From the April 2015 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

5 Ways to Tap the Power of Interns

When seeking financial interns, uphold these high standards

If you have been reading my previous articles, you will know that we have made lots of mistakes when it comes to hiring. One thing that has worked for us is taking on interns.

For the most part, the interns have been smart, dedicated and a joy to work with. Sure we had a few that we didn't think made a good fit, but it was easy to part company because there was no expectation of longer-term employment.

Here are a few tips we learned that can help you find just the right intern:

1. Work with a top rated business school. Finding a great business school is a must. We found a huge difference in the cognitive abilities from graduates coming out of a top rated B school, over a more middle of the road college. The smarts factor is key for us because our clients are highly educated and expect a lot of service. We need team members who can keep up and move fast with accuracy.

We also tried hiring interns with a liberal arts degree. Typically it was too difficult for them to transition over to the complexity of the high-level math and finance we must do every day. It helped if they had some background in finance, or better yet, financial planning. At least they had some of the vocabulary, which made the training a little easier for us.

2. “Market” your firm. I feel a huge part of the interview process is to promote our firm to the candidates as a great place to work and get experience at the same time. In our ads and during the interview process we try to be as attractive as honestly possible since the top candidates will have lots of other choices.

There are a few things we emphasize during the interviews to make the position with our firm shine.

We focus on letting the interns sit in on client meetings to take notes. This gives them firsthand experience on what a day in the life of a financial advisor is all about.

After each client meeting, I spend some time debriefing with the intern. I explain why we did what we did and then answer any questions the intern might have.

If I have a financial advisory client in, I have the intern sit in on a full day executive business retreat, so the intern can learn about other financial services firms and see how we do financial services turnarounds. (I do mention that I have some experience in practice management!)

We work hard to show interns all the different aspects of what we do, so they get a well-rounded education. We will cover the process of financial planning, tax reduction strategies for now and in the future, asset management and protection, in addition to risk management and investments. I want to make sure each intern is getting a good education from working with us.

We give interns meaningful work. Sure there is scanning and copying, but we want to make sure interns perform activities they will find interesting and educational.

Interns attend all client prep meetings and case studies. This is a great way to get them indoctrinated with real-world experience.

Whenever possible, we try to find some work they can do from home after hours to save them a trip to the office. This only accounts for part of their time, but it makes us more flexible than other offices.

Finally, I offer to write a glowing letter of reference for their future employment search.

3. Do careful screening. We treat these hires just like any other team member. Here are a few of the things that we require:

No typos. We eliminate any candidates who have typographical errors on their resume or cover letter. This is an industry of nuances, and even small mistakes can cost an advisor a lot of money. My thought is if they are not careful with their résumé, when they have all the time they need to get it right, how will they do in a pressure environment when someone else's money is on the line?

A certified copy of their transcript. Generally we won't take anyone who doesn't have at least a B average. I ask for a certified copy only because there has been so much publicity about grade fraud recently.

Kolbe A. Every candidate takes a Kolbe A assessment. This is a $50 tool we use that helps us assess how the candidate approaches work and solves problems. Both Peter and I are Kolbe certified, so we also give them a mini lesson in how Kolbe works so they will better understand our team.

Team input. We have them interview all the team members. I encourage the team members to be honest and tell the candidate exactly what they like about our firm, and the challenges. We use the feedback from the team before determining whether to hire or not.

A writing sample. Sometimes, we have them take an article I have written and summarize it in two paragraphs. This shows me their communication skills and once again how good they are with the details.

A project. Occasionally we will offer a small project, for which we pay a nominal sum, like $50. The purpose of the project is for us to get good information about something the business really needs. One of them was “What changes would you make in our website to better promote our SEO?” The project report shows me how they think and solve problems and how well they communicate on paper and in person. Plus we tend to get some really good feedback that helps the business move forward.

4. Pay them. We think it is important to pay interns. This is a real job and I don't want them to feel abused. We usually peg the pay slightly higher than the norm in the area. Because they are part-time, there are no benefits. If they are with us around Christmas, I usually give them a modest Christmas bonus.

5. Include international interns. We have had success with international interns who are in the States on educational visas. It is actually illegal for them to work for pay while they are here. However, many of them need work experience for their résumés. This group has been hardworking and very good with the details. Unfortunately, we cannot always use them for telephone work because their accents may not be understandable for our American clients. I would take any of these we could get!

I just returned from a weeklong business trip to the U.K., where Peter and I were looking at different locations for our software business. As part of our due diligence, we met with numerous universities. Among other things, we were looking at their programs for interns that we could hire.

It was shocking to see how much the British higher education system varies from ours—and yes this could impact your future financial services business. The Brits just recently started charging students for their university education in the last few years. The fees, which seemed relatively modest to me, ran about $10,000 to $15,000 a year for tuition—still much cheaper than most U.S. colleges. The fees actually seemed to have a positive impact on the education system, because the schools realized they had to offer something of value, or no one was going to pay for their higher education.

The No. 1 value proposition all the schools had was this: Would their students be employable upon graduation? Their administrations went to enormous efforts to make sure their graduates could get good jobs. This meant more than skills; it also meant a good work ethic and a lot of practical, usable experience. Each school saw the importance of changing lives by making sure their students had superb skills and became great employees. This was just one small piece of creating a stronger economic environment. A strong internship program was clearly part of that initiative.

Contrast that with the U.S. I am sure there are schools that have this focus here, but many seemed to be lost in the “education for education sake” mode. Students see college as a place to go when they don't know what they want to do with their lives. Brits can no longer afford this luxury.

One last success story: About five years ago we hired a great intern from Carlson School of Management. Early this year, we made him president of our U.S. operations. He just turned 26! We couldn't be happier.

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