Intern Masters: The Benefits of a World Class Internship Program

The right kind of internship program brings in five-star talent, challenges them, develops them, and retains them for the next step

If you look online for the benefits of having an internship program, there’s no shortage of articles to choose from. Many have insightful information that can be useful and it’s clear that the authors put time and effort into creating bulleted lists like this one:

The Benefits of an Internship Program

  1. Find future employees

  2. Increase visibility on college campuses

  3. Test-drive the talent

  4. Increase productivity / extra set of hands

  5. Retain interns for entry-level hires

  6. Gain fresh perspective

  7. Take advantage of low-cost labor

  8. Find interns free-of-charge

  9. Give back to the community

  10. Support students

  11. Apply the latest in techniques and technology

  12. Enhance your social strategy

  13. Foster leadership skills in current employees / mentoring opportunities

  14. Improve the overall work environment.Benefit your business

These read great on paper or in a text book. Some are business critical, and some are nice-to-haves. But there are a few questions that I have to ask. Does an intern program that allows you an “extra set of hands”, “helps you gain fresh perspective”, and “finds low-cost labor” something that ultimately drives revenue or increases your EBIT savings? If you’re giving interns busy-work while neglecting their personal growth, are you truly “supporting students” or have you taken them away from an experience with another employer that could have truly challenged and developed them? If you don’t have strong leadership directing your intern program, are the students actually given the opportunity to improve the overall work environment or benefit the business? Or, are they left in a corner to post updates on Snapchat about how bored they are while waiting for a meaningful project?

When I read bullets like those I’ve listed above, it makes me concerned. I’m not sure if industry understands the true importance of an internship program that acts as a strategic talent feeding machine that can transform an organization. Truly valuable internship programs are ultimately designed to set your company up with its next generation of leaders. They should never be created without intent-to-hire, to pat ourselves on the back for giving students an experience they can put on their resume, or to solely to improve some out-of-touch HR metric.

As I read through the multi-verse of internship benefit articles, I couldn’t help but feel that the authors (while well intended) had never actually ran a program of their own or worked directly with interns that they had personally recruited, fought for, hired, trained, developed, mentored, placed, and formed long-lasting relationships with.

A Case Study:

My name is Ryan Goodrich, and my colleagues and friends at different universities have started referring to me as the “Intern Master”. It’s not a nickname that I ever thought I would get (I had much more interesting ones from the guys who I used to do CrossFit with), but I’ll take it. I’m hoping, eventually someone from within my network will send me some sort of trophy or plaque celebrating this accomplishment. While no formal award has yet graced my desk, I do have a Moscow Mule mug from Derek that says "Never Forget", a t-shirt that says "Collusion", a giant cut-out of my face, and a coffee-mug that says "World's Most Ok Boss" for my efforts.

So how did I fall into this nickname? For the past five years, I was given the freedom and authority to build out strategic talent attraction and development programs for the Procurement organization at a Fortune 500 company. When I joined Procurement, the first role I held was as Head of Performance and Program Management. I thought it would be a great position where I’d be able to use my experience with continuous improvement, supplier management, project management, and quality management system development to build the framework for process improvements that would take place within the US Procurement Organization.

I didn’t know a thing about procurement processes or much about what a procurement professional did outside of issuing purchase orders. Because of my inexperience in the area, I decided to educate myself by speaking with every member of the function. I thought it’d be a great way to learn about the group and meet all of my new colleagues. Maybe I’d even get some feedback that could help me get started identifying process or performance related projects that I could work on.

After my interviews concluded, I had found significant performance related issues, but they weren’t the type I expected. After I crunched the numbers, 80% of the feedback received came back to the Procurement organization having massive gaps when it came to traditional Human Resources related topics.

People felt stuck. Like they were forgotten. There were limited development opportunities, few functional trainings, no succession planning, or even recruiting of new hires. People had sat in the same job for years without much guidance or encouragement to diversify their skills by taking on different roles. Although we had a fantastic leader who would play a significant role in my life, people felt that there was no clear identity in regards to what the group stood for, or messaging around how they’d add value back to the business. And for a function responsible for managing a supplier diversity program, had opportunity for improvement around diverse hiring internally. Things have completely changed since then, so please keep in mind I'm providing a snapshot of what it was like in 2015.

If you have any experience in quality management, analytics or project management, you can probably predict what happened next. I made charts. I took all of the feedback that came from the people within the function and presented it to the Procurement Leadership team. This isn’t what I used for the presentation, but I think it paints a clear picture of what the issues were.

From a quality management perspective, the true root cause of an issue typically lies in the areas where 80% of your data is concentrated. For us, that just happened to fall in areas that I felt were a part of HR’s responsibility. However, I wanted to be the one to address them. I had just met with over 100 people and listened to their stories. I knew their concerns and empathized with each of them. I had joined Procurement to make a difference and petitioned the head of the function to let me tackle these issues head on. He agreed, and from that day on I became dedicated to helping my colleagues by addressing their concerns in ways a true Human Resource Business Partner would.

I’m currently studying to get my Masters in Organizational Dynamics at the University of Pennsylvania, and all of the theories that I’ve pulled together since the day I first concluded my Procurement Interviews as been supported by the education that I’m currently receiving. In order for people to thrive, there needs to be an amount of strategic effort placed on creating a culture that sets them up for success. There are a number of elements to that, but one of the most important ones is a robust talent pipeline that consistently brings in the right people. To me, that started at ground zero, with an internship program.

Our Chief Procurement Officer had set his sights on us becoming a World Class Procurement Organization. In order to do that, I felt we had to have a talent feeder program that was best-in-class. Something that could recruit and retain talent from top business programs like Sloan (MIT), Wharton (UPENN), Tuck (Dartmouth), Eli Broad (Michigan State), W.P. Carey (Arizona State), Smeal (Penn State), Booth (Chicago), Marriott (Brigham Young), Kellogg (Northwestern), and more.

In order to do that consistently, you have to think outside the box. These were schools where top talents typically end up at one of the big four consulting companies or at the modern tech giants. How could the Procurement group compete with them? These other companies have incredible brand recognition that attracts top talent without much effort. All they have to do is show up on campus wearing a branded polo and then invite their candidates for a night out playing Topgolf. When most people heard our name, all they thought of was pain relief.

When this challenge was presented to me, I took full ownership of it. “If I was a current MBA candidate, what would I want in my dream internship experience?”. The answers to that question weren’t all that surprising. I wrote down each element and assigned them points. These would become the core elements of our program combined with pre-start surveys designed to help me develop the blueprint for a program around a student's interests.

Additionally, I would want a program that I could manage from a single application. A “Single Point of Truth” where I’d have access to everything I needed. I’d have my own landing page where I could manage assignments and various other activities.

From there I built out a program that would result in a deeply meaningful intern experience for those who were up for a challenge. I was confident that it would result in significant interest from students across the country. Students who we could develop over a summer who just might be interested in coming back to work for us full-time. Students who could develop into our next generation of leadership and help the function become the world-class procurement organization we were focused on creating.

I began reaching out to universities and scheduling program overviews with their students. The feedback that we received from those sessions was incredible. Apparently, no one else had a program like this in place. We heard the same feedback from every university we went to, and we used that to our advantage. Over the course of five years, we were able to build an expansive talent pipeline at schools across the U.S. Every year we tweaked and improved the program, and each year more and more students began reaching out to us. As we headed into 2017 we were able to land our first candidate from MIT. That trend repeated itself in 2018 and 2019 and we were also able to beat out some pretty significant competition for students from schools like Arizona State, Maryland, BYU, NYU, Penn State and Michigan State. Rolling into 2019 we had completely infiltrated the Ivy League with strong interest coming from Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton, Brown, and Penn. It was glorious.

This program became a key element of a massive cultural change that we were managing within the Procurement function, and its role was significant. This led to the creation of an 18-month international leadership development program that we would hire our interns into after they completed their studies. From there we piloted a unique talent development approach for experienced professionals that we called the “Growth Experiences”. I could go on and on about the additional benefits this program brought to the Procurement function. However, this article is already too long, and I need content for my next post. I'll provide you with a 30,000ft summary below.

My Version of “the Benefits of an Internship Program”: If you give an employee freedom to create, innovation springs to life.

  1. Find future leaders

  2. Develop strategic talent feeding relationships with distinguished universities.

  3. Opens the doors to continuing education at those universities for current employees.

  4. Provides you with an opportunity to shape and influence brilliant minds for long term benefit to the company.

  5. Drastically increases productivity and kick-starts stalled initiatives.

  6. Changes the way you think, feel, manage, and communicate.

  7. Enhances your social strategy.

  8. Gives employees the opportunity to grow and be inspired.

  9. Provides you with access to academic perspective.

  10. Floods your Employee Resource Group Networks with passionate program managers who can provide the rest of your employee population with meaningful programming.

  11. Helps fundamentally shift your function's culture.

  12. Transforms your business.

A Change is Needed

In an age of strategy and value delivery, I personally feel that we (industry) are collectively failing to see the critical importance of well-structured “people” and “culture” focused work streams apart from Human Resources. No matter how well developed your overall company, business division, or functional strategy is, it will ultimately fail without placing the appropriate level of long-term focus on the people tasked with implementing it, or the culture that supports them.

People and Culture initiatives should focus on organizational transformation, change management, competency models, global job descriptions, learning plans, career pathways, international experiences, job shadowing, functional rotations, mentoring, reverse mentoring, learning management systems, and training. But where do these elements start? In one spot; with a strong university engagement strategy that includes a proper internship program that results in hiring top talent that stays and helps guide the future of your organization.

Over the past 17 years I’ve seen more companies fail in this area than those who have excelled. Not every company can be EY, KPMG, Facebook, Apple, Google, or the Procurement function at my previous employer.

The ChangeAgent Cometh

The experience of developing this program and seeing the benefits that it brought to the Procurement organization deeply impacted me. So much in fact, that I decided to dedicate the rest of my career to helping other companies implement this methodology. This was the reason I founded ChangeAgent, LLC on April 15th, 2019.

If you’re interested in learning more about how your company can implement a world-class internship program in support of a long-term cultural and talent transformation, please feel free to reach out to me.

The world of talent attraction is changing, and we have to be willing to change with it. Allow me to teach your organization how.

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