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Interns: Percolating Performance or Coffee Stains?

February 19, 2014
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Related Topics: Leadership Development, Management, Leadership Development, Management
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Many organizations need to retool their internships to equip participants with the right types of experiences to make them more valuable to the organization should they stay, and leave them with a lasting favorable impression that enhances the employer’s brand in the marketplace.

For example, the Chubb Group of Insurance Cos. uses its summer internship program to help fill its pipelines “with the best and the brightest talent,” according to Debra Kestenbaum, the company’s talent acquisition manager.

The Warren, N.J-based company’s finance and accounting departments have had interns for nearly 10 years, but Chubb’s internship program has expanded to include many areas in information technology and underwriting, as well as smaller departments such as corporate communications and marketing. In 2012, Chubb had 42 interns, and at its conclusion, the company extended offers to 10 of the participants. All accepted.

“Over the years, we’ve made structural changes to the program in order to continue to improve upon what we’re doing,” Kestenbaum said. “We want to ensure that interns who are offered a full-time position are truly prepared and that those who aren’t made an offer leave their internship with a favorable impression of Chubb.”

Let Them Do Real Work

During the company’s formal summerlong program, the interns interact with different units within the organization, including attending “lunch and learn” events in which they have opportunities to meet with senior management across all departments, Kestenbaum said. Chubb’s interns also get to interact with senior leaders informally, such as at evening barbecues.

Within the various departments, interns work on projects that build skills and provide value to the company. For instance, accounting department interns might help review accounting needs for strategic business units, those in IT might help develop code, and interns in corporate communications might write blogs and post to the company’s Facebook page.

While Chubb’s management always hopes some of the interns will come back as full-time trainees, that’s not the only objective for the program.

“I really don’t like the term ‘pre-hire training,’ as it sounds too calculated, like we’re just hiring them as interns to get them trained up,” Kestenbaum said. “This is also about developing skill sets and building a commitment to our organization. Even if the intern doesn’t come back to work at Chubb, if they have a great experience interning, they will go back out into the marketplace speaking well of us and buying our products, too.”

New York City-based MetLife Inc. has had undergraduate internship programs for years, but in 2012 the company launched one for MBA students to help build its global general management pipeline after the 2010 acquisition of American Life Insurance Co., which expanded its footprint into more than 60 countries.

Arnold Dhanesar, vice president of global talent management, said a sustainable global talent pipeline was necessary to close a gap in the company’s general manager succession plan. MetLife’s Global Leadership Development Program was designed to build a pipeline of talent who could fill general manager positions during the next five to 10 years. The program offers summer internships to first-year MBA students and full-time rotations to recent MBA graduates.

Dhanesar’s team crafted the internship to address specific business strategies and challenges, such as customer centricity. MetLife is developing a centralized service model, with streamlined communication for its customers. Last summer, MBA interns worked with the company’s customer centricity department and representatives from each of the business units on “problem statements” within their respective geographic regions. Interns worked directly with business leaders, and they were given access to data about customer problems and could ask customers questions.

For example, in the company’s life and annuities business, customers complained about service delays and lack of responsiveness from their advisers. The interns looked at factors preventing individuals from responding in a timely manner and came up with a new model.

“They came up with some pretty innovative solutions in partnership with business leaders,” Dhanesar said.

After the first summer program, MetLife made offers to 13 of the 20 interns participating around the world. The program was so successful senior executives expanded it from eight weeks to 10.

“That’s a pretty high hit rate in MBA recruitment, which is one of the most difficult external talent segments to attract talent from, due primarily to the number of outstanding career options these individuals have with the world’s best brands,” Dhanesar said. “As companies consider how best to leverage internship programs, they should link their programs to their business strategies and challenges and seek win-win solutions for the business and the interns.”

Cultivate a Startup Intern Experience

Stanford University graduate Shannon Harrington was so frustrated about her own experience trying to find work at a technology startup company after a number of internships that she successfully pitched an internship liaison program for startups to Bain Capital Venture Partners in Palo Alto, Calif.

When exploring careers as a college senior in 2011, Harrington said she found it difficult to navigate “the unstructured and arbitrary” recruiting processes at a variety of startups. “I learned that startups, especially those with fewer than 30 employees, do not always have relevant job descriptions on their websites or the right individuals in place to respond to job inquiries.”

Unlike more established companies, startups are constantly evolving, which requires candidates to remain flexible and patient throughout the recruiting process, Harrington said. Further, since startups cannot anticipate their hiring needs months in advance, proactive job hunting takes a back seat to networking.

Determined to “improve the recruiting process for other students,” Harrington joined Bain Capital Ventures after graduation to launch StartUp Academy, a program that connects top talent to opportunities within a subset of Bain Capital Ventures’ portfolio companies.

StartUp Academy works primarily with business-to-business startups, which students are less familiar with than business-to-consumer startups, said Harrington, who is now program leader for the academy.

“The program lends legitimacy to these lesser-known startups, and students feel secure applying to internships at companies vetted by a leading venture capital firm,” she said. “Thus, StartUp Academy not only makes these startups more visible to students, it facilitates the initial introduction between candidate and potential employer and prepares students for the internal interview process.”

The StartUp Academy program recruits technical talent from top-tier undergraduate, master’s and doctorate programs throughout the country. The program seeks to place individuals who are looking to make an impact at a startup in engineering and product management positions at startups funded by Bain Capital Ventures.

An inaugural 2012 StartUp Academy class was selected during a nine-month pilot for the program. Bain Capital Ventures received 779 applications, from which 21 students were selected to participate.

All participating companies in StartUp Academy are market-leading startups, including BloomReach Inc., Nomis Solutions, Rent the Runway, Sneakpeeq and SurveyMonkey, among others. In addition to working alongside the management teams for these companies, members get exposure to Bain Capital Ventures’ investment partners and gain access to entrepreneurial events hosted and sponsored by the firm in Boston, New York City and the San Francisco Bay area.

Harrington said many students prefer to intern at startups versus more established companies because startup internships enable students to get hands-on experience in a more exciting, challenging and collaborative environment. The flat organizational structures encourage students to innovate constantly and contribute meaningfully, she said. “Startups are best suited for self-starters, who are eager to learn through hands-on experience and make an impact at a growing company.”

She said Bain Capital Ventures intends to use two years of feedback from StartUp Academy’s participating interns and companies to streamline the recruiting process and develop best practices for its portfolio companies. “Ultimately, we want students to have great experiences with our portfolio companies, while simultaneously preparing our companies to lead their own recruiting programs and our students to become future startup founders,” she said.

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a California-based journalist. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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