Bad Interns have Four Fatal Flaws

I love interns. They’re hopeful and untested. They bring raw energy into an organization. They’re eager to learn. And sometimes they can be really useful. But not always.

Once upon a time, I wrote an article for my former employer on their blog about how to succeed in a PR internship. The advice there isn’t wrong per se, but it’s not as useful as it could be to new interns. Advice like “go beyond” and “seek feedback” is vague at best and forgettable at worst.

But this isn’t a corporate blog. I’ve heard many stories about intern disasters from friends and colleagues, and they all have common characteristics. Rather than tell interns how to succeed, let’s focus on the four fatal flaws that can ruin an internship. What do I mean by ruin? If the person who hired you doesn’t remember your name three months after you leave, you have failed. If the person who hired you remembers your name three months after you leave because you were awful, you have failed in an even grander way.

  1. Arrogance – Having a 4.0 GPA and being president of seven different clubs means you are an excellent student. You should be proud of your academic and extracurricular achievements. But remember that your first priority in doing an internship is to learn. Your employer expects this. What they do not expect is for you to assume a leadership position and order other staff around. At the end of the day, an intern is just an intern. There’s no such thing as a Senior Intern.
    • Biggest Sin: Ordering admin or junior staff around like a mini dictator; you’re not their boss and nothing will infuriate their your boss more than an arrogant intern. Also, don’t show up late and don’t be a diva.
    • How to Fix: Your past achievements are not erased when you enter the professional world. They are indications of your potential, but the professional world really is different from the academic world. Do what you did in school: learn from those around you. Never assume that you are smarter or better than anyone else. Then, with time, your potential will turn into real advancement.
  2. Stupidity Ignorance is expected; stupidity is inexcusable. Interns aren’t expected to know a lot. What good employers look for in an intern is potential–things like positive personalities and a history of curiosity and other positive traits. That’s why ignorance–the lack of knowledge–is ok. Failure to learn from mistakes and use common sense is not ok.
    • Biggest SinNot questioning the context of a task and doing exactly as you’re told. If you could be replaced by a high functioning robot, then you aren’t contributing much to the company. What’s worse, if you’re not actively scanning for errors, big mistakes can slide past you.
    • How to Fix: Just think about what you are doing. Is there a way to do what you’re doing more quickly and with fewer errors? Why are you doing the task? Just knowing the answer to that question is enough to ensure that you are actually paying attention and getting more out of the internship than a wasted eight week journey.
  3. Meekness – This is a tough one. Not everyone is sociable. Sometimes, especially within some cultures, meekness is viewed as a virtue, not a flaw. But in an increasingly competitive business environment, meek people are all too easily ignored. This means that great minds and great workers can slip through the cracks. An internship can be as much about selling yourself as it can be about learning, especially if you’re seeking a full time role at the end of your trial period.
    • Biggest Sin: Coming to work, doing your work and leaving without saying much of anything to anyone (chatting with other interns doesn’t count).
    • How to Fix: “Hi, I’m XXXX. I’m going to be interning here for XXX weeks. I’m wondering if you have any work I can help you with?Or maybe I can sit down with you sometime and learn more about your role?” Actively make yourself useful to everyone in the office. An internship resulting in only three people knowing your name should be considered a failure. Would an ad that three people see in a newspaper be considered successful? Of course not! At the very least, you should make an effort to learn more about what other people in the office do. People like talking about themselves. Leverage that trait.
  4. Naivete –  I was once an intern. I was once hopelessly naive about the realities of the business world. So to a certain extent, this flaw is not the most serious one because one thing all interns learn is that the business world is different from the world they came from. It’s different from Mad Men or Suits.
    • Biggest Sin: Being shocked that business politics is a regular part of working in the professional world. Being shocked that promotions don’t happen over night. Being shocked that not everyone wants the corner office and is happy enough to float along until retirement.
    • How to Fix: Be realistic about the world around you. The best skill you can develop at an early stage in your career is empathy. If you can understand what motivates people, you can better interact with people. The faster you understand basic human behavior and appreciate the fact that people don’t necessarily think or approach problems the way you do, the faster you will shed your intern persona and become a respected professional.

Interns are as valuable as they want to be. A great intern can become a hot prospect for a company and a bad one can be gossiped about at the company Christmas party for years and years. If you want to be a good intern, be realistic about what you aim to accomplish and what the sponsoring organization expects out of you. Arrogance, stupidity, meekness and naivete will not serve you well. Avoid these fatal flaws, and you might just succeed in the business world.

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