Friday, August 14, 2009

What makes a good intern?

Some colleagues and I were recently discussing what makes a good intern, what makes you finagle to get certain people on your team and try really hard to get rid of other people (or make sure they never come close to your team in the first place). We came up with several qualities at first: a self starter, but not afraid to ask questions; good at writing and speaking, but not a chatterbox, but also not mute; able to take instructions but not rely solely on them; able to think on their feet but also willing to check with their boss first; able to learn from criticism but not internalize it...the list went on.

Then we began comparing our experiences as interns. We compared crazy bosses, some of whom were downright abusive and others who simply did illegal and/or unethical things. We compared great bosses, some of whom left us to our own devices and others who were explicit about every little thing they wanted and thereby got great results. The conversation got complicated as we described what it was like to go from boss to boss, manager to manager. For example, I usually work for a very detail-oriented managerwho surveys every bit of information that goes in and out of the office regarding his projects, and who thinks nothing of having me revise a memo or project program spreadsheet five or six times over the course of two days before we ever show it to the owner. However, last year I spent some time working for another manager in our office who is the complete opposite--just get it done and let him know if anything comes up. Working for Mr. Nonchalant left me adrift at first and wondering if he was going to suddenly lose his mind when he saw what I'd done in his physical and mental absence (a flashback to my first boss, who was bipolar), but ultimately I got used to working with him. When I started working for Mr. Nth Degree again this spring, I had culture shock all over again--I had to remember to run everything past him and copy him on every single email.

It was then that our group realized the one thing that made a good intern: adaptability. Can you learn how to deal with each manager and how to get the feedback and support you need from him or her? Can you figure out which of the consultants you should contact to get them them the information they need, and what's the best way to do it? Can you learn when is the best time to talk to your boss and how to deal with them (i.e., do they prefer to have you come over as soon as you have a question, or do they prefer that you only talk to them in the mornings and ask all your questions at one time?). Can you adapt to the quantity of work and detail required for various projects? Can you adapt to the level of quality that each project (and manager) requires? Can you adapt?

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