A Leader’s Guide to Creating an Exceptional Internship Program

Ally's CHRO explains how the company's interns fuel its talent pipeline.
By: | October 29, 2018 • 4 min read

In today’s workplace environment, HR leaders are observing an escalation in the time, energy and resources involved in new-hire recruitment, yet may still be experiencing high turnover among millennial employees. With students eagerly anticipating a summer spent learning the ins-and-outs of a new industry, it’s no surprise that internship programs, when managed properly, can be a way to identify up-and-coming talent, set young people up to have meaningful careers, and, ultimately, determine if it’s a place the individual can contribute to culturally

Once you have the basics of an internship program in place, your company can see even greater value in taking it to the next level. It’s all about creating meaningful careers and empowering the intern to determine if they’re on the right career path and at the right company by providing an integrated, hands-on learning experience that engages, supports and excites talent.

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As a business leader, it’s your responsibility to establish a framework that sets both your interns and employees up for a successful, mutually beneficial experience. This process starts with your team and is dependent on creating a strong internal system that helps to prepare and support students throughout their intern experience with your company.

Ally’s internship program, for example, began in 2011 with 7 interns. Since then, it’s grown to around 130 interns in the 2018 class. Over one-third of Ally interns become full-time employees, which helps us ensure a steady pipeline of tested and proven junior talent. This could not have been accomplished had we not created a strong roadmap and effectively prepped our existing workforce for the task of onboarding and managing the internship class.

The Experience Starts Before Day One

At Ally, we partner with key, select schools to establish lasting relationships for our internship and early career recruiting. We put our current, early talent on the front lines for these campus recruiting efforts—people with whom potential interns can relate to and connect with. These are folks who can give a recent testament about their own experience at Ally and how it’s impacted their career aspirations and success.

We work to learn as much as we can about intern candidates. When you’re in the interview stage, it’s best to conduct an intern interview the same as you’d approach any long-term new hire. Demonstrate your interest by making the effort to learn and understand the person’s talents, passions and aspirations, and what they’d like to gain from their time at your company.

An intern’s commitment is an investment and exploration into their ultimate career path. By bringing them onto your team, your company is committing to help them achieve their goals, and it’s important to do this the right way.

Make the Work Meaningful

Is there anything more frustrating—for either the company or its interns—than walking around the office and seeing interns sitting at their desks with nothing to do? The first step to creating a productive program is working directly with your teams to identify projects in need of additional support and input from a fresh perspective. But first, it’s crucial to ensure your team has the patience and bandwidth to take on the task of onboarding and managing interns. When possible, encourage your colleagues to make an effort to better understand their interns’ career goals, tailoring their work to an area that may be of interest to them.

Internships provide less-experienced talent with the opportunity to explore different facets of the professional world. It’s a chance for them to ask, “Is this what I want to do with the professional part of my life?” That’s powerful. So, it’s important to maintain a flexible attitude as interns hone their strengths and navigate their new roles. One former Ally intern, and current full-time employee, displayed a flexible attitude, and that ultimately led to his full-time job offer. This person exemplified confidence and showed that although he didn’t yet know how to do everything asked of him, he was willing to figure it out.

At Ally, our approach to career ownership—no matter the stage in your career—fits this goal well. Our interns are encouraged to make the most of their time. It’s vitally important to create a work environment and an experience that truly helps interns determine if they’re on the right career path by doing typical assignments in that profession. For example, Ally interns have been charged with launching social media accounts for their department, coordinating and planning employee-engagement events, conducting data analysis and running through compensation analysis.

By creating a proactive and strategic internship “road map,” you’ll be able to offer students or graduates a worthwhile, real-world work experience while gaining fresh perspectives in return—and you’ll be developing a pipeline of potential future talent.

It Takes a Village: Engaging the Entire Team

Mentorships—formal and informal—are key to a successful internship program. It’s to the benefit of your full-time employees who are involved, not just the interns themselves.

Consider matching each intern with a mentor, not just a manager, who exemplifies your culture and who’ll be with them throughout their internship experience. These individuals should seek to develop objective, quantifiable goals for their intern to work towards and accomplish. At Ally, each intern is matched with a mentor from day one. We also promote an open-door policy and 360-degree experience, encouraging interns to connect with employees at all levels of the organization, even executives. Creating a cohort experience is important; we all want to work with good people we feel comfortable with, who will also stretch our thinking and perspectives.

Helping interns feel like they’re a part of something bigger can pay dividends all around. A former Ally intern who’s now a full-time employee says what pushed her to accept a full-time offer was that her colleagues were willing to lend a hand and valued her opinion and questions, making her feel like a part of the team.

Motivate your interns to get involved with the company and participate in educational and cultural events, such as community activities and employee resource groups. These groups provide opportunities for your junior team to learn from and connect with senior team members. By offering interns the chance to give back to their communities, you’re not only aligning them with the values your company promotes, but providing an experience that’s important to people regardless of what point they’re at in their career. A recent study by Fortune found that nearly two-thirds of people between the ages of 18 and 34 were at least somewhat more likely to want to work for a company that gave to charity than one that did not.

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Here at Ally, we offer interns and employees eight hours of volunteer time off each year to use as they’d like individually or at an Ally team giving-back event. Every November, Ally celebrates a company-wide Giving Back Month, which encourages employees to support local nonprofit organizations with donations and volunteer time. Last November, Ally gave back through more than 175 events, more than 5,800 hours volunteered and more than $800,000 donated by employees and the company.

Value-Add: Stimulate inquisitive, collaborative behavior.

I don’t think this can be overstated: Treating interns like longer-term employees from the very beginning is critical. It’s important for them to feel like their work is valued. Be open with constructive feedback and acknowledge an intern’s hard work and effort when appropriate. What you’ll gain in return – namely, fresh perspectives that college students and recent graduates bring to your organization – is equally beneficial. They help to challenge normal ways of doing things, which makes your company a more attractive option for employment in the future. These diverse perspectives are always valuable, and it’s important to help interns recognize that their input and fresh perspective is appreciated.

Offering interns a worthwhile “real world” work experience where they get the right direction and mentoring, as well as face time with senior leaders, takes a lot of preparation and time. But, done right, there can be a high return on this investment. Those three months will develop your potential future talent and, if you create a specific roadmap and strategy for your employees, your interns are more likely to become that homegrown talent that you want, who feel that your company is the place where they want to own a meaningful career.

As chief human resources officer of Ally Financial, Kathie L. Patterson is responsible for overseeing the company’s human capital, talent management, compensation, benefits, well-being, internal communications and cultural efforts—ensuring they support the organization’s overall strategic objectives and drive Ally’s efforts to be a leading employer of choice.