Rise to the Challenge of Supervising an Intern

Sep 11, 2019

5 mins

Rise to the Challenge of Supervising an Intern
Marlène Moreira

Journaliste indépendante.

Trembling hands, a tie “just in case”, and at the office 15 minutes early… who is this? You’ve guessed right, it’s your new intern. Professional life begins the moment you walk into a company for your first internship, an experience that’s both exciting and terrifying. For them, it’s about taking their first steps into the complex world of work. For you, it’s about the responsibility of helping an aspiring professional grow, and it’s also a good opportunity to put your management and leadership skills to the test.

Back to basics for internship supervisors

1. Be prepared

Before meeting your intern, it’s up to you to be prepared. Think about and formalize the tasks you would like to give them, but keep a little flexibility to allow for their interests and the skills they would like to develop. This way you will give them a truly enriching work experience and also provide them with a framework to use for the entire duration of their internship.

“I always know exactly which projects I need an intern for. I don’t take them on ‘just because’. At the final interview, I ask them about the skills they wish to work on and I look for a compromise between their expectations and my needs. I put it all down in writing and I give them a vague outline before their arrival: some information about their future projects, some interesting resources to consult, and so on. That way, we’re on the same page from day one.” Frédéric, purchasing manager.

2. Give them a good welcome

An intern is an employee like any other. Like any new employee, show them that you were expecting them. As soon as they arrive, make sure that they have access to a computer, a work space, and some information about the company and its current projects. During the first few days, take the time to introduce them to the team and their future points of contact, explain the company structure and workflow, and discuss their career objectives and their expectations—as well as your own.

“During the first week, I always suggest that my intern shadows me, sitting in during my calls, meetings, and coffee breaks with other coworkers. At the end of each day, I take about 30 minutes to answer their questions and encourage them to comment on and analyze what they’ve heard. At the end of the week, I take them for a coffee outside the office and we discuss their first week and their road map.” Mathilde, digital transformation consultant.

3. Check in regularly

There’s nothing worse than being forgotten about at the back of an open-plan office or left twiddling your thumbs in front of Netflix. Remember that interns aren’t necessarily autonomous or proactive, they need guidance. Checking in regularly helps you to assess their work progress, but mostly it helps them with any problems they might encounter. If you have to leave work for extended periods (for a vacation, a business trip, or to work remotely), it’s essential to find someone reliable to fill in for you.

“I’m obviously available for my intern every day. But every Monday, I take the time to do a more formal check-in. This reassures me that they know what to do in the coming week. I try as much as possible to indicate a timeframe in which to finish a task and I let them know who has the resources to help them within the team. This way, they avoid spending half a day on a Powerpoint presentation when a colleague can give them a similar one that just needs to be modified, for example.” Mathilde.

Remember, it’s a two-way street

If you want to get a coffee mug emblazoned with your face alongside the words “best supervisor ever” you’ll have to roll up your sleeves. Follow the basic rules if you want to be a decent internship supervisor, but becoming a rock star requires a bit more work.

1. Observe them to better understand how they work

It’s easy to think that it’s up to the intern to fit the mold, but what if they simply work a different way? Each intern has their own learning style, linked to their personality as well as their generation. Some need clear instructions; others may need lots of flexibility. Some may ask a lot of questions; others might just search for the answer online. The more you know about the way they work, the more you can offer them.

2. Don’t assume anything is obvious

Fusing two cells in a spreadsheet, checking a meeting room is available, planning a conference call… these might seem basic tasks to you, but don’t forget that this might be your intern’s first experience in a professional setting and the tools you use may be unfamiliar to them. What is obvious to one person may not be to everyone else, so reassure your intern by explaining that they are allowed to not know things. Encourage them to ask you questions.

3. Challenge them…

Unless an intern is planning on becoming a barista, mastering the coffee machine will not help their growth. Menial tasks are part of the learning process, but see to it that they have every opportunity to learn and challenge themselves with “real” projects. Even if it’s faster to do the job yourself, this is a chance to learn to delegate. A real leader can’t do everything on their own, they must be able to give responsibility to others and showcase their talents. Offer an intern the responsibility of a project to complete—with its expectations and precise deadlines—and it gives them a chance to really contribute and progress.

4. …And let them challenge you

Everyone has something to learn. Interns are lucky enough not to have been influenced yet by the corporate world. They don’t yet know the rules and limits, which means that they could have new ideas, new methods, and more ambitious approaches. Today’s interns have also grown up digital, so they could help you find new tools that will assist you in daily work life. Each intern has the potential to come up with good ideas. It’s up to you to encourage them to share them.

5. Help them to network

A lot of interns ignore the vast world of opportunities around them. There are plenty of occasions for them to meet other young professionals, such as conferences, meet-ups and networking functions. Encourage them to identify an interesting event or the people they should meet—it will be immensely beneficial to their professional development. A supervisor’s responsibility doesn’t end at “technical” training, it also means preparing interns for a world where networking and soft skills are crucial.

All in all, being an internship supervisor is good. But taking on the role of mentor is even better. This is your chance to go above and beyond by teaching interns what you would have liked to know at that point in your career. By offering them opportunities to grow, both formal and informal, you will contribute to their knowledge and development as a professional. Offering interns a positive experience is not only critical for their careers, it’s also important for yours! As an internship supervisor, this is your chance to develop your management skills, improve your leadership techniques, and work towards becoming the type of manager you’d really like to be.

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

Photo: WTTJ

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