How to run a successful internship

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So you’ve decided an internship is right for your accountancy or finance firm and you’ve designed a programme that works for you? How do you ensure it runs smoothly and that both employer and intern get the best out of the experience?

Provide the right support

A sound induction at the beginning of an internship can quash initial nerves interns may have. The ad hoc advisory body, Gateways to the Professions Collaborative Forum, says: “Whatever the size of the organisation, joining a new workplace can be intimidating for those entering the job market. So it’s important to introduce an intern to their colleagues and explain the organisation’s values to enable them to become a fully integrated team member.”

Luke Fletcher, Founder of Reading-based firm Raw Accounting, agrees that providing the right support is paramount. Before he started his own business in April, he worked for two of the biggest accountancy companies in the country, helping run the firms’ respective internship programmes as a line manager. He explains it’s no good just handing an intern a stack of work and leaving them to wade through it.

“It’s about taking the time to get to know the intern, and ensuring that there is a kind of open communication there and listening to their needs,” he says. “So if they can and have a particular experience, they can be assigned the relevant work to match their skillset. Or if there's something that they've never been involved in before - and they want to gain that experience - you can ensure that they've got that opportunity.

Present opportunities

Exposure to real-world experiences in the workplace is critical for a successful internship programme. “For a young graduate wondering how they can contribute to the world, we provide insights into working in an international organisation and the life of an international civil servant,” explains Kris Oestvang, HR specialist at the Global Shared Service Centre (GSSC), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Hooi Kok Mun, Senior Partner and National Audit Practice Leader at Grant Thornton says: “Our internships are about giving you the real experiences you need to launch your career as a professional accountant.”

He explains that giving interns the opportunity to conduct real associate work allows them to provide significant contributions. Interns will “leave with the valuable skills and experiences to further [their] career – all with the support of our community.”

Rally teams and networks

Being made to feel like a valued member of the team is key for interns at Mazars, Managing Partner at Chong Fah Yow, explains. “Our interns are also exposed to a team - working alongside their seniors and managers while being challenged to take up ownership of engagements.”

Integration into a team is a process that not only benefits the intern but, as Nelly Poh, Global Finance Organization (GFO) Learning & Development Lead at Baker Hughes, explains can provide “fresh enthusiasm and energy that revitalises the team.” At the same time, “students gain experience of the real corporate environment” at Baker Hughes.

Interns will thrive and give back to the business only if they have a network of colleagues that they can turn to throughout their time in the firm. That could be a junior staff member, such as a recent recruit, trainee or former intern, who can act as a ‘buddy’ when they join. Then you’ll need a manager who can assign and oversee the work of the intern and support them during their time at the company.

But it goes much further than that, Fletcher says. The whole team needs to be on board, especially if it’s a small practice. That way before the intern has even started, you can earmark opportunities and projects they can be involved in.

Give and take feedback

Fletcher also insists on never underestimating the importance of checking in regularly with interns.

“That can be done in a more formal way. For example, putting time in the diary on a weekly basis,” he says. “Certainly for internships, we’re looking at quite a short timeframe. So it’s pretty pointless doing the same monthly catch-up that would for permanent employees. That would likely be halfway through the intern’s time with you.”

Informal feedback is equally important, he adds. Whether that’s commenting on their performance during a coffee or tea round or just asking how they are doing while passing in the corridor. That’s a good way to flush out any issues or concerns quickly, rather than waiting for an official meeting.

It’s important to remember that feedback isn’t a one-way street. Feedback from interns is highlighted as being very important in helping Baker Hughes gain “new perspective and insights” into their programme, according to Nelly. “Their feedback helps us to define ways to improve the internship programme, our processes and the way we work,” she says. This is another example of the interdependence an internship programme provides.

Encourage open communication

At Cadre, a small accountancy firm in Cardiff, the team of just five employees and two directors prides itself on its open and transparent culture. When an intern (a university student) joined in July, he was encouraged to come forward with any issues from day one.

“There’s no such thing as a stupid question,” says tax director Jamie Williams. “And that can be seen by the way the whole team will speak up in the office if they have any concerns.”

He adds: “Because we are a small team, we always ensure they are included in conversations and feel a part of decision making. We try to shake off that traditional, ‘I'm scared to go and talk to the partner in the corner office’ atmosphere.”

Provide the right tools

It’s also important, he adds, to make sure they are given access to the right digital tools. Firstly, to communicate with team members who aren’t in the office that day. For example, using Slack or their own practice management system. They also have a workflow system that can be used to keep track and review an intern’s work. This helps managers to find the right balance of workload for that individual.

At the end of the programme, it’s good to speak to the intern again about their experience and to review their time there.

Fletcher says: “Prior to an intern leaving, you should conduct an exit interview to (a) understand what went well, and (b) understand if there was anything that could be improved for future programmes.

“If successful then you want to be able to then build on that for the next year - how can we make it better? Because we don't always get everything right. But if you just put your head in the sand, then you're never going to improve the overall programme for the next cohort.”

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