Internships

How to Get the Most Out of an Intern

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It’s a fantasy for many entrepreneurs: the idea of delegating tasks and actually having someone else do the work. Especially for solo practitioners or those just launching their business, there’s often no reprieve from the stream of tasks -- from the strategic (setting your company’s 12-month plan) to the banal (data entry and prospect research).

I recently received a question from a consultant in my coaching program who was about to launch his new book. He’d been approached by several MBA students who wanted to intern for him and assist with media outreach and setting up book events. “My gut reaction has always been ‘no,’ because I’ve been under the impression that managing a volunteer is more work than just doing it myself,” he wrote me. But, he said, the notion appealed. Was there a way to make it work?

Related: Think You Should Hire an Intern? Think Again.

During the launch of my first book, Reinventing You, I worked with an undergraduate intern for a semester; for my newest book, I opted out. Here’s what I learned in the process.

Make a list of the projects you’ll need help with.

Before you even start thinking about taking on an intern, make a comprehensive list of the projects you’ll need help with. That will enable you to determine what skills you need to look for in a hire (or a volunteer). If you’re preparing for a book launch, for example, it might look like:

  • Speaking engagements (research companies or alumni groups that might bring you in, conduct outreach, plan travel logistics)
  • Presentation creation (identify photos to use, create slides)
  • Guest blogs (create list of targets, identify angles, solicit placement)
  • Media outreach (research reporters and outlets, identify their contact information, write draft pitch letters, send pitches)

Determine what sort of help you need.

Are the tasks you’ve identified one-time or ongoing? If it’s a blitz around a book launch or other special event, perhaps short-term help would be valuable. But if you’re hoping for assistance with eternal hassles, such as scheduling or email management, then it may not be worth it to invest the time to train an intern who’ll be gone in a few months. In that case, you might be better served hiring a virtual assistant who will stay with you for the long term. (That was the approach I took when launching my second book, Stand Out, because I realized I needed more sustained help.)

Make the value proposition clear upfront.

Particularly if your intern is volunteering their services, you need to understand what they’re hoping to get out of the experience. (Given recent class-action lawsuits, it’s important to be aware of restrictions around using unpaid help.) If they want to learn about media relations but you need someone to focus on writing online product reviews, they’ll quickly become unhappy -- and may cause you more headaches if they quit without notice. Take the time to ensure you’re finding someone whose goals match your needs, so the arrangement is a win-win. 

Related: 5 Ways to Find, Train and Oversee the Ideal Intern

Provide detailed instructions.

The more specific you can be with the assignments you give, the better the result will be. Your intern might have fun dabbling, but you'll get a lot more valuable output from them if you assign a clear task like, "I want you to identify the top 100 sustainability blogs and create a spreadsheet. Let me know your methodology for identifying the blogs before you create the spreadsheet. Once you’ve identified the targets, enter into the spreadsheet the following information: whether they do interviews or allow guest posts, who the contact person is and their email address, and submission specifications."

Set regular check-ins and provide feedback.

The biggest challenge when managing an intern is ensuring that you make time to review their work regularly and provide feedback to them. They’ll get demoralized if you go weeks without evaluating their submissions, because it will seem like “make-work” projects that don’t have any bearing on your professional success. (Not to mention the possibility that they could go down the wrong path and spend hours pursuing an angle that you don’t find fruitful.) Instead, set regular check-ins -- at least weekly, but sometimes even more frequent, depending on the tasks and how much time they’re putting in. In the beginning, that will undoubtedly create more work for you, so you have to budget the time in order to reap the benefits later.

If you don’t manage them properly, interns can become a time-suck that makes more work for you. Instead, plan in advance, scope out their tasks, and make time in your schedule for supervision. If you do it right, you’ll soon be able to accomplish far more because you have the power of two people working to advance your goals.

Related: 5 Keys to Building a World-Class Internship Program