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This Is What You Should Really Be Learning During Your Internship

Here are six career skills that you can use long after the summer ends.

This Is What You Should Really Be Learning During Your Internship
[Photo: Isabella Winter]

It’s summer internship season, but, beyond gathering a few project credentials, work examples, or industry-related experience, interns should be working on learning other essential skills that will help them in their professional lives.

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“People hire for competence and fire for character,” says Todd Davis, chief people officer, FranklinCovey, and author of the upcoming Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work. In other words, job skills are great, but they can also be taught. What really makes a difference to companies is that you’re able to navigate the office culture, be coachable, and understand how to get things done, he says. So, when you’re immersed in your internship, here are six skills you should be adding to your repertoire in addition to job-related skills.

Skill #1: How To Identify (And Learn From) Influencers

Davis says one of the first things interns should do is to observe how others around them interact. Look for the “go-to” people. Who are the folks others are always asking for advice or opinions? Who do they want on their committees? “Often, there are the official, titled leaders, then there are the real influencers. Those who tend to have the most credibility,” he says.

These people wield real power in an organization and can often help you with trustworthy insights and wise counsel. If you observe and listen closely, you’ll soon hear their names again and again. Learning how to spot influencers is a skill that will serve you well in any position you hold throughout your career, he says.

Skill #2: What Makes A Useful Meeting

Some meetings are brief periods of important breakthroughs and productivity—and some are utter wastes of time. As you participate in meetings during your internship, take note of the characteristics of each type of meeting, says Bill Driscoll, district president for Accountemps. What do effective meeting leaders do? They are typically organized, focused, and hold participants to a time period and agenda.

In addition, pay attention the content of the meetings, which reveals the nitty-gritty of what these jobs entail every day, he says. “My advice to interns is always to survey what, in fact, is going on and what does working at that company really look like?” he says. “Often, interns enter the workforce or a company with preconceived notions: This is what I want to do. This is the industry I absolutely want to do it in. As we all know, once you get behind closed doors, and you’re actually working someplace, it can be a very different experience.”

Skill #3: How To Talk To People In Different Roles

As an intern, you’re likely going to be working closely with a particular person or team. However, you’ll likely also have opportunities to reach out to people in senior roles or in various departments. Get comfortable doing so, says Lauren Berger, the “Intern Queen,” and author of Welcome to the Real World: Finding Your Place, Perfecting Your Work, and Turning Your Job into Your Dream Career. Meet as many people as you can throughout the organization.

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In addition you’ll need to be able to ask for clearer direction when you need it, which can be tough for interns who are trying to prove themselves and make a good impression, she says. But it’s better to ask what might feel like “dumb questions” than it is to waste a day working with incorrect or unclear instructions, she says. When her employees give direction to interns, they ask the intern to repeat it so that everyone is clear that the direction was communicated well and received.

Skill #4: How To Ask For Feedback You Can Use

Davis says that working in an office gives you an opportunity to get input on your work skills and style. But if you put someone on the spot immediately after a meeting, you’re likely going to get pat responses like, “Oh, you did great,” he says. Instead, observe how your supervisor gives feedback. Is it best to sit down with them and ask how you can get better? Does the person give direction while you’re working on the task? Different feedback styles require different kinds of interaction. And you’ll also get good experience receiving and applying feedback, too, he says.

Skill #5: How To Figure Out What Work To Prioritize

Inevitably, you will have days where two or three people are asking you for something at the same time, Berger says. You want to be effective and make a great impression, but you’ve also got to be able to prioritize your work to get everything done well. Work on asking your supervisor to help you prioritize your work when you’re overwhelmed. Sometimes, deadlines are flexible or you were over-assigned because someone didn’t realize how much you had on your plate, she says.

Skill #6: What It’s Like To Be An Employee

Overall, your internship can teach you a great deal about being an employee, Driscoll says. Work on your network and build relationships with other people in the office, including your supervisor and coworkers. Work on being a team player and immersing yourself in the role as much as possible. Learn how to work well with others and make connections and you’ve taken away some very valuable skills. Before you leave the internship, find out how your contacts would like to keep in touch, such as connecting on LinkedIn or through an occasional email, etc.

“Obviously, the goal of many of these internships is number one, to determine do you like the industry and to grow your skill set, but number two, it’s to get a job subsequently,” he says.

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and web sites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.

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