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  • How to Run a Successful Internship Program

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    26430211112_4f84e49d3bAt their best, internships provide students with invaluable experience working alongside professionals in a “real” business. Yet they remain the butt of many jokes and the bane of many managers’ existence.

    If the thought of some snot-nosed 20-year-old cramming your office, needing something to do to stay busy is annoying – well, I have the solution. For ten years, we’ve welcomed interns from different schools and from different majors through our doors. Many of them have become full-time employees. Some have become lifelong friends. What’s the key to our success?

    We keep it fun, interesting, and we try to connect with each intern on a personal level.

    Said another way, we make sure our interns work on something that has some tangible benefit to the business, while also ensuring we take time outside of the office to make the experience memorable.

    It’s easy.

    I know it can seem like a pain to realize it’s the middle of May, and a new, young face will be walking in the door shortly. That young face wasn’t here last week. Now he or she needs something to work on. You sold them on your company by saying, “It’s not like you’ll be getting coffee for us and making copies all day. You’ll contribute.” But now, the easiest thing to assign them is probably just that – coffee and copies. And then bug off, intern.

    To me, that’s where most internship experiences fall apart. Right at the beginning, I know many managers or business owners won’t invest the time to make the internship interesting, and valuable. Like anything in life, you have to invest the time and energy.

    Prior to your intern’s first day, make a list of things they can work on that will have a noticeable contribution to the business. Have a biz dev project that’s been sitting on the shelf for 6 months? That’s perfect. Put the intern on collecting names and dialing for connections. Or maybe you’ve been meaning to do some content marketing, publishing articles under your name with the business attached to it? Another great intern project. Get them connecting with editors and bloggers to open up doors for you.

    Those are simple, effective tasks that you can easily show to have a tangible benefit for the business.

    Last summer, we had two interns who worked exclusively on initiating conversations with older business owners looking to sell their business. It was a grind, but it also let them talk to a lot of business owners, learn about their companies, and open up acquisition opportunities for our private equity fund. All along, I made sure to provide a feedback loop to each intern about how the conversations they teed up for me went. “That one today was really good, I love the apparel company. We’re reviewing their financials next week. Great job! I’ll keep you posted on how it turns out.”

    Reminding them of the fruits of their labor matters, and differentiates the experience from fetching coffee.

    Now, I’m not saying interns shouldn’t have to do a little dirty work. Just this morning, my business partner in Kansas City texted me a picture of the new interns for PolicyZip putting together their desks and chairs in the new office. If you want somewhere to sit and work, you’re going to have to put it together!

    But it’s all in good fun, and it’s all about creating that experience for them to carry forward with them into their carriers. I said we try to spend time connecting with each intern on a personal level, and often that means outside of the office. We’ve held intern olympics. We’ve stocked the company soccer team with interns and played together. We’ve taken them to Vegas and paid for everything (that always seems to go over well).

    These are young men and women who are on summer break from college, after all. Chances are, if you can get ‘em out to have a few drinks or do something else non-work related, they will enjoy it. Let them see you as regular people and let them know the joining the “working world” is going to be a good experience.

    If you’re open to treating interns well, and mix in some creativity to your planning for their summer, you’ll have a successful internship program. It truly is that simple. Give them something to work on that’s valuable, share feedback with them on how it’s contributing to their business, and take them to lunch on Friday to learn about who they are and what they want to become in life.

    Simple. Fun. And effective. Follow that formula, and your 2016 interns will be your 2019 stud employees.

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