Making the best use of an intern

imo-blogWhen done correctly, internships present an awesome way to get traction on important goals with little effort, while sounding out a potential future hire.  Sadly, most internships are not used correctly by the employer.  Here are four steps to doing it right.

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When done correctly, internships present an awesome way to get traction on important goals with little effort, while sounding out a potential future hire.  Sadly, most internships are not used correctly by the employer.  Here are four steps to doing it right.

I recently started supervising an intern, Brian, at a client where I’m a part-time interim executive. He’s smart, thinks he knows more than he does, he’s eager to prove himself — i.e. a typical intern — and he’s ‘free’ except for the time we spend with him.  The work I gave him was preparing a draft Decision Brief for the owner on one of the key initiatives for the firm.

The four-quadrant matrix for importance and urgency.

The key concept that unlocks your correct use of interns is Steven Covey’s 4 Quadrants of Time Management.  All your work is either Urgent or not — ‘urgent’ meaning there’s a looming deadline.  And all your work is either Important or not, ‘important’ meaning it has big impact on the key outcomes you are trying to create. So each activity falls into one of four quadrants:

  • Quadrant 1 is for the ‘Urgent Important’
  • Quadrant 2 is for the ‘Non-urgent Important’
  • Quadrant 3 is for the ‘Urgent Unimportant’
  • Quadrant 4 is for the ‘Non-urgent Unimportant’

Covey’s crucial point, repeated by every time-management guru since, is that all game-changing progress happens in Quadrant 2.

1. Use their Minds
First, don’t treat the intern as a dumb robot.  Too many managers give to interns, because they are free labor, the work nobody wants to do.  And there’s a case for doing that, true.  If there’s a backlog of old files that need to be reorganized, and it’s mind-numbing and tedious, you might well give it to an intern.  Just alternate that with interesting work.  Internships are not an excuse to abuse the intern.

For my intern Brian, he’s had a few ‘grunt’ activities, however the bulk of his time was on the Decision Brief. He saw how important it was and how much trust he was being given, and he responded like a pro — extra reading, taking some research home, all the things you want to see in a self-motivated teammate. He made numerous good suggestions that showed he’d given the work a lot of thought.

2. Give ‘Inspect-able’ Work
Second, only give the intern the kind of work where the quality of the result is easy to inspect.  Remember, when it comes to the ins and outs of your business, the intern is the least educated person you have.  If nobody can easily double check their work, and you tell yourself it doesn’t matter, what you’re really saying is that the work itself doesn’t matter — you’d have been better off just not doing that work.

3. Keep them in Quadrant 2
Third, realize only Quadrant 2 activities should be given to the intern — here’s why.  You’re already doing the Quadrant 1 tasks yourself. Interns should never work on customer-facing activities alone — that eliminates much of Quadrant 3. And nobody should ever spend potentially productive time in Quadrant 4.  Only Quadrant 2 provides work that is (a) important enough to justify you investing time briefing the intern, and (b) long-range enough to catch the inevitable errors.

4. Meet Frequently
Fourth, spend at least 30 minutes 2-3 times a week directly with the intern, giving them feedback on their work so far, correcting course, helping them learn and making them re-do the work that needs fixing.  This is an ideal time to have your intern document your process and document the fixes you’re uncovering.  (Creating internal documentation is a classic Quadrant 2 activity — tremendously valuable, and not urgent.)  The intern is giving you a rough draft that’s at best 60-80% complete.  You’ll still have to finish it yourself.  But for a tiny investment of time you’ve got a partially finished draft, and momentum.

To give you their best work, your interns will need far more feedback on their work than anyone else.  This is a great opportunity for you to practice giving both positive and constructive feedback.

Brian’s draft Decision Brief saved me 20 hours and advanced our timeline by 4 calendar weeks.

What if my intern isn’t bright enough? Simple — gently let them go, just as you would an employee who wasn’t able to do the work.  Internships are work, not charity. If they fail at an internship, they and you will be spared the mistake of hiring them into a paying position in your industry.

What if they don’t do a good job, or make a mistake? Coach them, just as you would any staff member. If they improve, it’s a great investment in your relationship and in their future work products for you. If they don’t improve with coaching, gently let them go.

Brian has grown, he has a better shot at getting a job offer, and we clearly know his abilities.  Follow these steps and your internship program will rock — because you’re making progress on actual important work that’s high profile, isn’t client facing, and isn’t under a tight deadline. The intern will love it and will grow, you’ll get valuable work done, the firm will get an enhanced reputation among the intern’s circle, and you’ll be able to assess the intern’s real capabilities.  That’s a win-win.

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust. Email comments to  [email protected].