It's often overlooked.
The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?” is by Dave Ryan, head of the Americas for Tata Communications.
As the first employee hired in the United States for a company that’s based in India, it’s safe to say that the list of folks I owe a debt of thanks to is long. We’ve all heard the clichés — what goes around comes around, treat others like you’d like to be treated, it’s a small world, etc — but those sayings are particularly poignant to me. Earlier in my career, a gentleman by the name of Vinod Kumar joined Sprint s as an intern right out of graduate school from American University. Today, he’s the CEO of Tata Communications, where he hired me almost 12 years ago.
There’s much to be said about how the workplace should value, treat, and develop interns. Although internship programs have been available and en vogue for decades, we owe it to ourselves to place renewed vigor behind the process of mentoring. Being on both sides of the proverbial fence, I’ve witnessed firsthand how proper guidance and empowerment can lead to great things. That said, I’ve also seen organizations place less importance on the idea of mentorship due to our fixation on short-term results and rapid turnover.
It was clear early on that Vinod was bright and we developed a relationship that was mutually beneficial. By providing some simple daily support and facilitating access to the right people and resources, I learned just as much from having him around as he did from me. It’s powerful to have someone working alongside you that isn’t afraid to ask what many would assume were obvious questions. It’s human nature to grow accustomed — complacent, perhaps — with a particular work setting. In the early days of employment, it’s easier to poke and prod, to ask questions that challenge the status quo. As the months and years drag on, particularly in larger firms, it’s easier to just accept that things may continue as they are due to inertia.
Interns serve as continual opposition to that status quo. As with other interns I’ve worked alongside, Vinod came into the company with a mind to make progress. Settling for business as usual simply wasn’t something he was interested in. Part of an internship program’s beauty is the freedom it gives the intern to dream big and ask the uncomfortable questions without a lot of downside. If he or she ruffles too many feathers, there’s always a more progressive company out there. The best interns use this to their advantage, and the best mentors are careful to listen to their input.
For startups and established companies alike, I’d encourage you to take internship programs seriously. Moreover, ensure that the mentors you assign to interns are allowed to dedicate enough time to making it useful for both parties. It’s not uncommon for organizations to implement an internship program without providing employees with enough bandwidth to truly nurture the relationship. An intern without an available mentor is just a bad Glassdoor review waiting to happen, and worse still, it’s an opportunity squandered to spot passionate talent before a competitor.
Wise companies will recognize that interns aren’t temporary names handwritten on the bottom of an org chart. Rather, they’ll realize that interns have the drive, determination, and external perspective necessary to keep large companies from becoming stagnant. If you’re fortunate enough to have an intern assigned to you, remember this: be nice, listen up, and learn as much as you can. If you’re the best mentor you can be, you might find yourself reporting to that individual in a few short years. And that, as it turns out, is a great spot to be in.