, FOR YOU,”.  I didn’t even realize how obnoxious it sounded until he pointed it out to me.  I was just so used to internalizing this concept that I forget that it can come across as imposing when not in a business setting.  Personal interactions and business interactions can be and sometimes need to be different.  These are the kind of subtleties that can only be learned through experience.

A personalized approach to internships

Notice that the heading to this blog has a year stamp.  I think the internship approach needs to constantly be evaluated and tweaked.  As a millennial, I have to say that I was a bit difficult to manage.  I share many common traits of this generation which included being ambitious, but I also had this notion that I knew how to do things better.  Each generation of interns will have their own traits, their own nuances.  And so it would only make sense that this approach would have to be tweaked or updated to accommodate the changing needs of the new interns that come through our doors.