Pay or no pay—the true value of many internships in non-profit, government, public and private sectors is being wasted.

The investment is being drained largely by how most internship programs are structured---as a one-way learning process.

Internships should be designed to promote a mutual exchange of information and ideas. The insight gained into a company by a twenty-something (or younger) is invaluable for improving not only how work gets done but also how your company can attract—and be attractive to—tomorrow’s future leaders.

Yet, from recent conversations with student graduates of my Dulye Leadership Program and colleagues who own or manage businesses, it’s apparent that all too many interns pack up their satchels, shake hands with their boss and head out without being formally asked, “How did it go?”

Don’t let interns leave you without giving feedback about their experience. Maximize your investment in them and your firm by collecting their comments. Here are five tips for realizing the full benefits of this priceless practice:

No. 1: Maximize communication. Strike up an ongoing conversation with your intern throughout their work period. Among respondents to my firm’s 2013 Summer Intern Poll conducted last month, those with the highest level of satisfaction in their experience reported having regular meetings and informal chats with their direct boss. Topics ranged widely from job responsibilities to company issues. “My manager took the time to not only explain my day-to-day tasks, but how they fit into the grand scheme of the business and how it benefited more than my immediate surroundings,” offered one respondent. Another big plus cited in our poll data was regular participation in team meetings and business reviews.  The impact of inclusion had one intern feeling “that I was a member of a team…I (was) meeting and connecting with professionals from around the industry.” Be sure to inject listening into your communication practices. Interns want to be heard—and that applies to co-workers as well as the direct manager. More than 85% of our poll respondents felt their opinions were valued by their work colleagues.

No. 2: Train managers on best practices. Poll respondents rated “my relationship with my direct manager” closely with “company culture” as the biggest factors for making any internship great. Bosses outranked office space, project assignments and work tools. Don’t presume that establishing a great relationship with young, temporary talent is intuitive. The job of quickly onboarding an intern, integrating them in company culture, introducing them to co-workers, discussing big-picture company plans and getting real work done requires strong organizational, communication and mentoring skills. “My manager introduced me to everyone and got me well acquainted with the business,” raved one intern. To achieve a win-win outcome for the student and the firm, help managers prepare in advance by identifying projects that are truly meaningful and challenging. Have them establish a work plan with concrete tasks, deliverables and deadlines. Compile orientation materials, facility maps and team rosters that can be sent with a personal note a few weeks before the intern’s arrival. Include any administrative applications—such as badge or equipment forms. Thoughtful preparation will avoid a situation like this, as reported in our poll: “I wasted one week of a 10-week internship on figuring out where I would be situated.” Another horror story from our poll told of a situation where “the first week (my boss) had no work for me to do.”

No. 3: Show appreciation. You don’t need fancy lunches at the hottest, priciest local restaurant to make an intern feel valued. In fact, you don’t have to leave the office at all. Poll respondents who reported high satisfaction with their experience were motivated by these three factors:
• Their own accomplishments: “Walking away with an entire portfolio of news packages that I had created on the job”;
• Their on-the-job treatment: “I worked with people who made me comfortable and prepared a comfortable learning environment that wasn’t intimidating”);
• Their professional connections:  “I expanded my professional network….I have lasting connections, both inside and outside of the company.”
Interns don’t want to be treated as kids. They want, as one respondent pointed out, “the opportunity to provide value.” Respect is the ultimate workplace reward.

No. 4: Poll interns on their experience. Polling is a perfect addition to your company’s exit process. Go beyond collecting interns’ badges and work supplies to gathering their observations and opinions. Using an online platform allows the intern to complete the poll wherever he or she wants – using either a smartphone, tablet, laptop or other electronic device. It’s important to poll real-time while the experience is still fresh in interns’ minds. Memory fades fast once they are back on campus.

No. 5: Poll managers too. Remember internships take two—so don’t let the direct manager’s voice and views go untapped. Use an anonymous, online poll, similar to what I’ve described above for interns, to evaluate their experience. Supervising an intern offers a new dimension to a manager’s job and should provide developmental opportunity. Ask questions about the impact of the experience on the work team, as well. Finally, gauge the manager’s opinion on how other departments, work groups and company leaders support interns on important projects.  
 

If your company wants to win the war on talent, then take interns and internships seriously.  By adding the dimension of preparedness and polling, you can make major advances in your company’s strategy for attracting tomorrow’s leaders today. There’s proof in the data—77% of our poll respondents said they would pursue a job with the company where they interned.

Linda Dulye is internationally recognized for helping many companies go spectator free. A former communications leader for GE and Allied Signal, Linda established Dulye & Co.  in 1998 with a practical, process-driven approach for improving communications and collaboration through an engaged workforce— a formidable competitive advantage, that she calls a Spectator-Free Workplace™.