For many years, I have had the opportunity to supervise several ambitious young people during their internship in Brussels, in the field of European public affairs and communications. Showing them how to navigate the EU institutions, decipher Eurocrats and politicians jargon, and understand how to get your message across and through the EU bubble, has been a learning experience not only for them, but also for me. Seeing them getting more clarity in what they enjoy to do and finding their path to new professional adventures has been – and still is – a real pleasure!
Here are my 4 take-aways to both interns and their supervisors.
To the intern
1) Before the interview: girls, boost your confidence, and boys, show humility
After years of interviewing candidates, I often meet girls who have degrees, plenty of extra-curriculum experience and who come well-prepared for the interview. They are highly ambitious and still they tend to doubt their own knowledge and insist that they need to learn more. On the other hand, boys often have less on their resume, yet they are confident that their studies and experiences are more than enough for the job and presumptuously reassure the organisation that they already know how to do the tasks asked. Girls, boost yourself with more self-confidence (you deserve it!) and boys, be more humble, trust me, it will do you good and help to make a better first impression.
2) Make the most of your internship, ‘it’s a small world’
This is your opportunity to gain real life experience on your resume in order to get an actual paid job. No matter if you enjoy it or not, remember that most experiences are transferable, whether it is learning how to take notes, filing documents or working in a team. Spin Sucks said it perfectly in its podcast – choose your words carefully, always be professional and never burn a bridge – ‘It’s a small world’, meaning you never know who you will run into again in your professional life. Your colleague during an internship can end up becoming your future boss at another company, or you might find someone you met during your internship that will become a helpful contact to recommend you for a vacancy. Make the most out of your internship, you never know where it will lead to next.
3) Fast track your learning by asking questions & suggesting solutions
Being the youngest or most junior at a workplace can be intimidating. In addition to learning the ways around, who’s who and your tasks, every work culture also has its own set of jargon that can be hard to understand. You want to give a good impression and show that you can quickly learn and deliver. Feeling insecure might lead you to shy away from disturbing your supervisor and, instead, try to learn on your own. Understand me right, trying by yourself is a good quality, but not asking for clarification when you don’t understand the task given won’t help. Ask rather one time too much than too little. That way, you will most likely end up doing your task better, because not knowing what is expected may result in you having to redo it all. It is also important for your supervisor to know if you do not understand their instructions. Don’t assume it is your fault, it can equally well be your supervisor that is not clear enough when explaining. When your colleagues speak above your head, using sector-specific abbreviations and technical terms, just ask. You cannot be expected to know. It is okay to ask (and trust me, your colleagues do not always know either).
Early in my career, my first boss and mentor (Sören Juvas), taught me not only to ask questions but also to suggest answers. When I did not understand something, I tried to make sense of what I did get and asked for confirmation if I got it right or not. When I considered a procedure inefficient or simply thought something was not working, I suggested how to make improvements or solve the problem. My answers were not always correct and my ideas were not always great, but in the long run, my initiative and agency were always rewarded, and helped me build confidence and develop professionally.
4) Engage with the team and socialise professionally
As an intern, try to be part of the team. The small initiatives matter: helping out even when you are not told to, asking your colleagues if you can support them when you see they are overwhelmed with work or simply watering the office plants. Small attentive gestures rarely go unnoticed, they can demonstrate loyalty, help build trust and are ways to socialise (professionally), which are valued qualities at any workplace.
To the supervisor
1) Don’t miss out on good candidates, minimise biases in the selection
Whether for an internship or a job vacancy, choose an application format and selection process that diminish any form of biases (e.g., anonymous job applications have the potential to reduce discriminatory barriers). Whether we admit it or not, we all read and perceive applications differently depending on gender, ethnic background, age etc. Such characteristics shall never be reasons for disregarding an applicant. However, if candidates are equal in terms of qualifications, favour the one from underrepresented groups. Diversity has been proven beneficial to a team, as it brings complementary skill sets and increases productivity.
2) Interns are not cheap labour, they are there to learn
Interns should never be treated as cheap workers or worse, unpaid labour. Even the European Parliament agrees that it’s a form of exploitation of young people’s work and rights. They are not there to just do the tedious work you and your team are stalling, tidy up piles of documents or make coffee. Sure, we all have to start somewhere and boring tasks must be done by someone, who often has the least experience. However, an internship should be a real-life learning experience, and indeed, you have to be prepared to set aside some of your time to teach what you were once taught by someone more senior-level employee and/or what you have learned throughout the years. Assigning meaningful tasks will help the person not only to find a job but also to determine what career path they want to take next. We all know that the textbook description of our dream profession and its environment does not always match the reality. Working with European affairs in Brussels is often far from what students expect (one of my go-to interview questions is to ask what they expect to learn, it is also an occasion to clarify what they actually can expect).
3) Listen, you too can learn
Being a supervisor is not only about teaching, it is also about learning. Interns come with a fresh mind and new perspective, and it is also an opportunity for you to learn. For once, you can practise your ability to explain what your company is doing and why. If the intern does not get it, I am pretty sure there is room for improvement from your side. You can also take the occasion and ask for their opinion on how to better reach a younger audience through your communication channels and activities (again, I am sure there are upgrades to be made). Taking the time to listen to each other is leading by example of how to understand and bridge any (generational) gaps or other differences.
4) Be inclusive, treat interns as team members
Even if interns only join your team for a short period of time, they should feel welcomed and included in the team. As a supervisor, it is your responsibility to make sure they feel as team members and that their contribution and opinion matter. Once again, the small initiatives matter: invite them for lunch or go for a coffee, take the time to get to know them by showing interest. Asking about their studies, giving tips about the city (if they are new in town) or simply telling about some parts of the organisation’s activities that they are not involved in (which could make them feel included), are just a few examples.
At the end of the internship, reflect on what you have learned. Give each other some constructive input and use the feedback to develop professionally and personally. As a final word, whenever you can, lend a hand for the next person to be able to get on the ladder. This way, the glass ceiling will become easier to break for those facing it.