Business Insider: What A CEO Can Learn From Interns

Originally Published in the Business Insider | September 8, 2011 | By Paul Mandell

Summer interns often gain valuable knowledge and experience from their sponsoring companies. And in some cases, the CEO can learn a few things from these future corporate stars.

That was the case this summer at Consero Group, the events company that I co-founded last year, where we had two particularly impressive interns with stellar resumes from the University of Maryland—Elinor Chang and Zach Cohen. Our team had created the internships in part to provide an interesting learning experience for undergraduate students. However, as I interacted with Elinor and Zach, I discovered that despite their limited experience, they had some useful lessons to teach me—some of which have significantly enhanced our business.

Empowerment Leads to Success

In reviewing the intern project folder during their first week at Consero, our interns attacked our toughest projects. Zach pursued a weighty budgeting exercise that required advanced Excel expertise—rebuilding the chart that we use to measure per-event financials. Elinor took a research project on global trademark protection that required some legal background. Ambitious and creative, our interns were eager to press onward, vowing to pursue any necessary training on their own. In the past, I have delegated challenging tasks to talented colleagues whom I have trained and trust. But I was persuaded by our interns’ excitement and professed commitment to delivering great work. So, I empowered them to run with the projects, and the results were remarkable.

Combining their brains, work ethic, and passion for Consero, our interns began their efforts with several online classes on higher-level Excel, as well as in-depth research on several complex areas of the law.  By the end of their training, they were delivering work product on par with what I would expect from experienced accountants and paralegals. And in observing them, I realized that if smart team players want to help, I should let them—regardless of experience. I also learned that in the age of Google, if junior colleagues lack some of the knowledge they need, they may well be able to find it on their own.

Give Meaningful Work for a Meaningful Return

Having witnessed the success of our interns during their first round of projects, I decided to step on the gas with each of them, replacing the grunt-work tasks (e.g., data-entry projects) with meaningful exercises that could significantly impact the business like competitive research, HR software evaluation, and financial-trend analyses. Our interns were eager to please, and more eager to help the business. They took pride in helping us advance the ball at Consero, so I let them by giving them projects that actually mattered. And the results were superb.

Listen to Your Interns

I learned a final lesson during our intern exit interviews, in which I asked for observations and advice. Admittedly, given their lack of experience, I did not expect much. However, they had been observing our team and processes from a perspective quite different from that of entrenched members of our team, noticing inefficiencies and faults (as well as successes) that we didn’t see ourselves. These observations led to practical suggestions that made perfect sense, including reconfiguring our office layout, altering our sales pitch, and adding a new element to our orientation process. The lesson here is that even the most junior member of your staff—including a summer intern—can provide feedback to improve your business. So unless you’re concerned about your ego, you should listen.

Conclusion

Having interns is a great way to create opportunities for future members of the workforce. However, if you choose good ones and offer interesting projects, they might just deliver not only some useful work but a few valuable lessons.