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2013

Hiring-Interns_Body.jpgby Susan Caminiti.

 

Remember when you were in college and couldn’t wait to get some work experience out in the so-called “real world”? Well, there’s a current crop of college students who feel the same way, and when utilized correctly, they can be a big help to your small business.

 

Contrary to what you might think, college interns aren’t just for Fortune 500 companies. Whether for the summer or during the fall and spring semesters, hiring an intern enables you to influence the next generation of professionals that will soon be out in the workforce—and gives you valuable insights from young, enthusiastic men and women who are interested in your industry. In fact, in a survey of their members, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reports that employers last year planned on hiring 8.5 percent more college students for internships than they did the prior year.

 

Before you rush out to your local college or trade school to find students to hire, however, there are some basics do's and don'ts of internships that are important to understand. Some are simple common sense, but others, if violated, could run afoul of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

 

Define the job

The first thing to understand is that these opportunities are more for the benefit of the college student than your small business. Think of internships as a smart way for you to take your experience and success and pay it forward. That's not to say, however, that there can't be an upside for your company.

 

That's why it's important to take the time to define what you really expect from any intern you bring in—the same as you would a full-time employee. Decide on the job functions, how he or she will benefit from the internship, and who will supervise the intern.

 

Crissy Koehler, vice president of sales and marketing for Parties That Cook, a San Francisco-based firm that stages hands-on cooking parties and corporate team-building events, says that her company hires interns for its marketing department and for its kitchen management functions. “The students we bring in for our marketing department need to be proficient in social media and communications,” she says. The students in the kitchen management program need food- and cooking-related skills.  “We make it very clear in our job descriptions what the candidate will need for a specific internship,” Koehler adds.

 

Hiring-Interns_PQ.jpgGet your staff involved

Tara Goodwin Frier, founder of the Goodwin Group, a public relations firm based in Walpole, Mass., has two to three unpaid interns working for her at any given time. She typically finds them by attending college fairs or through the connections she's developed as a guest lecturer at Boston University.

 

While she always makes sure to interview each candidate herself, she also has her younger employees interview the college student as well. These “peer interviews” as she calls them, often reveal more than what Frier will be able to glean. “It’s amazing what a college student will say—or reveal—to someone closer to their age,” she says, noting that some candidates have admitted during the interview process that they’re not even sure what they want to do with their lives. “As much as we value transparency in my company, I do tell these students that that’s something they probably don’t want to repeat in other job interviews,” Frier says.

 

Decide paid or unpaid

Given that most small businesses are not flush with money, many opt to offer unpaid internships. In most cases, the student will receive college credits for the hours worked in lieu of a paycheck. While hiring an unpaid intern is perfectly legal, there are some guidelines established by the Department of Labor that must be followed. Among them: The intern’s training should be centered on the skill they’re pursuing in college—writing, accounting, culinary trade—and not something unrelated to their studies. In other words, having an unpaid intern around as a source of cheap labor to pick up office supplies or fetch your dry cleaning would likely be frowned upon by the Labor Department.

 

Frier doesn’t pay her interns, but she does cover expenses related to any events she has them attend on behalf of the company and its clients, and does offer a stipend of several hundred dollars at their end of their internship. “They are getting college credit for the time they’re spending with the company, but I also think the stipend shows that we value their contribution,” she says.

 

Be ready to offer feedback—and patience

Though some interns will shine brighter than others, it’s important to keep in mind that they’re still college students and will likely need some gentle course correcting—or sometimes more—while they work at your company.

 

As a public relations firm with several high-profile clients, including the NFL’s New England Patriots, Frier often needs her interns to interact with reporters. “One of the things I noticed was that college students lack telephone etiquette,” she says. “They’re so used to simply texting or emailing.” To break them of that habit, Frier says she’s written out scripts for what they need to say on the phone when they reach a reporter to figure out if they’re interested in covering a particular event or client. “We work in a multi-generational world,” she says, “so it’s important that we stay aware of the skills that each generation brings with them—or doesn’t.”

HireaCEO_Body.jpgby Susan Caminiti.


It may sound counter-intuitive, but the skills needed to start a small business—perseverance, patience, and passion, to name a few—aren’t always the same ones necessary to take a company to the next level. Sure, as the founder you’re the person who came up with the brilliant idea for your product or service, and can zealously promote it to potential customers better than anyone. But if you can’t (or don’t want to) deal with the day-to-day functions of running a growing enterprise, it might be time to consider bringing in a chief executive officer.


Charley Polachi, a partner at Polachi & Co., an executive search firm in Framingham, Mass., works with many small companies as they’re entering their early growth stage. He says the first step he recommends for any founder looking to hire a senior manager is to define the pain they’re trying to address. “Usually it’s a matter of too much or too little,” he says. “The small business owner is either too busy and can’t keep up with all aspects of the business adequately, or the business has stalled and he or she needs someone who can come in and move it ahead.”


Know what you want

Regardless of which scenario is driving the decision, the experts we spoke with all agree on one thing: define the CEO job thoroughly before you start your search. It’s not enough to say you want someone with financial or organizational skills. As you draw up a detailed list of the attributes and qualities you’re looking for, go a step further, suggest Polachi. What functions will this person be responsible for every day? What are you able to pay? And of course, as the founder, what roles and duties are you willing to realistically delegate? “Very few small businesses need a clone of the owner,” explains Dan Bowser, president of Value Insights Inc., a business valuation and exit strategy consulting firm based in Summerville, Pennsylvania. “When you’re drawing up the specs for this new person, you want to hire someone with skills and abilities that you don’t have.”


Evaluate the person, not just the resume

Once the job has been defined, don’t rush through the interviews. “There should be no fewer than three interviews when you find a promising candidate,” says Polachi. Each time you bring them back, the conversation should delve deeper into determining if you’ve found a good fit. “Ask them if they’ve ever scaled-up a business and how they did it,” he adds. “When you’re bringing someone into a small business in a senior position, his or her management style is absolutely critical.”


That’s because the skills and style that worked wonderfully in a billion-dollar corporation with thousands of employees doesn’t always translate well into a million-dollar organization with dozens (or fewer) workers. “There is a huge difference in support and responsibilities between a big and small company,” observes Bowser. “Everything from having to make your own travel arrangements to the ego boost that comes from working for a big company—all those issues have to be considered before bringing someone into your small business. I’d have real concerns about an otherwise great candidate if all they have is big business experience.”


HireaCEO_PQ.jpgDon’t expect perfection

What if you do everything right to find a CEO for your company and the person still doesn’t work out? For starters, don’t panic. Experts say most small business owners aren’t terribly good at (or even like) the hiring process, so the chances of getting it wrong—even when looking for a senior person—are pretty high.


John Brown, president of the Business Enterprise Institute (BEI), agrees. He recently worked with a couple that was routinely clocking 50 hours to 60 hours a week at their small business and hadn’t taken a vacation in 15 years. They hired a senior manager to relieve some of the burden, but when he didn’t work out they moved him into sales and contacted Brown about selling the company. “They were so burned out and so sure they’d never find the right person that they just felt they had no choice other than to sell the business,” he says.


To avoid that sort of draconian response, set 60- and 90-day performance reviews once you’ve hired someone into a senior position. “You’ll probably know within the first 30 days if this person is going to work out, but after 90 days you should certainly have a feel for whether this was a smart hire,” says Brown. And if it’s not, Brown says he likes to remind his clients of management consulting guru Peter Drucker’s advice: Hire slow and fire fast.


Understand your new role

“Someone can be an ex-CEO of a company or an ex-president, but no one ever introduces themselves as the ‘ex-founder’ of a company,” says Polachi. “Once you’re the founder, you’re always the founder.” That doesn’t mean, however, you’re going to play the same role if you’ve decided to bring in a CEO.


Bowser advises clients to take the time to introduce the new manager to existing staff, outline his or her responsibilities within the organization, and then clearly state that this new person has your full support. Do not tolerate end-runs around your new hire by employees who say they’re more comfortable working with you. “That will only confuse people even more and undermine the person you’ve brought in,” Bowser says. “Calmly explain that the new person is now handling some of the duties you had been and ask them to work directly with him or her. Eventually employees will get the message.”

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