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How to Mentor an Intern. (Even if You Don’t Want To.)

mentor an intern

My intern actually suggested that I write this blog when I was struggling to think of interesting content this morning. My 17 year old, not-even-a-high-school-senior-yet intern. This kid who wants to work more hours than we assign to him and comes in to my office each day, eagerly looking at me for his next assignment. Meanwhile, I’m frantically trying to prioritize my own piles of chaos. (And now I have to find something for him to do that will help him become a productive citizen. Great, more work for me.)

Sigh…

I must admit, when my boss came to me and said “I got you an intern to help you with some of your functional duties. He’s this sharp high school kid that works at my grocery store, and he starts with us next week. I want him to help you with marketing, and he’s going to sit in your office.”  I heard “On top of the work that you already have, I now want you to coach a 17 year old kid and teach him what you do in 3 months.”  

I had to do a mental shift and realize that attending to the disarray on my desk was not my priority; and quite frankly, if I took a couple of minutes, I’d realize that I’m not as vital to my list of tasks as I give myself credit for. Nobody taught me how to do this stuff, and my intern WANTS to learn how to do this stuff.

Then, I had to let go of my control freakiness. It doesn’t seem that a self-diagnosed control freak would have a cluttered desk, but actually it is the exact reason that my desk is messy. I think I have to do everything myself, so instead, I prioritize the important tasks and let the less important stuff pile up into a mound of “this can wait.”  Every single day. And, I’m a hoarder of papers and business cards, to boot.

How to not only make more out of your day with an intern, but to help him (or her) actually learn from you:

Let go of control. Assign some tasks that have been gnawing at you; the ones that you don’t deem important enough to tackle during the nine-to-five. What task is eating at you the most? Hand it over. If your intern does it to 50% of the efficacy that you would, you just accomplished 50% more of that task. If your intern has to ask some questions while he is learning this new task?  Well, you can multi-task, can’t you? And sometimes just say to him,“What do you think you should do?” and let him figure it out.  There is a tremendous learning opportunity right there.

We always recap at the end of the day with a “What did you learn today?”conversation. I am having my cracker jack intern, Josh, blog about his learnings, too, so that he has tangible assets coming out of this internship. By doing so, he will chronicle his daily accomplishments and put his new competencies into print; these are assets that he can share when applying for college and future jobs. Powerful stuff.

I have to admit that this 17-year old young man, who is smart and confident beyond his years, surprises me every day. He tackles the tasks I give him efficiently and asks for more. He is quick and fearless, and very very good for me, in that he finishes something and moves on. I’m a collector of things that I think I might need to use again, whereas he takes what he needs from the time-sensitive resources at hand and tosses them out; knowing that there will be more time-sensitive stuff the next day. He reduces my clutter and frees up my mind. (Believe me, I had anxiety at first when he started to throw papers away…but now it gives me zen. And I’ve found the top of my desk, too.)

Granted, not all interns will be as sharp as mine. Some interns require more supervision or guidance, and you’ll have to learn to manage that…or at least find the tasks that engage their passions. I found these passions in Josh with little effort. Point is, interns are a fantastic resource if you embrace the opportunity rather than resist the little bit of extra effort it will require, in order to free up more of your time to do the things that you, alone, are uniquely qualified to do.