Say H-E-C-K to being an intern

WORK IN PROGRESS: Owen Wilson (left) and Vince Vaughn in The Internship, an American comedy. According to the writer, an internship is like living together before marriage - sensible, provided the intentions are honourable.


    Jun 03, 2014

    Say H-E-C-K to being an intern

    SLAVERY, they say, was abolished many years ago. Several employees would disagree.

    From low-paid miners to under-educated domestic helpers, many are caught in the precarious trap between needy families and rapacious shareholders.

    Side victims to this tendency can be interns, well-educated scholars and business-school movers and shakers looking for "work experience", itself an expression occasionally used to describe low wages. But interns are not, nor need they be, slaves.

    Handled properly, an internship is like living together before marriage - sensible, provided the intentions are honourable and the research is exploratory, not exploitive.

    Probation is an appalling term, suggesting as it does that there is mistrust and doubt on the part of the employer.

    Nobody should serve a probationary term unless he has been convicted of a felony, in which case the probation is to prove that he has reformed.

    New and recently qualified employees do not need reforming, they need educating and encouraging.

    An employer who hedges his bets with a probationary term has already built a wall of suspicion that neither he, nor the employee, will ever be able to scale fully.

    Internship is not probation. It is - or should be - a hand-in-hand exploration of the potential of the employee for the firm and, equally importantly, of the firm for the employee.

    Just as you do not take your date for her first outing to a hawker stall, so the intern must not be shut in a cupboard and told to sort the mail.

    These golden months can be eye-openers for both parties, leading to a quick exit if they don't gel, or a life-long working relationship if they do.

    The biggest problem for interns is managing their expectations. Their employers are busy, probably overstretched.

    Hiring an intern is like taking on an additional job - more work even if some routines are done by the new arrival.

    The employer and intern need time to discuss what each expects of the other, what there is in it for both of them in the longer term and why the culture of the business is as they see it.

    Understanding the culture of a business and its reason is at the heart of starting an internship.

    If an employer doesn't volunteer it, the intern must ask about it.

    Every trade and profession has its history and knowing how its style of behaviour and code of conduct came about is as important as learning the catechism before accepting a faith.

    All this implies lucid interns capable of doing their homework, asking questions and delving beneath the surface of the job they are engaged to do.

    Alas, universities, colleges and business schools turn out top brains, but not always top communicators.

    The intern knows everything he needs to pass his exams.

    What he is entering now is the ante-chamber to the blast furnace of business life.

    Every experience comes but once, each chance will not be seen again. Observation, interest and questions are the order of the day.

    Without questions, an internship fails both parties.

    Our aspiring intern is now equipped with background research on the organisation, with the interest and ability to ask questions, with an understanding of the importance of the culture of the business and trade and with modified expectations of what can be achieved in a limited time.

    What are the three rules for joining a business, especially as an intern?

    Humility tops the list. At 20, we know everything, at 30, a little less. By the time we reach 80, we start to realise how very little we actually know.

    As a new boy or girl, you may have wonderful, creative ideas, excellent theory and a deep understanding of how to pass exams.

    The people you are about to work with have had their lips pressed against life's bitter cup for years. They've seen it all before.

    Ask them humbly the right questions and they will share their bumpy journey. That will help you more than all the lectures and theses you've seen.

    Enthusiasm is the intern's second weapon. Valuable in any setting, it is a must for potential employers to see that you are keen on what they are doing and how they are doing it.

    Demonstrating emotions and feelings is still somewhat alien to Asian society, but times are changing. Enthusiasm is infectious. You enthuse about them and they become enthusiastic about you.

    At the end of your internship you want them begging you to stay. They will.

    Courage is the intern's third weapon. You should ask questions whenever you do not understand something or the reason for it.

    Teach yourself to smile, so you don't look like a tax inspector.

    Try to see the positions they are in and the points of view your boss and your colleagues have.

    Put yourself in their position. How would you handle you if you were them?

    The courage to help guide your new employer is something that will determine whether you stay or drop out.

    Knowledge is available to you 24/7/365. Use it, but be sure you know how to use it, where to access it and when to validate it.

    Being smarter today involves using soft skills much more than before. Their correct use determines your ability to command. That is where you are heading.

    When you join as an intern remember to say H-E-C-K - Humility, Enthusiasm, Courage and Knowledge. It will give you the best foundation for a successful future.

    The writer is the chairman, CEO & founder mentor of Terrific Mentors International (, a group of skilled mentors with significant management experience who share a passion for reviving balance sheets by restoring human spirits.