An internship at a small company has certain advantages over one at a big company -- what you may sacrifice in name recognition, you’ll make up for in access to executives and potentially more interesting assignments. But there are some common pitfalls you may encounter when you intern at a small company or for a small team, and it’s important to know how to navigate them, or you’ll risk losing the otherwise valuable connections you’d make. Here are a few problems you may have to contend with:
1. You don't understand your assignments.
It’s likely that employees at a small company hired an intern because their plates are already pretty full, which means your supervisors may not have much time to dedicate to introducing you to their processes. You might get a brief orientation on your first day and a quick explanation of any new projects, but you’ll likely spend a lot of time working independently. If this is your first professional experience, it could be overwhelming -- and even if you’re more seasoned, you may still have a lot of questions about the work you’re doing. The first thing you should remember is that your supervisors hired you to make their lives easier, so they expect you to do projects correctly -- they don't want to redo your work. To that end, don’t feel bad asking questions, especially if the information you need isn’t readily available to you elsewhere -- you should never submit incomplete work or miss a deadline because you're feeling stuck. At the same time, you need to be resourceful. Don’t ask questions you could easily figure out on your own.
2. Your supervisor doesn't pay attention to you.
Sometimes it might seem like your supervisor doesn't even notice you, and that's definitely not the best feeling. Don't take it personally -- she's busy, and your happiness and wellbeing isn't always going to be her top priority. But the truth is, even if your supervisor comes across as unavailable, she knows that hiring an intern means providing a certain amount of education. Take initiative and ask if you can set a time to sit down one-on-one and ask any larger questions you have about the company and possible career trajectories. That’s the best way to build a strong relationship and secure a useful contact that will help you down the line. She’ll likely appreciate you for showing an interest and enjoy the opportunity to share her wisdom. Just make sure you're respectful of her schedule.
3. You're all alone.
At a small company, you might be the only intern, which can make fitting in hard. If there’s an assistant around your age, you can try to build a rapport and friendship with him, but it might be daunting to approach mid-level or high-level executives. Even if you’re lonely, don’t let it show. Try not to keep earbuds in at all times -- it makes you seem unapproachable and will shut out any potential office conversations you could otherwise join. Keep a professional demeanor and get your work done well, even if the social vibes of the company leave a little to be desired. You can always exercise your mojo on nights and weekends.
4. There's no one to model behavior.
If the company is so small that there are no entry-level employees, it may be hard to figure out who to take your cues from. Assistants make great role models, since they are still paying their dues and are actively focused on maintaining a professional image 100% of the time. But mid-level and high-level executives may have a more relaxed attitude that they’ve earned over the years, especially given that at a small company, they're often the ones making the rules. They have the freedom to dress casually, work remotely on occasion, or take long lunches. Sometimes, they may afford those luxuries to you as well, but even so, you should make sure to prove your professionalism. Internships are the best time to learn how to conduct yourself in an office, and there are different expectations for entry-level employees with an unproven work ethic and mid-level employees with a track record of excellent deliverables. Act one level more professional and poised than the least casual person in the office, and you’ll stand out as someone who's reliable and worthy of a recommendation down the line. Or maybe you'll even get hired as an assistant, since there’s an opening anyway!
Despite these potential pitfalls, interning at a small company can be a valuable experience -- you get to see how the entire machine works, instead of just one piece of a larger corporate puzzle. And if you spend your time wisely and dedicate yourself wholeheartedly, you’ll find yourself on a path toward success!
--Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
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