In 1998, I delivered a presentation about the importance of mentoring as a central focus of an internship program. During that presentation, I made the following statement:
“Providing an internship expereince without a dedicated, deliberate & intentional mentoring component is nothing more than a glorified summer job.”
Today, this statement is just as true today as it was then and metoring is even more important today than it was then. However, as I travel the country working with employers to develop their internship initiaitves, I still find this is one of the pieces missing in many programs.
If you are hosting an intern this summer, now might be a good time to make sure that you have a mentoring component as part of the experience. If so, the following will provide you with the necessary framework.
One of the greatest gifts you can give your intern over the course of the semester is the opportunity to develop a relationship with a mentor. Mentoring is a wonderful way to share knowledge about a particular career field and allows for a symbiotic professional relationship that can benefit both the student (mentee) and the business professional (mentor). For the student, mentors can provide exposure to an industry or field of interest. They can assist with general career advice, the formation of short-term and long-term goals, and specific job-related challenges. Having mentees, on the other hand, offer the chance for professionals to reflect on their own success, pass along their advice and counsel, and play a role in developing the next generation of workforce employees.
Mentor: A wise and trusted advisor; a loyal advocate and coach; a valued teacher and role model; a true friend.
While it is acceptable for you, as the intern’s supervisor, to play the role of the mentor, it is also reasonable to assign another individual to this task. Either way, there are several key roles a mentor should be prepared to play. They include: teacher, guide, role model, coach, friend, motivator, and doorman and involve the following responsibilities:
As a teacher: Mentors should teach mentees the skills, abilities, and capabilities that are required to be successful in the role of intern. Knowledge shared should be specific (the organization) as well as general (the field).
As a guide: Mentors should provide a means of traversing through the ins and outs of the organization, including negotiating through red tape, politics, and unwritten rules.
As a role model: Mentors should uphold the professional standards, values, and ethics that are expected within the organization and within the industry. Mentors should be the “superstars” to which we all aspire.
As a coach: Mentors should help interns with strategies, tactics, and approaches for success. These “game plans” should initially serve to guide mentees through the course of their internships and continue to prepare them for victory long after their departure.
As a friend: Mentors should neither judge nor admonish mentees; instead they should listen, encourage, and inspire. Ideally, mentors should act as objective parties, providing a safe haven within which the mentee can explore, reflect, and muse.
As a motivator: Mentors should provide support and encouragement to their mentees, especially during the beginning of the internship, as well as throughout the (inevitable) challenges ahead.
As a gate-keeper: Mentors should act as gate-keepers. Whenever possible, they should expose mentees to experiences that will broaden horizons, people who will offer opportunities, and situations that will provide for learning and enlightenment.
As most college students seek out internships to further explore career fields of interest and to gain exposure to and experience with different organizations in their field, it is important that they have a mentor to help guide them through this process. As mentioned earlier, the internship supervisor can easily serve as the student’s mentor; however, there are distinct differences in the two roles. While the job of the supervisor is to manage the intern’s work assignments and to critique and evaluate the intern’s accomplishments, the role of the mentor is not that of a “boss”. Instead, the mentor’s role is to aid the intern in his or her professional development, in general. Additionally, the mentor does not involve himself or herself in the day to day activities of the intern. Their concern is the longer term, strategic focus on the career development of the student. In short, the supervisor’s interest is the intern’s job and the mentor’s interest is with the intern’s career development.
While the internship supervisor should always feel comfortable acting as a mentor to the student, you may want to assign another individual to assume this role full-time. If you choose to select another individual to be the intern’s mentor, it is important that you keep in contact with this person throughout the course of the internship and that you set expectations for them at the start of the semester.
The employee you select should possess a few key characteristics that will allow the mentor/mentee relationship to be as beneficial to both parties as possible. To begin with, the mentor you select should like working with young professionals making the transition to the world of work. This sounds obvious, but sometimes the best mentor “candidates” aren’t ideal choices because they don’t have (or don’t want to use) the time, energy, and patience that an intern may require. Also, the person you select should have a depth and breadth of experiences that he or she would be willing to talk about.
Important point: these experiences do not necessarily all have to be within your company, or even within your particular field. The best mentors often have a wealth of experience, both personal and professional in nature, they are more than willing to share this information and knowledge (in the hope that someone younger will mimic the good experiences and avoid the bad ones)! The selected mentor should be a good communicator, as well as a good role model. Other traits that are important for mentors to have are: objectivity, honesty, credibility, assertiveness, compassion, and tolerance. By far, the most important goal is to create a secure environment within which the mentee can feel comfortable sharing information, ideas, thoughts, and beliefs, asking questions, and addressing concerns with a respected and trustworthy partner.
In thinking about whom you might select to mentor your intern, keep the interests of your teammates in the back of your mind as well. Mentoring offers the opportunity for professionals to pass on their wisdom, hone their communication, interpersonal, leadership, and management skills, and learn from the youngest members of the workforce (who typically have fresh outlooks and new ways of thinking about things). In my experience, mentors are nearly always grateful for the opportunity to coach a more inexperienced individual and they often come away from the experience with a sense of personal gratification for assisting the “next generation” of workers.
Because mentoring is a less formal process than supervising, the actual “business” of mentoring can happen anywhere and everywhere. Of course, more formal meetings can be scheduled – either during the work day or a meeting off-site for coffee or lunch. An easy way to proceed is to have the mentor and mentee arrange standing weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly appointments. These appointments may cover specific topics, or can just be informal chats. It is really up to the mentor and mentee to decide upon what arrangement works for them. Examples of topics to discuss (with the mentor sharing his or her personal experience) might be: how to begin a career in the field, how to deal with and overcome difficult challenges, what advice might be most valuable for someone just starting out, what the industry code of ethics dictates, and how to work with difficult clients. One of the best ways to commence a mentor/mentee relationship is by asking the student what he or she wants to get out of the relationship. One student may want the opportunity to observe and interact with employees out in the field, another student may ask for feedback and advice, a third student may need simple encouragement or championing, and yet the last student may want to gain practical skills and abilities.
A word of caution here: a mentor is not expected to solve problems, rectify situations, and/or fix mistakes. That is the job of the intern’s supervisor. In the case of a mishap, the mentor’s role would be to work with the student to reflect upon what happened and provide the intern with support, encouragement, and information so that the student will have alternatives in mind for the future.
As a mentor, you or your appointed designee, will help your mentee grow by imparting knowledge and information via anecdotes and stories, role modeling, and active reflection. You will provide both a source of comfort and an answer to questions. Your insight into situations, both personal and professional, and your ability to look at a situation as an objective third party will enhance your intern’s understanding of the world and will allow your student to build a solid foundation upon which to create future successes. Whether your particular role at any given time may be advisor, advocate, coach, teacher, counselor, role model, or gatekeeper, the role of a mentor is one of the most critical to the overall success of the internship experience.
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