Me: Hey Kevin, quick question. On a scale of one to ten, one being ‘not at all’ and ten being ‘a lot’, how much would you say you’ve learned during your internship?

Kevin: Eleven.

This was a conversation I had with one of AirShr’s interns just before he finished up and it made my day. Kevin graduated with Honours in software engineering from the University of New South Wales, applied online for an intern role and was extremely nervous during the interview process. Since then we witnessed the development of his industriousness, sense of humour and point of view and under Opher and Luke’s expert guidance, Kevin completed his tour of duty having engineered and shipped an impressive product called Search Radio.

Joyce, another AirShr intern, joined us while studying advanced mathematics and computer science at the University of Sydney and she brought an unexpected research and prototyping capability to our business. She couldn’t thank us enough for bringing her on board. The truth is we couldn’t thank her enough for joining us!

I don’t often use AirShr to surface examples in order to make a point. This case is a little different because it highlights a practical challenge that founders often face when trying to hire interns as a means to accelerate the momentum of their ventures.

I’ve heard founders say countless times, “we’ll just get some interns”, as if 1) that task requires no more effort than flicking a switch, and 2) interns come pre-loaded with all the context, knowledge and alignment to strategy and vision required to execute on the milestones they’d be hired to achieve.

This is the strange perceived romance associated with recruiting interns. It’s true that interns are available. They’re typically motivated by an intrinsic desire to learn and gain experience or the need to fulfil a condition of study or a combination of both. However, the supply of interns in no way correlates to how many will be suited to work in your company. In other words, the strategy you employ to hiring the best talent available in terms of ‘fit’, capability and ambition must extend to how you hire interns.

Of course, internships are a different style of employment. Functionally they serve as a time-bound experience to help furnish the future talent pipeline of a company but the reality is that whilst ‘fit’ and ambition can be understood from the outset, the same cannot be said about capability. Why? Because interns usually arrive with no practical experience.

These five steps help address the issue of limited experience and help you understand if your company is intern-ready.

1. Have Coaches and Hire The Coachable

Each intern needs a coach. Period. Look around your organisation. Are your co-founders and team members good at coaching? Which is to say are the people you work effective at building trusted relationships, helping others to elevate self-awareness, and good at challenging thinking and assumptions, being supportive and encouraging to then helping others drive to desired outcomes? Besides the crucial point that a culture of coaching is essential to building a resilient organisation, if the answer is NO, then put simply your organisation isn’t intern-ready. Despite the highest levels of intelligence or motivation interns require regular coaching with teams to understand the context and receive help to focus their developing skills.

If the answer is YES, then determining if an intern is coachable is straightforward for two reasons. Being coachable is somewhat binary. You either are, or you’re not (and yes, I expect that to be controversial). The second reason is that being coachable boils down to whether a person can accept whether they are/were wrong. Understand this in interviews by exploring experiences in the interns past where they accepted they were wrong and they acted to resolve the situation. If you’re convinced of the candidate’s ability to be coached and they do start with the organisation, it’s always prudent to continue looking for signs that support initial point of view. Needless to say, discontinue the hiring conversation if you believe an intern not to be coachable. The unfortunate reality is that this issue will be problematic in the future.

2. Always go paid

If you don’t pay interns and then at some point (inevitably) they start adding value to the company, you’ve just crossed the line into exploitation. It’s as simple as that and in many countries, this is the principle that drives industrial relations law relating to paid versus unpaid work. Beyond this, there are two important and very human reasons to ‘go paid’. The first is that everyone needs money to live. If an intern is going to deliver value, help them create value in their life so they can live and have fun — simple. And the second reason is based on the old adage that you value what you pay for. An intern not receiving the coaching they need to thrive during an internship because they are a ‘free resource’ simply isn’t right. You’re wasting their time and in any case, paying an intern reminds the company that every investment should come with a return. In this case, the return starts with coaching.

3. Expect the internship scope to change

There is only so much you can learn about someone through interviews. As trust and a sense for what an intern is truly capable of become clearer, there is every chance the scope of the internship will change. This might be less true in large organisations with structured intern programs but in new ventures, this is almost always true. Set the expectation with intern candidates that this might happen. Also, be open to guidance from interns on what they think they can work on after being with the company for a couple of weeks. Kevin and Joyce came to AirShr with very different initial scopes compared to what they ended up working on (which was largely driven by them). It was a win : win, they thrived and we benefited!

4. Have an intern interview an intern candidate (if possible)

In every interview process involving high calibre candidates there comes a time when the conversation turns from interrogation to sales. The company becomes convinced there is value in the candidate joining their team and now it’s time for the company to its best to bring them onboard. This ‘selling’ often focuses on remuneration, career development opportunities and the promotion of culture and sense of purpose. It’s expected that company leaders do this each day and do it well but there is nothing more authentic than an intern candidate having a candid conversation with a future peer, intern to intern.

Obviously, this is potentially a double-edged sword.

However, if leaders have created an environment where team members are inspired to do their life’s best work, this conversation will not only demonstrate the trust you have in your intern and empower them, it will take your intern value proposition to the next level.

5. Understand how interns want to grow during their internship

I recently wrote about knowing your team which focused on understanding the hopes and dreams of your team. This philosophy applies to all team members, interns included.

One last thing…(that doubles as a red flag)

If the solution to an issue is just hire interns, the issue isn’t well understood which means the solution will be ineffective. Be real about whether you’re intern-ready or not.

Hiring interns is about creating value, for you and for them. Do it poorly and consequences await. Do this well and it’s win : win.