Managing young professionals is hard, but well worth it: A reflection on Citizen's 2017 Summer Internship Program
The older I get, the more I look back and think, “Wow, if I’d known then what I know now…” As it turns out, this phenomenon will probably continue for my entire life. On a TED Radio Hour podcast called ‘Shifting Time,’ Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert assures us that even when you’re 50, you’ll still be saying this about your 40-year-old self. This feeling was especially strong for me while co-managing Citizen’s internship program this summer.
Let’s get real: Managing young professionals is hard. But it’s also incredibly rewarding. I learned a great deal, and I saw a reflection of my younger self in these talented, aspiring designers and strategists. I also felt even more appreciation and gratitude for the managers who took on the task of mentoring me in my first professional job.
In their honor, I’ll share five tidbits of wisdom from my experience managing the 2017 Citizen Summer Internship Program. (For you TL;DRers, follow the subheads to the quickest exit.)
1. Take it from the teachers: Complete lesson planning before school’s in session.
Going into the start of the program, fellow intern program manager Ryan Mowery and I felt fairly prepared. We had outlined the number of sprints we saw unfolding across the different phases of work and planned out discovery activities for the first couple weeks. The rest we thought we’d plan out as we went. Reality check: finding time for doing thoughtful sprint planning sessions was a bigger challenge than we’d anticipated. Which brings me to my next key learning…
2. Always assume you’ll have less time than you think. Create a “lite” version for engagement.
This summer, our studio was hitting one of its busiest times ever. And let’s be frank—client work always comes first. That isn’t to say we neglected our interns; we had daily 15-minute stand-ups in the morning, weekly formal internal reviews, and some 1:1 time sprinkled in.
But there was very little headspace left at the end of an extremely busy day to reflect on each intern’s professional growth and dedicate real time to in-depth coaching. Most often Ryan and I were doing flybys at their desks in between meetings, or sending them hastily written emails with marked up documents attached. Putting a little more structure around this kind of “lite” communication could have helped us set expectations and still retain a feeling of consistency.
3. Recognize that too much autonomy can be counterproductive.
We’d also had the genius idea of allowing the interns the opportunity to define the creative concept for their summer project themselves. We gave them some parameters and a few structured exercises for ideation, but otherwise said, “go and explore!” On the plus side, they did come up with a refreshing, original idea—using conductive paint to create an engaging, interactive Welcome Wall in our lobby space.
Adversely, their feedback for us was the intern project needed more structure and definition. They often felt like they were spinning their wheels. They wanted a coloring book, not a blank page. Defining the creative concept upfront, and just allowing them the freedom to explore how to tell the story (content, visuals) would be one way to give them more guardrails.
4. Create dedicated space for open and honest communication (and stick to it).
Like any team, ours was full of different personalities, perspectives and skillsets, and learning how to best collaborate and communicate with one another was challenging at times. One of the Agile methodologies Ryan and I didn’t adhere to, but later realized would have been incredibly beneficial, was having bi-weekly retrospectives. Retrospectives—which typically last about an hour—allow team members the space to reflect on the project so far and give each other constructive feedback or voice any concerns in a mediated setting.
According to Agile, “the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” We did have formalized performance reviews at the end of the program, but looking back, we see enormous value in making time for more regular, short-cycled feedback and improvement.
5. If you remember nothing else, remember this: The output is proportional to the effort invested.
There has been a lot written about the fact that—for better or worse—young professionals entering the workforce today need and expect a lot of individualized attention and regular feedback. We certainly found this to be true among our interns, and to be fair, I’d argue the ‘sink or swim’ philosophy has probably sunk more people than it has spit out Olympic swimmers. There’s a great piece in a Forbes article on leadership that says “we admire people who are willing to struggle, even mightily, to solve problems with which they have no familiarity. But smarts and stamina are never substitutes for experience and structured education.”
So yes, by the end of the program, I was heartily agreeing that managing young professionals well does require a significant investment of time and energy. But it was also apparent the huge strides our interns made over the course of the program were directly proportionate to the amount of time we invested as managers.
Intern programs have the capacity to return significant business value to the company. Employees gain a low-risk opportunity to test ideas and learn, and the company gets the chance to hire candidates who have already been vetted to be a great fit, both in terms of their skill and their ability to integrate well with the company culture and its people. With that in mind, it seems a no-brainer then, to invest the resources needed to create an environment which provides for an optimal return on that investment. It’s good for the interns, and it’s good for business.