From Interns to Executives: Creating a Leadership-Driven Summer Internship Program

How can you create a leadership-driven summer internship program?

Summer internships are important learning experiences for students, offering them a glimpse into the professional world and acting as one of the best ways for young people to identify what type of workplace they’re drawn to and excel in. Meanwhile, they also provide companies with fresh perspectives and talent, making internships mutually beneficial programs. 

As American journalist Eva Chen says, “My advice for young people is, to study what you love and intern in what you want to do. And I think it’s okay to pivot as many times as you need to.”

However, many internships often fall short of their potential, acting as temporary job placements without offering substantial opportunities for growth and development. To bridge this gap, forward-thinking companies are revolutionizing the traditional internship model by creating leadership-driven programs that empower interns to become future executives.

Rethinking the Internship Paradigm

Traditionally, internships were viewed as short-term arrangements where students perform menial tasks or shadow employees without much autonomy or responsibility. While these experiences may offer some value, they often fail to fully engage interns or prepare them for future leadership roles within the organization.

“Going through the work of hiring interns only to underutilize them is a massive waste of company resources,” says Anthony Tivnan, President and Co-Founder of Magellan Jets, a company known for their charter jet flight memberships, Jet Cards. “Plus, it doesn’t leave a positive impression of the company on those interns, who often graduate and work in that same industry.” 

Recognizing and utilizing interns’ untapped potential requires redefining the internship paradigm. Instead of treating interns as temporary hires, begin viewing them as potential future leaders who can contribute meaningfully to the organization from day one.

What Are the Elements of a Leadership-Driven Internship Program?

To create an internship program that’s beneficial to both your corporation and your interns, consider the following from successful business leaders across multiple industries.

1. Structured Mentorship

Structured mentorship within an internship program is a transformative tool, benefiting mentors and mentees alike. 

“Having guidance from a mentor is invaluable for students and young professionals,” says Andrew Meyer, CEO of Arbor. “It’s one of the most direct ways to build leadership, loyalty, and trust between an organization and potential future employee.” 

Structured mentorship cultivates a culture of collaboration and knowledge exchange within the organization, fostering stronger bonds and enhancing overall productivity. By investing in mentorship, interns gain the confidence to explore their potential while mentors contribute to the development of future talent. This practice creates a mutually beneficial relationship that propels both parties toward success.

2. Meaningful Projects

Rather than assigning interns mundane tasks, companies can integrate interns into high-impact projects that align with the organization’s strategic goals. Doing this creates a more engaging and interesting experience for the intern, and it results in tangible and useful outputs for the company. 

“An internship is like training wheels for a future employee,” explains Sanford Mann, CEO of American Hartford Gold. “If you’re looking to hire employees out of the internship program but don’t take building that program seriously, you’re crippling your future workforce.” 

By entrusting interns with genuine responsibilities, companies maximize productivity and cultivate leadership skills such as project management, problem-solving, and decision-making, setting up these interns to be valuable future employees. 

3. Professional Development Workshops

Providing professional development workshops for interns is an effective and simple way to nurture their growth and ensure they make the most of their internship experience. You can customize workshops to offer training most relevant to your specific industry or field. 

“An effective internship program offers professional development workshops at least once or twice throughout the internship,” recommends Bridget Reed, VP of Content at The Word Counter, a random word generator website. “These workshops can be great networking opportunities for young people, as well as a formative development opportunity for potential future employees.”

By addressing areas such as communication, time management, leadership, and technical skills, interns are better prepared to contribute meaningfully to projects and adapt to the demands of the workplace. Beyond that, professional development workshops foster a sense of investment from the organization, demonstrating a commitment to the interns’ personal and professional growth. 

4. Cross-Functional Exposure

Exposing interns to various departments and functions within an organization gives them a holistic understanding of how the business operates. That understanding is valuable for improving interns’ overall competence. It also increases the likelihood that interns will be able to maximize their particular skills and talents if they are later hired by the organization. 

“One of the most valuable types of internships is the rotational program,” Natalia Kuvelas, Marketing Manager of Custom Goods, recommends. “Rotating interns through different departments broadens their knowledge and skillset and ensures that they’re placed in a position that makes the most of their talents down the line.”

Rotational opportunities allow interns to gain diverse experiences, broaden their perspectives, and build valuable networks across different teams. Even if your organization does not have the infrastructure to offer rotations, cross-departmental collaboration can improve perspectives and skills as well. 

5. Feedback and Evaluation

Regular feedback sessions and performance evaluations are absolutely essential for a successful internship experience. Constructive criticism empowers interns to assess their strengths and find areas for improvement while the stakes are still low. 

“One of the best ways to provide constructive criticism is by using the sandwich method,” recommends Justin Soleimani, Co-Founder of Tumble, a company known for their washable rugs. “Start by highlighting a win or success for the intern, then provide that critical feedback. Round out the review by highlighting another success. It softens the blow and increases the chance that the person in question will actually accept and incorporate that feedback, rather than taking it straight to their ego.” 

Constructive feedback fosters a culture of continuous learning and growth, enabling interns to refine their skills and make meaningful contributions to the organization.

6. Networking Opportunities

One of the most common adages of the modern-day job hunt is that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Facilitating networking events and interactions with senior executives is an essential part of a strong internship because it allows interns to forge connections and learn from industry leaders. 

“Mixers, panel discussions, or even informal coffee chats are all helpful ways to give interns a valuable opportunity to seek advice and build relationships with experienced professionals,” Cody Candee, Founder and CEO of Bounce, advises. “Additionally, companies can encourage interns to attend industry conferences, workshops, or seminars, offering them exposure to a wider network of professionals beyond the organization.” 

Building a strong professional network not only enhances career prospects for the interns but also fosters a sense of belonging and community within the organization. This bonding makes it more likely that they will return for a full-time job at that company as well.

What Are the Benefits of Internships for Companies and Interns?

If you’re still not sure whether an internship program would be beneficial for your company, explore these common benefits of internships for companies and students.

1. Creation of a Talent Pipeline

Internship programs create a direct route for identifying and nurturing potential future employees. By offering internships, companies can attract top talent early in their careers, allowing them to assess interns’ skills, work ethic, and cultural fit firsthand. 

“Hands-on experience allows companies to ensure interns are being trained for their specific needs and standards,” says Asker A Ahmed, Director of iProcess Global Research. “Not every intern will go on to take a full-time job at the company, but those who do will be well-prepared to contribute to the organization.” 

Internships offer companies the opportunity to build relationships with interns over time, fostering loyalty and a deeper understanding of their strengths and capabilities. Crafting this sort of talent pipeline allows companies to streamline their recruitment efforts, mitigate hiring risks, and maintain a steady influx of skilled professionals, which is invaluable for sustaining growth and innovation in an increasingly competitive business landscape.

2. Improved Reputation

Internship programs can significantly enhance a company’s reputation in several ways. A well-structured internship program demonstrates the company’s commitment to investing in the next generation of talent, reflecting both strong values and corporate social responsibility. 

“Don’t underestimate the power of word-of-mouth,” advises Francesco Gatti, CEO of Opensend. “A strong, well-known internship program can become the leading element of an overall positive corporate reputation.”

Positive experiences shared by interns can enhance the company’s employer brand and attract top talent. Additionally, internship programs create opportunities for companies to engage with educational institutions, industry associations, and community organizations, further strengthening their ties within the community and industry. 

3. Personal Growth

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Credit: Shutter2U on Istock.

Internships serve are fertile ground for fostering personal growth, benefiting both interns and established professionals. 

“Personal growth may sound a bit vague in comparison to tangible outcomes like conversion rates, sales numbers, and ROI,” says Maggie Brown, Founder and CEO of Recess Pickleball, a company known for its pickleball paddles. “However, an organization that fosters and encourages growth is going to organically build a stronger foundation for ongoing success.”

For interns, the experience offers a unique opportunity to step out of their comfort zones, take on new challenges, and develop essential skills such as communication, problem-solving, and time management. For professionals, serving as mentors or supervisors provides professionals with the chance to refine their leadership and coaching skills, deepen their understanding of different perspectives, and foster a sense of fulfilment by contributing to the growth of others

A Mutually Beneficial Partnership

Talent can be a key differentiator in a competitive market. Rather than providing a menial internship experience, companies must invest in developing the next generation of leaders. 

Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft, says, “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”

By creating leadership-driven internship programs that prioritize mentorship, meaningful projects, and professional development, organizations can unlock the full potential of their interns and pave the way for a brighter future. 


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