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Other Voices: Interns And Solar Power--Largely Untapped Resources

No one wants interns blowing off duties, but too many managers essentially blow off their internships.

Information-technology execs are spending a lot of their time today figuring out how to do more with less. Yet many have a resource they are wasting--interns. While many organizations have trimmed back the number of internships they're offering, these are still a key recruiting and screening tool, especially for technology departments. Interns can be instrumental in evaluating new technology and for other projects that might be difficult to justify with more expensive employees.

Unfortunately, too many interns I've talked to have spent the summer copying and doing other administrative functions. What a waste for everyone involved.

Don't get defensive. Yes, someone has to do the grunt work and interns might be the least costly means to an end. I didn't say to give interns only strategic tasks. One of my intern advisers, Lou Musante of Pittsburgh-based Echo Strategies, would often comment, "Sean, you do half your work to pay the bills." The other half is done to grow professionally, and he presented me with challenges that were invaluable.

It takes energy to get more out of your internship program. Just like with other employees, you need to clearly define your expectations for interns and guide them through projects, with an emphasis on guidance. For most interns, this often is their first experience in a professional setting. In fact, I've found that asking my own interns to put together a one-page document explicitly defining what they consider a win for both of us has helped maximize the value they've added. This is something I did in my last internship before graduating and found it so valuable I now have done it with my interns.

As an example, my adviser happened to be an extremely networked business leader. Therefore, during that internship a key criterion that I listed was to network with him. He took this to heart and invited me to attend a number of networking events and at the end of the internship I had accumulated approximately 60 new contacts, some of which have proven extremely valuable to my career over the past few years. It might have been obvious to me that this was something I wanted from the experience, but explicitly spelling it out ensured this was clear to both of us. I know throughout my internship he referred specifically to different people we met as someone else to add to my electronic Rolodex, probably because I had so explicitly stated the importance of this to him.

In much the same way, it's also really important that you define what a win is for your organization. I've found that meeting with my interns to review this face to face and then having them write down and E-mail to me what we discussed is a valuable tool. This ensures that they heard and understood my expectations and also provides a document to review at the end of the internship for evaluation purposes. I'm sure you can point to examples in other professional relationships where you thought you had a consensus when, in reality, you later found out you hadn't actually agreed on deliverables or expectations.

Also, just like with other key employees, it's great to provide an incentive for interns who exceed your expectations. While I realize it may be difficult to justify any budget for these incentives, bonuses such as lunch with key leaders or a small award are often just as valuable. Obviously, for many interns, this reward would be a job offer when they graduate, but I think you should get creative. For example, in larger organizations with a number of interns, it would be interesting to have an award at the end of the groups' internship experience for "Most Valuable Intern." While you obviously want to evaluate your culture to see how this would fit, it could create a healthy sense of competition and serve as a great motivator.

While you may not have the personal bandwidth to provide the extra level of guidance for your interns, this can provide a great opportunity for you to take young or future leaders and assign them as mentors so that they have the chance to grow and develop these critical management skills.

The final reason to try to give your interns real responsibility is that a good internship program should also be a way to screen potential candidates for future full-time positions. How will you evaluate the value an intern will add after graduating if they haven't done anything substantive over their internship? Do you really think one more year of education will morph them into an employee ready for real responsibility? If they aren't good employees right now, they probably won't be when they graduate, either.

Providing substantive projects not only will help you get more done with less, but also will ensure that you've identified talent you can utilize when the economy improves.

Sean Ammirati is the founder and director of Avanti Strategies. Talk to him at sja@avantistrategies.com.

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