3 Steps to Creating a Wildly Successful Intern Program (And How We Did It Here)
Since the days of stone tools and oral histories, to the first farmers of the Agricultural Revolution, to the advent of Take Your Child to Work Day, we’ve survived and thrived as a species by imparting our experiences and wisdom onto the next generation. Even after the Digital Revolution, learning alongside more experienced mentors has helped to teach tomorrow’s workforce the importance—and more importantly, the results—of diligence, innovation, perseverance, and communication. Looking forward, we need to model what it means to be a productive, thoughtful part of an increasingly technology-based society; understanding the future means harnessing technology to serve the human experience.
Here at TA Group Holdings, part of our commitment to the future is spending the summer nurturing and challenging students through diverse internships across our portfolio. We are proud to share our company story, and our success over the years has helped attract highly motivated, talented, and engaged interns who get to truly make a difference in our business through their individual skills. Over time, our program has evolved into a well-rounded, enriching environment where job skills and self-discovery go hand in hand—and has resulted in the hire of several excellent young professionals, year after year.
So what are the aspects of a good internship program? How can your company make a difference in students’ lives while making interns a valuable investment for your business? Here are a few suggestions that have worked well for us:
1. Build and define an authentic office culture—and hire interns that suit it.
Just like hiring a full-time employee, it is vital to invest in interns who fit the existing office culture. Interns shouldn’t be guinea pigs for new processes or policies, nor should they be plucked randomly from their classes with a “one size fits all” mentality. They should incorporate seamlessly into the company culture and mesh well with their department mentors. By demonstrating transparency and authenticity beginning with the interview process, intern candidates naturally demonstrate how effective they’ll be in your actual office setting. Without major personal (or personnel) barriers to overcome once they’re ensconced in the program, you can turn to actual business needs and intern skill-building much more quickly.
So what does that look like in practice? First, at TAG, we keep our intern class small, so that we can get to know them personally. We’ve put a lot of work into creating a thoughtful environment that focuses on learning and personal development, encouraging our interns to ask questions, participate in (and spearhead) lots of activities, and overcome some anxieties by trying new things. We seek out their individual strengths and weaknesses and aim to develop them accordingly, as opposed to following a set, impersonal curriculum year after year. By doing these things, we—and you—are equipped to make the most of a mutually beneficial relationship. After all, the whole org benefits from the infusion of new energy that interns bring!
2. Strong staff create a strong business—focus on personal development over cheap labor.
Too often, businesses view interns as cheap or free help, and shoehorn them into basic administrative tasks or other busywork just to keep them occupied and take unwanted tasks off their supervisors’ plates. This approach generally comes from a mindset that we’re doing interns a favor by giving them a resume-booster, which is technically true…but it also conveys that they aren’t worth investing in because they aren’t yet qualified professionals. And sure, interns doing some grunt work is fairly standard (it’s a great way to finish up back-burnered tasks that have been wasting away while you focus on more pressing priorities), but if you want to take your internship program to the next level, don’t overlook developing your interns’ skills and work ethic.
Ensuring that interns learn while they are here is high on our list at TAG! We want them to feel that their time with us was valuable. We kick off by putting all the interns through a popular strengths assessment, so they can uncover their natural talents and understand how to develop them, and run a leadership-focused book club that’s open to all employees; we’ve found that this cross-group exposure is beneficial for lively discussions and exchange of experiences. Diverse learning experiences benefit everyone, no matter what department the intern works with, so we also schedule weekly group lunches with leaders from across the company, encourage each intern to develop their customer service skills and knowledge of computerized phone/calendaring technology by briefly working the reception desk, and hold a field trip to tour our datacenter with our Director of IT Ops.
Why bother with all this? Because investing in a good intern’s personal development, who already fits your company culture (see #1), results in the intern investing in you. As their skills improve and their education finishes, they may end up being a valuable potential hire who already knows the business, or recommending other skilled friends to your company.
3. Expose them to real-world situations—and real world work.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “knowledge is the antidote to fear.” Many of us still shiver at the prospect of going through an interview process, dealing with a tricky coworker, or speaking confidently to a group of people. For students and fledgling professionals who have never been in a corporate environment, these aspects of business can be twice as daunting. TAG leadership truly believes that experiences reduce fear, so we highly recommend exposing interns to real-life business situations, things they’ve never had the opportunity to try before.
During their time here, for example, our interns can expect to observe panel interviews, which helps allay the fear of the interview process and allows them to experience a real interview from the other side. More importantly, they work embedded in a team, attending and participating in meetings, shadowing employees, and celebrating accomplishments right along with the company. In those teams, our interns work side by side with our full-time staff, sharing in their experience and insight and passion, overcoming obstacles with them, and experiencing all the ins and outs of collaborating and communicating with diverse people—to create actual deliverables with actual business impact.
After all, people are more productive when they are inspired by what the company is doing. They work harder when they feel that their work matches their strengths and interests. And that work is higher quality when it’s challenging and stimulating, rather than tedious tasks that just need a warm body to do them. (Don’t get me wrong, everybody has to occasionally suck it up and do the boring but necessary tasks, but anyone would burn out if that’s all they did.) By introducing interns to the realities of business—the joys, stresses, challenges, and rewards—we teach them important life skills, and provide tangible accomplishments for their portfolios, in addition to obtaining valuable work from them.
No matter what your business is, it begins and ends with people. How you invest in employees, down to the earliest points in their careers, impacts the kind of candidates you attract, retain, and develop into future stars—and that begins with an impactful intern program. When you focus on culture fit, personal development, and real-world training scenarios, you reap as much value as you sow. Join us in our commitment to bringing valuable experiences and insightful guidance and mentorship to exciting groups of up-and-comers, and see the success—for your interns, your employees, and your business—that results.
What are your tips for a successful intern program? Share with us at firstname.lastname@example.org