How to Grow Your Interns into Leaders

Are you looking to improve your internship program, recruiting or employee morale? You can tackle these areas through fostering a welcoming corporate culture and training interns to become part of it. If you’re looking beyond filling a position and instead to retain entry-level employees or interns long-term, the following variables will set your organization up with a foundation for success: establish a sustainable recruiting philosophy; empower people; and create a culture that values all people.

Establish a sustainable recruiting philosophy
Many companies view their internship programs and full-time employee recruiting as separate initiatives with separate goals. At Vertafore, our internship program is integrated with our ongoing recruiting. By viewing every candidate as an asset, whether they are applying for an internship or senior-level position, we can better gauge how their career and goals will align with our company vision.

For example, to best evaluate the skills and passions of candidates, interviews simulate the work intern candidates will do during their internships with the team they will be working with. An intern applying to work on a development team will walk through a coding problem on a whiteboard. If all goes well, they have a working session with the team that is hiring. The candidate gets hands-on experience on what it is like to work at the company and the team gets a chance to gauge their potential new member. Once interns are hired, we connect them with their team dynamic in order to understand the collaborative environment. Consequently, interns are embedded in teams with full-time employees (versus being isolated in a lone cubicle) to gain exposure to what their teams do on a daily basis. By the end of the internship, they are a fully contributing member of the team who has experienced the culture and contributed toward actual product releases.

“Our internship program is by far our best recruitment tool,” says Josh Zook, vice president of Product Development. “It allows us to gain a personal working relationship with young, top talent coming out of local universities. They get to experience what it is like to work for us and we get a good feel for how they will fit in with the teams. Because of the success of our internships, we have a very high conversion rate to full-time employees and a very low attrition rate once they do decide to start their career with us.”

Empower people
Part of what makes an internship program successful as a recruiting tool is to build the program in a way that provides each intern with a learning experience where they can feel challenged, heard and inspired.

Internship programs should empower employees to chart their own courses by identifying professional development opportunities for individual strengths and interests. Active career development makes a difference in employee morale and retention. In addition, encouraging interns to connect with a seasoned employee (other than their supervisor) to act as a mentor helps them proactively drive their own career development by seeking constructive feedback and resources to enrich their experience.

Create a culture that values all people
Companies should create a magnetic work culture that leads to exceptional employee morale and motivation to stay part of the team. For example, simply changing the workplace layout to be more collaborative can make an impact. By embedding senior staff with junior staff (sitting next to each other), this design removes physical barriers, which may help employees feel more comfortable sharing ideas to propel goals forward.

One former intern describes it this way: “You’re being productive, you feel like a member of the team and you’re doing stuff that matters and makes a difference,” says Todd VanHouten, who started his career at Vertafore as an intern in software development, progressed into a role where he uses his project management and communication skills as a Scrum Master.

Unfortunately, there is no set checklist for qualities of a strong internship, recruiting or professional development program. Successful companies accomplish this by fostering corporate cultures where ideas from people of all job levels are welcome and all members of the work community are treated with the same level of respect and responsibility. If you are looking to grow your interns into managers, remember to empower your interns and full-time employees with flexibility and ownership of their careers.

Colleen Heathman works for Vertafore, a leading provider of insurance software solutions, in its Okemos, Mich. office, where she serves as human resources director. She can be reached at [email protected].