on leadership: things I learned by managing an intern

Last summer I took on the responsibility of managing an intern. My supervisor retained the “official” management role, but let me do all the work so that I could gain management experience. At the same time, I mentored a younger friend working as an intern at another company, letting her share her struggles and triumphs as she navigated a large corporation for the first time. Here are some things I learned during these processes:

First, I learned to spend a lot of time with an intern. In the case of the intern who reported to me, this was no problem. We sat near each other and worked very closely on the same project full time. (I also led the project). However, my friend at the other company only saw her manager once a week, and that manager’s office was in a section of the building my friend was restricted from due to security policy. Therefore my friend felt unguided. Given that both interns expressed general insecurity to me, I concluded that being an intern is a fundamentally “insecure” mental state to be in. Therefore, interns need regular and direct support. Giving sufficient time to them is crucial to their success.

Second, I tried an experiment—gave my intern “enough rope to hang himself”—with the assumption that he would quickly adapt. Therefore I divided my management style during the internship period into three phases:

  1. At the beginning, I told him exactly what to do.
  2. In the middle of the internship period, we debated as equals what the next steps are on the path to project completion.
  3. During the last weeks of the internship, I simply instructed him to decide for himself what was best for the project and then do it.

This worked fabulously!  Now maybe I got lucky because my intern was exceptional, but I learned to become comfortable with delegation to and trust of individuals who report to me. Furthermore, my intern gained experience in the kind of decision-making he would be responsible for in future projects.

Third, I learned to be very honest about both the good and bad of corporate America. This allowed me to sleep at night. My intern quickly saw the good—getting paid a good wage, exciting projects, good mentorship—but he also witnessed a round of layoffs. On the day of these layoffs I took him to lunch to discuss any questions and feelings he might have about them. But I did not try to hide him from that reality.

I also explained how group decision-making in corporate settings can be “two steps forward, one step back” often during the process of developing a product. My intern found this frustrating but I suggested, kindly, that he get used to it. With that I told him the story of Camus’ existential hero Sisyphus, who was condemned to push a rock up a mountain every day for eternity, only to have it fall back down the mountain at night, thereby rendering his work “meaningless” to a casual observer. Camus however explained that the “meaning” is in the process itself, not the outcome. I don’t know if this comforted my intern but I think it normalized and validated the frustration he was feeling. Here I learned that metaphors and storytelling are good mentoring tools.

Finally, I learned that it is unreasonable to ask an intern to take more risks on the job during the internship period. I tried this, because I highly value risk-taking, but my intern displayed much discomfort at the idea. So I backed off. What I did encourage was for him to develop this skill—and risk-taking is a skill—in later jobs as he becomes more established in his career.

I’m now a wiser person and a better leader because of these experiences.

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