Value Your Interns They Are Your Next Great Leaders


Every organisation laments the lack of capable or qualified talent. When I chat with human resources and business leaders, they all express a collective sigh. They declare that the war on talent is very real.

Finding qualified resources appears to be a challenge in most industry sectors, at most levels. So why is this the case?

There is no singular reason. When I ask leaders they cite variables such as lack of competitive pay, talent resides elsewhere (meaning across the pond), and a shortage of skills. I don’t mean to be difficult, but isn’t the goal of an organisation to build their internal pipeline? Organisations should be doing so for a number of very critical reasons.

Developing talent through experience, competitive knowledge, and valued long-standing relationships has tremendous currency. It allows you to be fast, efficient and expedient. As employees traverse through their organisation they rely on trusted relationships. These relationships have been built by working together over long hours, critical incidents, tough timelines, and shared platforms. One of my clients who is a well-respected leader stated that “collaboration is extremely important, interdependencies are critical to achieving our collective goals.”

Internal pipelines matter because retention matters, it matters deeply. When an organisation loses staff they lose historical currency, teams are disrupted, morale is affected and productivity suffers. Engagement is not just dependent on an employee’s current role. Staff must see a trajectory. This doesn’t necessarily mean a straight trajectory. Lateral transfers help round out and give scope and breadth to one’s skill set. Employees should see that they have a future. This future should entail exposure to different and diverse roles.

Hiring from within also sends an important message. It signals to employees that they are valued and can hopefully have a long career with their current employer. This enhances motivation, drive, and loyalty. External hiring practices create a different message. Of course, there are hard to fill positions, unique skills sets, and very senior roles that do require an external lens.

When you look around at each year’s bright and ambitious interns, there are no bad habits to break. They are bright, shiny, open to learning, and mentoring. I also see interns wandering through the corridors balancing large trays of cappuccinos, lattes, and espresso macchiatos. How do I know these are interns? They look engaged, high-spirited, and I might add, somewhat anxious. You can tell as they place these large orders on behalf of seasoned staff, that they worry about getting that order just right. Can they be a latte away from being fired?

So what’s wrong with this image? These interns have college or university degrees, an established level of intellect, interesting outside pursuits, and want to do well in the hope they are invited back. They are finally out of school where they have spent not just part of their life, but rather their whole life.

When we speak of next generation leaders, we generally refer to high potentials. Employees who are on the high potential list are known to be proven entities. They have a track record of success, can lead teams, and are believed to be capable of assuming roles with greater scope. They are positioned with optimism as being able to carry the organisation forward. High potentials are just that, they have the potential to achieve even greater accomplishments.

At the other end of the spectrum, there can be an unfortunate bias around interns. They are seen as young and lacking in experience with minimal corporate or start-up exposure. To make matters worse, organisations have internship programs where a certain number of interns must be placed annually if budget and workload permits. These programs can be perceived as a necessary duty rather than valuable assets that will grow with time.

Interns represent the future of an organisation. They are ambitious, invested, open to new learning and want to prove their worth. Organisations may run the risk of sabotaging this kind of ambition and enthusiasm. If interns are regarded as having little worth or viewed as transient commodities, then a whole talent pool is potentially lost. These interns will be quick to differentiate organisations that provide them with a platform to make a contribution. At this early stage in their careers, it’s not about making a lofty difference; it’s about feeling valued, being part of a team, and believing there’s a future.

Transporting coffee and shredding documents are activities all of us have endured at one point in time. The problem is when these activities potentially become the essence of the intern’s experience. It’s not true, as commonly believed, these activities are viewed by interns as beneath them, rather it becomes a soul-numbing existence. Lack of experience should not be equated with lack of intellect.

Here’s another salient point. Although an intern’s work experience is limited, they are highly tapped into the community. They are a primary consumer group for today and tomorrow. Businesses are scrambling to align and develop technology with ever-changing consumer demands. These interns have relevant and spot-on views regarding what the consumer needs, wants, and will quickly dispose of. Mining their views helps to challenge old perspectives and shape new thinking.

Interns are a valuable commodity that is often overlooked and undervalued. Investors often advise that when the market is down to purchase stocks that are undervalued. The thinking is that these stocks will appreciate in value over time. Interns deserve to prove their worth. As a leader have you forgotten that someone took a chance on you? Interns deserve that very chance. They stand to help fill our talent pool shortage.