Supervising an Intern? Give as Much as You Ask

One woman pointing at a computer while another watches what she does.

Most social-impact work isn’t particularly glamorous; few of us enjoy personal assistants or fully-staffed administrative departments. However, what you will find plenty of in this sector are passionate and hard-working interns.

If you’re lucky enough to have intern support, it may be tempting to breathe a sigh of relief while handing off important administrative tasks or wish-list items that you haven't quite gotten around to, and quickly jump back into whatever project you were working on. But it's important to remember that an intern is in your office to learn, and if you take the time to fill the role of mentor and teacher, you’ll find that you get a lot more out of the arrangement.

Gain a fresh perspective

We all get stuck in a rut now and again. Teaching an intern about how your organization, team, or job works can break you out of old habits by forcing you to think through and optimize daily processes. Discovering opportunities to improve how you work not only has the potential to make you a more productive social-impact professional, it can also be a teaching moment for your intern.

Don’t be afraid to say, “You know what? I think there may be a better way to do this. Let’s sit down and brainstorm a better process!” You may be surprised at the fresh ideas an eager intern can bring to the table.

Recruit the next generation of talent

Because internships have an end date, it can be easy to see interns as little more than temporary hires. Why waste time and energy training someone who’s just going to leave in six months? And, sure, sometimes interns do leave, never to communicate with you again. But many times, interns go on—either immediately or in the future—to work for the very same organizations where they began.

When you mentor a promising intern, you increase the likelihood that she will choose to stay with your organization long term. When that happens, the training you provided during the course of the internship becomes training she won’t have to go through when she starts working for you full time. Everyone wins.

Model the ethics you value

On a broader level, mentoring an intern is a chance to model the culture you’d like to see in your organization. Generosity, patience, and kindness are personality traits most social-impact professionals value but sometimes forget to call upon when facing the challenges of working with someone with little or no work experience.

Working with an intern can reaffirm the importance of how we interact with each other, be it on a global stage or in the office. Taking the time to slow down and explain things models the importance of education among colleagues and from supervisors, and treating mistakes as learning opportunities is a great strategy for delivering tough feedback. Valuing an intern’s opinions shows a willingness to welcome and consider ideas from all people, be they in your organization or someone on the outside.

Interns become ambassadors—for better or worse

Eventually, you’ll part ways with your intern. Maybe it will be after their semester is over, or maybe it will be after you’ve worked together for ten years. Either way, you will be sending an ambassador out into the world of social impact. How that ambassador describes your organization depends largely on the relationship you’ve built.

Taking the time to be a patient, hands-on mentor helps you, your organization, and your intern. That’s an outcome that feels even better than clearing the backlog of internal mail off your desk!

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by Alice Pettway

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