How to Make the Most of an Intern

Do you remember seeing the first buds on the trees in the spring? Interns can be buds of promise for your business if you follow a few basic concepts:

L – Link the intern’s projects to business goals

E – Ethically plan for and manage your intern

A – Authentically mentor and coach your intern

F – Use feedback as a teaching and development tool

Not all internships are successful, but by using L.E.A.F. principles, your business can benefit from the reciprocal learning experience offered by internships.


Before expanding on each of the L.E.A.F. concepts, let’s look at the benefits to your business of developing an internship program.

  • First, your company gets to “sample” the talent. If you do the due diligence when finding your intern, you have the opportunity to see if the intern might be a good long-term fit for the company.
  • Secondly, interns are highly motivated by the learning experience. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Dawn E. Chandler, Lillian Eby and Stacey E. McManus noted that “people who volunteer are more likely to put in the time and effort necessary to fulfill their partner’s expectations.”
  • Finally, as small business owners we know the importance of finding a good coach and mentor for success. Here is your chance to give back to the community of entrepreneurs.

L: Link Projects to Business Goals

Many businesses view an intern as free labor to do grunt work at will. As a former intern myself, I’ve heard many times, “Who gets the intern today? Me? What am I going to do with her?” An unorganized internship is sure to fall short of your expectations and those of your intern. A well-organized internship where attention has been paid to the learning value of the project and the fit of the intern to the project and the business is crucial for success. How does one do this? The answer is twofold.

First, know what interns are looking for in an internship. Whether they are applying at Microsoft or your five-person company, some themes are the same.

According to WorkForceManagement, interns look for:

  • Company’s effort to make sure a fit between the intern, organization and project is achieved.
  • Challenging assignments building transferable skills.
  • Well-organized programs, clear expectations and consistent feedback.
  • Exposure to senior leaders or people in multiple departments to build a network.
  • Hands-on experience at the entry level.
  • Strong organizational interest in coaching and mentoring.

The next step is to know what you need from the intern. Develop your own elevator speech that communicates concrete, measurable business goals that are met by the intern’s project. What knowledge, skills and abilities will the intern need to succeed? How would you describe the culture at your workplace? Questions like these will help you make sure that you are focusing your message to potential interns.

Now that you’ve defined your needs: communicate, communicate, communicate. Write a brief job description that can be shared with nearby universities and colleges. Attend speed networking events designed to link interns with partner businesses. Most of all, make sure you communicate the business objectives of the project to your intern time and time again after you have hired him/her. Transparency builds the trust necessary for the mentor/mentee relationship you are building.

E: Ethically Plan For and Manage Your Intern

You are a small business owner, you are busy and you don’t have a lot of money. Wouldn’t it be great to bring in an unpaid intern to take care of all those tasks that you hate? Look at the opportunity you are presenting from the intern’s perspective. Does it sound appealing? Probably not, and it may not be legal either.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Fact Sheet #71: Internship programs under the Fair Labor Standards Act, “Internships in the “for-profit” private sector will most often be viewed as employment, unless the test described below relating to trainees is met.  Interns in the “for-profit” private sector who qualify as employees rather than trainees typically must be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over forty in a workweek” (para. 2).

The Test for Unpaid Interns

There are some circumstances under which individuals who participate in “for-profit” private sector internships or training programs may do so without compensation.  The Supreme Court has held that the term “suffer or permit to work” cannot be interpreted so as to make a person whose work serves only his or her own interest an employee of another who provides aid or instruction.  This may apply to interns who receive training for their own educational benefit if the training meets certain criteria.  The determination of whether an internship or training program meets this exclusion depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each such program.

The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

“If all of the factors listed above are met, an employment relationship does not exist under the FLSA, and the Act’s minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the intern,” the Department of Labor states.

One point worth mentioning is what can make your internship shine as an example of training vs. employment. Explore the opportunity to have your internship program integrated with a university or college program granting credit for internship work. For example, many entrepreneurship specializations or business management degrees offer this work/study option for students.

This is, of course, the letter of the law on what separates an intern from an employee, but what about the spirit?

When you make a commitment to an intern, you are making a commitment to mentoring and coaching. This type of relationship takes time and energy. Look back at the business goals you hoped to meet through the internship. How important are these goals to your business? If they matter, then find the time to help an intern get them done.

Set aside structured time each week to touch base with your intern. Ask for progress as well as concerns that require your coaching expertise. In short, bring your authenticity to the relationship.

A: Authentically Mentor and Coach Your Intern

Setting expectations at the beginning of your internship can save time in the future. Set your mentoring relationship up for success by communicating clearly and authentically. The Wall Street Journal’s Chandler, Eby and McManus provide tips to get started on the right foot:

  • Discuss what the beginning and the end of the internship will look like. What is expected from both parties?
  • Communicate your expectations on how often and how you will touch base with your intern. Will you work most often by phone, Skype or in person? Put these meetings on both your calendars right away.
  • Provide guidance on how the intern should report progress on the goals he or she is meeting.
  • Be upfront about the kind of attitude you expect from the intern, particularly in terms of learning and feedback. Have a plan for approaching conflict.
  • When you assign a new task or change an old one, be clear about why. The more transparent you can be the less chance there is for miscommunication.
  • Make a point in each conversation to ask questions and actively listen to your intern’s answers. After all, this is a learning opportunity for you as well.

The give and take of information described above builds a foundation of trust that allows for constructive feedback.

F: Use Feedback as a Teaching and Development Tool

Frequent and specific feedback is critical to learning. It’s even more important than when you’re coaching an intern. Depending on the length and intensity of the internship, weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly scheduled feedback is necessary for growth and development. Don’t underestimate the power of impromptu, positive feedback as you notice your intern doing work or behaving in a way that meets or exceeds your expectations.

Here’s a quick process to follow to make sure your feedback is focused on the development of your intern’s skills.

  • Begin by describing the behavior you’d like to see. How should the report look? How does a professional employee act and dress?
  • Follow up with the behavior you’ve observed. Try filling in the following sentence(s), “I’ve noticed ________ and it’s important to ____________ because it will help you _____________.”
  • End by discussing (not prescribing) how to bridge the gap between what you’d like to happen and what you’ve observed. Make sure to include the intern in the problem solving by asking for input.

It’s also important to open yourself to feedback. Coaching your intern to learn to give feedback is as valuable as teaching them to receive it. Modeling the appropriate behavior is essential.

  • Listen without interrupting and without defensiveness. Take the opportunity to receive feedback as a growth opportunity for yourself and your business.
  • Ask questions to clarify the feedback. Guide the intern toward the example above. What did the intern expect to see and why? What did the intern observe?
  • Discuss what could account for the gap.
  • Thank the intern for providing feedback.

L.E.A.F is the energy that’s needed to grow a successful internship program; start growing yours today.


Soma Jurgensen Soma Jurgensen is the School of Business Chair for Rasmussen College at the Brooklyn Park, MN college campus location. She has worked in business for more than ten years at companies including Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Parent Magazine, and General Mills. She also writes a blog called Authentic Me BizLog.

4 Reactions
  1. I think a lot of companies fall short of this standard with actual positions in the company. Especially the mentoring part.