My local paper just ran a piece on how companies are poaching university professors for AI work, raising concerns among faculty that “they’re eating the seed corn.” It’s another reminder that recruiting technical talent is not getting any easier. Companies will need to grow talent from within – which brings me to a popular spring knowledge transfer topic: internships.   manage interns This week I also came across blog post, CIO’s Disruptive Technology Secret Weapon: College Interns, written by Heller Search Associates, that made me want to revisit the topic of interns. In this post, they interviewed Prasanna Gopalakrishnan, EVP, Chief Digital and Information Officer at Boston Private about their team’s innovative approach to using internships as a future hiring tool. Here are my top three takeaways, with wisdom from Prasanna:

3 General Rules For Intern Management

1. Harness the power of many. 

When assigning projects to your interns, look for opportunities for collaboration and give them space to work together. “We brought the interns together for ten weeks and co-located them in an innovation lab where they could collaborate, bounce ideas off one another, and share what they were learning.” This approach enables interns to feed off of each others’ knowledge and energy, but also creates a more meaningful team bonding experience over the course of their internship.  

2. Treat them like they’re already employees. 

Giving your interns a behind the scenes look at how the company actually operates gives their work a sense of purpose, and allows them to really feel like a part of your business. Gopalakrishnan said that the Boston Private interns had the opportunity to sit in on high level strategic meetings, and even had facetime with her on a regular basis: “[W]e have a digital roadmap update meeting every Friday, and a lot of people are invited. [The interns] came to all of those meetings… I [also] met with the interns every other day for a half hour to give them guidance and make sure they were fully engaged.” Showing your interns that they’re valued gives a strong impression that will carry forward when they’re looking for a place to land post-graduation. After all, if you made time for them when they were “only an intern,” they can probably expect a great experience as an employee.  

3. Don’t focus too hard on any one “type” of intern. 

“Honestly we just wanted good, smart interns. We didn’t judge too much by which school they went to. More importantly, we wanted them to be curious and passionate, with good communication skills.” Gopalakrishnan shared that to create a well-rounded team, they also selected 50% men and 50% women. This approach succeeded in part because they started with a strong job description. “When you post these summer internship jobs, you have to be clear about what they will be working on, because college students these days have a lot of opportunities … Our job description clearly articulated what they would be doing and as a result, we were able to connect with the right students.“ Gopalakrishnan finishes the interview saying: “Creating an innovative mindset and bringing new talent and nurturing them within your organization is a tough job. It is a journey that you never quite complete.” I couldn’t agree more. And it’s worth the investment! If you’re interested in more interviews by Heller Search Associates, you can subscribe to The Heller Report.

How To Effectively Manage Interns

Internships are widely and erroneously believed to be a great way for front-line managers to get “cheap labor.” What many people overlook, is that intern programs are a critical recruiting tool. If you get a bright student who has a great experience with your company, they may come back when they’re ready for their first job. And – bonus – they’ll hit the ground running with the skills they built during their internship. However, if that intern has a terrible (or even mediocre) experience, they may reject the opportunity to come back, and (even worse) tell their smart friends that your company is a bad place to work. In effect, they become “anti-recruiters.” So, how do you avoid this?  

5 Steps to Turn Interns into Employees & Enthusiastic Brand Ambassadors

A few years back, I worked with Microsoft (which is regularly ranked among the top 10 best companies to intern with) to conduct research and improve their internship program. Through that work, we found that there is a direct correlation between a happy intern and a great knowledge transfer experience. The data showed that if the intern reported a good experience with a mentor who taught them real skills, they were highly likely to report an interest in returning. Conversely, if they reported a bad experience with their mentor, they were certain that they would not want to return. When we examined the intern-mentor relationships more closely, we found five key elements to a great internship:  

1. Introduce the intern to a peer mentor who is doing similar work.

Ensure that peer mentor has a clear role definition and is trained to provide an excellent experience for the intern. The mentor often serves as their boss while not actually being their formal manager so role clarity is a must.

2. Conduct a “First Meeting” to kick off the internship.

The manager, peer mentor and Intern all sit down and map out the entire internship, set expectations for training, work, fun, feedback and communication. Be as specific as possible about how the intern can be a success and provide a way to escalate if he or she runs into trouble.

3. Make sure the intern gets introduced to the “Big Picture” within the first few days of the internship.

Younger generations have proven that they are much more engaged when they can connect their own work to the greater vision for the company. No connection equals no interest in coming back.

4. Make sure the intern spends at least 50% of the time doing “real” work

By this I mean work that would have to be done by a full-time employee, not just busy work. They need to build real skills while they are with you or they will see the internship as a waste of time.

5. Provide a project that has a beginning, middle and end over the course of the internship.

This project will be the subject of the stories that the interns will tell their families and smart friends when they get back home. They’ll use these stories to convince themselves and others that your company is a great place to be. Be sure the story is compelling, or you may end up with an anti-recruiter and a hit to your employment brand.   What about your company? Do you have an internship program? Is it generating a pipeline for new employees? What’s working? What’s not? I’d love to learn from your experience. Please feel free to email me: How is your company doing on knowledge transfer? Explore revolutionary ways you can be prepared for executive succession planning with industry leader, Steve Trautman.