How to Identify the Savviest Recent Grads and Motivate Them to Work For You

Every twelve weeks or so, I undergo a ritual at Smarterer: the changing of the guard for our interns. As one group of seasoned old hands moves on after three intense months at Smarterer, a fresh-faced new group comes on board.

I always sit down with the departing group and talk to them about their plans, and in doing so, I’ve gained some insight into what makes these recent graduates successful and how to appeal to them.

There are always one or two interns who stand heads and shoulders above the rest in terms of their approach to their career. They are inevitably the ones we bend over backwards to help out, and or even hire full time. They’re the ones with multiple job offers from other employers. Yet they are not necessarily the ones who were most skilled coming in the door. So what do they do that makes them stand out and get hired? Here are the three behaviors that distinguish the good interns from the great:

  • They raise their hands to gain skills.

    Marketing is a big field with lots of sub-disciplines, including content marketing, social media, search engine marketing, lifecycle email marketing, and marketing analytics. Interns at Smarterer may work on one or two of these during their tenure, but probably won’t deep dive into all of them. It warms my heart when I overhear an intern ask, “Hey, can I sit in on that marketing analytics meeting? I want to get exposed to how it’s done,” or “I’d like to take a shot at rewriting copy for the upcoming email campaign so I can gain some experience there.” The savviest interns are ones who recognize that these are marketable skills and push to gain them. They don’t wait for assignments to come their way – they ask for opportunities to help. They go to classes at almost every night (since Smarterer covers their tuition I get a bill at the end of the month and can see who the learners are). In short, they work their tails off during their internship to get exposed to everything they can, and they are more marketable as employees as a result.

  • They ask for feedback.

    At this stage in a career, feedback is key. Interns and entry-level hires should be direct and ask for explicit feedback on how they are performing on specific tasks, and open-ended feedback on what else they should be doing. Remember that at this stage there are unknown unknowns – by asking experienced people for feedback, interns and new hires can surface some of these and accelerate their performance.

  • They network like fiends.

    Recent graduates have little work experience and an even smaller network – yet a professional network is one of the most powerful assets a young professional can have. The successful interns are the ones who sense that they should invest in building and maintaining their network, and who use their time with us wisely. That means making time to sit down with people to ask for their advice on career direction, volunteering to help out with their projects, and participating in events they care about. In exchange, you’ll gain their mentorship, support, and potentially valuable introductions. Case in point: I met with a Smarterer intern last week who wants to pursue a career in writing, and thinks the right next step for him is in copywriting. My advice: tap the networks of key team members for suggestions on how to start in that field. The mere act of asking for help creates a commitment on the part of the person being asked – by giving advice they become vested in the outcome. It pays to learn that lesson early and practice it often.

What does this mean for employers?

Many young professionals getting out of internship programs are skilled – if they’re smart they’ve gained experience that makes them really valuable, and they can hit the ground running. But that also means they’re savvy and know how to create opportunities for themselves, so you may have to compete for them. But what do they really want? From my experience, they’re looking for more of what I outlined above – opportunities to gain skills, to learn through exposure and feedback, and to build their network. Here are some easy ways support new team members:

  • Offer tuition reimbursement, time off to take classes, or even brown-bag lunch sessions in which you bring in a subject matter expert and invite them to discuss a topic.
  • Offer consistent feedback in the form of 1:1s or other direct sessions – and ensure that your management team does the same. Encourage mentoring and networking throughout the organization.
  • Understand that new team members – and particularly Millennials – want to feel that they have an important role to play in something meaningful, and that their work, even if it’s entry-level, makes an impact. Make sure you paint this picture for new hires from day one, by sharing your company’s mission, cluing them in to your strategy, and ensuring they understand the impact of their work on your overall goals and objectives.