I've worked with quite a few interns in my seven years at MessageMakers, and one quality stands out in my mind as characterizing the interns that feel the most like colleagues. They have useful skills and friendly attitudes, certainly, but I'm struck by how much their success depends on proactivity.
What does this look like? Here are 8 keys to an awesomely proactive internship:
Speak up about what you want to be involved in. Is there a big project you'd like to dig into? Someone on staff you'd like to shadow? An event or shoot you'd like to help out with producing so you can understand the process better? It's likely workable, but your supervisor needs to know that you're interested and needs to be reminded if the event is at a later date.
At the beginning of the internship, it's great to determine some projects you'll work heavily on, both so you know what to expect (and can ensure work that benefits your résumé) and so your time can be maximally used for the company's benefit.
Propose work that you think needs to be done. Senior staff may not have time to get as deep into your project areas as you. If you find interesting directions, especially that would help the company and your development as an intern, propose them as your work. Congratulations; you just created a job interview story about what a great employee you are. Match it with some good results and you're golden.
It's also useful to propose work that needs to be done, but that isn't your area: for example, "Hey, the shopping cart on our website keeps crashing. I don't know what's wrong. Is there someone we should contact to help?"
Take responsibility for your work – mind your monkeys. My boss has a favorite article1 that looks at the problem of who owns a project or task using the metaphor of monkeys. (Stay with me, here.) When you have a project that you are responsible for completing, the monkey is on your back. When you say to your supervisor "I don't know where to go from here" and stop doing work until you get a response, you are throwing the monkey onto his/her back. The goal of the article was to encourage supervisors to help the people they manage get work done without taking back the "monkey" – the responsibility for making it happen.
The moral of the story: If you want to be an awesomely proactive intern, assume that you have responsibility for ensuring your work is completed successfully and ask for help in that light. There is a huge difference between sending a note that reads "Hey, supervisor, I don't know what to do with this. What should I do now?" and "Dear supervisor, I seem to have reached a dead end with this project... I could imagine going in directions X, Y, and Z, but I wasn't really sure which you wanted. Do you have 10 minutes to chat so I can keep moving forward?"
Part of taking responsibility in this way is to try several times to complete a task before asking for help. You, intern, are a creative person, and one of the real gifts you bring to a workplace is your outsiderness. You think about things in different ways. You bring light to areas where other outsiders may be confused by the way things are done or discussed. Share that expertise with your workplace by using your best energies to try to solve a problem before turning to authority figures to help. It's fine to ask for help if you are completely stumped (or it's obvious that you need training in order to get started). But keep your monkeys to yourself.
Do ask for feedback on your work. You're likely working with people more expert than you in your areas of interest. Once you've completed a task, try to engage others as to what areas they see for improvement. They can help you pinpoint areas where you can think about challenges in new ways and grow new skills.
Take responsibility for your workflow. You know that you need to keep busy during your internship. If you see that you're about to be done with all that has been assigned to you, try to ask for more projects with some advance notice so your supervisor isn't stuck with a potential decision between ignoring a rush job or leaving you idle.
If you do run out of work and your supervisor isn't quickly responding with more, come up with something productive or educational to do. Study software tutorials; research the company's competitors or service areas you don't understand well; clean the supply cabinet your boss always complains about; investigate the mobile-friendliness of the company's website. Do something you can present to your supervisor when you next chat to demonstrate that you're working together to move the company forward.
Update your supervisor on status regularly. Don't be the intern who falls into a black hole (or runs out of work and never says anything). Set a regular schedule with your supervisor to discuss how things are going and what needs you have – training, supplies, etc. – to make your work possible. I'd suggest checking in anywhere between twice a week and once every two weeks, depending on the independence of your projects.
Take opportunities that are offered. In our office, this includes a variety of training opportunities, professional networking events, client meetings, production events, etc. They are an opportunity for you to get used to business settings that may become a part of your career life, to professionalize yourself, and to make connections with others that may be beneficial later. Also, you may very well be providing a useful service to the other employees (who don't have time, for example, to attend that interesting webinar).
Record everything you accomplish. This will make it easier for you to write that required retrospective paper and update your résumé at the end of your internship, and it will also make it much easier for your supervisor (who will be oh-so-impressed by your proactive sense of responsibility) to write you a letter of recommendation.
If you are a master of these 8 keys, congratulations – you are likely an awesome intern or employee. And I would love to work with you.
1 "Who's Got the Monkey?" by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald Wass, published in Harvard Business Review in 1974 and widely reprinted.
Anything else you would include in your keys to proactivity?