The 6 Keys to Successful Internships

Apr 23, 2024

Intern. Let the stereotypes begin.

The stereotypes wouldn’t be there, though, if there won’t so many companies using interns. According to one study, 97% of large employers hired interns. The list reads like a “Who’s Who” of Fortune 500 companies–Google, Facebook, ESPN, Disney, PriceWaterhouse, JP Morgan.

Dean Witter—the brokerage firm that is now part of Morgan Stanley—had a famous internship program. The program was the context for a Will Smith movie a few years ago called The Pursuit of Happyness.

That’s largely what we think of when we think of interns—low guy on the totem pole, trying to prove yourself, coffee runs, and some learning along the way. Millennials and Gen Z-ers particularly are open to the idea of interning as they enter the workplace with a desire to see immediate impact from their work and, in many cases, parents willing to bankroll a season of their son or daughter’s life.

The stats keep rolling. In the United States, somewhere between one and two million people are interns. Seventy-five percent of college graduates have an internship at some point during college. I live in a college town, and sometimes it feels like about one in every three people I meet is an intern. And the other two have one.

Companies aren’t idiots. There’s a reason these 1-2 million internships exist. And the reason is a lot bigger than coffee runs.

Done right, internship programs provide exceptional value to the company in the short-term and the long-term. And done right, internships programs provide exceptional value to the intern as well.

The trick is doing it right. Good internship programs have the dual focus of utilizing and developing interns. But you’ve got to do both. If you veer too far to one side or the other, somebody burns out—either the company or the intern.

Let’s look at each in turn, and I’ll give you three tips on how to utilize and develop interns.

Utilizing Interns

1. Give them real work.

Google’s internships are legendary, in large part because interns jump into the fray right away. (Check out what these first week interns have to say.) As interns, they’re designing things that actually get used by the public. In the process, Google is benefiting from intern knowledge and fresh perspective in programming, marketing, and much more. Interns have high energy, fresh perspective, and the desire to produce impressive results. Why would you not use them?

The classic George Patton quote is “Don’t tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” Interns can put that into practice for you if you give them the chance.

2. Recruit from them.

In 2015, U.S. News and World Report found that 80% of companies view recruiting as a function of the internship. A few years ago, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 72% of interns received job offers.

(This may mean you have to change your image of an intern from a 17 or 18 year old on a school summer break to a college student or college grad ready to get a full-time job.)

An internship is essentially a two- to twelve-month trial run, which is a gift from heaven for an employer. If it goes well, you have a new employee whom you’ve already onboarded, trained, and shown the organizational culture. Plus, you know they fit with your organization. If it doesn’t go well, there’s a natural stopping point.

3. Build advocates.

Seth Godin doesn’t just talk about tribes, he builds his own—in part through running an intensive internship program.

Godin doesn’t hire most of these interns. You may not hire most of yours. But done right, all your interns can become advocates for your company, a part of the network of potential customers, clients, business partners and beyond. Showing interns respect and offering quality training has great benefit for your company down the road.

Which leads me to…

Developing Interns

1. Give them real work.

Google’s internships are legendary, in large part because interns jump into the fray right away. They’re designing things that actually get used by the public.

Oh wait, did I say this already?

It’s true, though. Offering interns real work engages their heart in their work, and lets them stretch new muscles and develop new skillsets. Grabbing coffee for the CEO doesn’t teach an intern anything besides humility (which is good). Crafting a pitch for a client teaches an intern about hard work, teamwork, professionalism, value proposition, reading a room, delivering on commitments, and much more.

2. Give them valuable relationships.

I wrote an article a couple years back on how companies are missing it with millennials. One of the points is that millennials need to be connected with heroes in the company.

CNBC found the same thing in looking at companies like Newell, which has a “Lunch and Learn” as part of their internship program. This is where interns get to spend time with executives.

In addition to hero time, though, you also want to provide a great team work experience, like Godin does, by throwing his interns together to challenge each other and push each other to greatness. He invests lots of time personally in his interns but he also has them spend a lot of time together.

3. Give them feedback.

Tom Peters said, “Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence—only in constant improvement and constant change.” Model that to interns through your interaction with them. Show them that you’re focused on their improvement, not their perfection.

Like any workplace role, the internship flourishes when there’s feedback. That means positive and negative feedback. Internship implies temporary and implies learner, so take advantage of that fact. When else do you get the chance to get to do one-on-one coaching with an employee who wants to learn and be developed?

The companies that hire the interns you don’t will thank you.


It’s not all positive of course. Ross Perlin wrote a book called Intern Nation outlining the fact that companies are burning through interns with no regard for them. (Sidenote: Most true internships are paid. The Department of Labor says unpaid internships only exist for non-profits or if the intern gets college credit.)

But that’s because companies think about using interns without developing them. Alternatively, companies burn out because they’re spending tons of effort on internship programs and not seeing results—either in their hiring process or their bottom line.

That’s why it’s about utilizing and developing interns. Make it worth your time and theirs.

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