When my co-founders chose our company headquarters near our alma mater, we were all inspired (in part) by romantic notions of coming full circle to give back to the community that made us who we are. We imagined interns folding underwing like our very own hatchlings and hanging on our every wise word. Then, shortly after the move, I mistakenly introduced an intern as a mentee and the sophomore shot me the most confused look. Suddenly, I felt silly and presumptuous.
That’s when it dawned on me: My high-mindedness had only made a difference for my ego. So, I set out to build a strategy around better engaging our interns so that their time with us truly does enhance their lives as well as their resumes. Here are five ways to incorporate mentorship into your internship program.
Make Your Aspirations Known Early on
Initially, fear of failure prevented me from admitting how ambitious we were about our intern program. Saying “I want to be your mentor” felt like telling someone you just met that you want to be their best friend someday. Then, I realized how not disclosing your intentions can have equally off-putting consequences. If your interns don’t know why you’re asking them personal questions, sharing life lessons, and saying “I was just like you once,” it can come across as if the very person who judges their performance is standing in the way of them doing their job. How would you feel if your old boss secretly added topics to a meeting agenda and made them top priorities? To the boss, the meeting was extremely productive; to everyone else, the meeting would seem to have veered off-topic and ran longer than necessary. In fact, in that situation, your so-called mentee would be so confused that they can’t internalize the insights you’re trying to share.
So, as early as the interview and the onboarding training, you should make your intentions clear. If interns know in advance that you want them to get more out of their internship than a portfolio, then they are free to build connections with superiors without fear of wasting anyone’s time. Being clear on the purpose behind every interaction helps your mentees get the most out of every relationship in the office.
Find Out What the Interns Want Out of the Experience
Because goal-oriented thinking is essential to any business endeavor, we’ve never failed to ask our interns what they want to accomplish during the internship. However, mentorship is about the journey as well. So, we’ve added a new question: “What do you hope to learn about yourself and this industry along the way?” This question signals that we care about their enrichment as well as their contributions, and it primes them to think about their journey as deeply as they do their destination. Of course, if the rest of the team treats their answers as inconsequential — merely busy work to do before they take on an assignment — then you’ve defeated the whole purpose. So, we also talk to interns about their hopes for the internship throughout their stint here, using them as a benchmark to ensure they have a meaningful experience.
Before formalizing the mentorship program at the internship, finding an intern on Linkedin was far from an item on my to-do list. Interns themselves would typically send me an invite weeks after they join the team, sometimes once they leave. As an avid networker, even I sometimes get nervous sending a Linkedin request following a meeting. I’m sure some of the interns are even more hesitant about connecting using their personal social media pages.
So, I take the initiative, sending invites to new interns weekly. It breaks the ice and affirms my intention to connect with them individually and support them throughout their career. Typically, I include a note welcoming the new intern to the team, letting them know that I’ll be available for a recommendation, introduction or advice. I’m always excited to see connections ask me about my former interns or hear from the interns directly. I send my congrats as they hit milestones throughout their careers.
Share the Mentorship Responsibilities
Long-time members of my team make mentorship a part of their leadership practice. And because we’ve learned a lot about one another, we can recommend mentors for different interns or challenges. For example, one of the interns mentioned that they couldn’t relate to my situation because I’ve been preparing to become an entrepreneur since high school. Luckily, I knew the stories of my fellow employees well enough to recommend someone from a similar background who could speak to her specific journey.
Ask for Feedback
Feedback typically comes from the top-down perspective: customers, clients, and supervisors critiquing lower-ranking employees. But mentorship should be a mutual learning experience. Because the power dynamic can discourage feedback from the intern, formalizing the reciprocity is critical for facilitating an open and honest relationship. So, in addition to the standard anonymous feedback box (or Google Doc) that every company should have, we also request feedback during meetings and at the end of the internship.
Over the past two years, many amazing young people have come through our doors and left an indelible mark on my team. While other companies can only hope that the internship experience has shaped those young people in a positive way and wish them the best, I’m proud to have an internship program strategically structured so that we can do more than hope and wish. I continue to have mutually impactful conversations with interns and actively support their future endeavors.