The intern years: What can I offer my boss or his client?

Attention.  Offer your attention and interest.  If you've already read my previous blog "This is my first job, what else should I be doing?"  you read my thoughts on personal branding and personal awareness at the beginning of your career.  The next period of your career, the intern years, represent a different sort of challenge.  On the other hand, you are obviously up for it since you made it through college and now have sweated out your first couple of years at your first job.  So what's a young professional to do now?

Certainly the tendency has been to show up, keep your head down and get the work out.  Every now and then you let one eye look around at the other activities taking place in the firm and wow, it can be exhilarating and even a little confusing. Ask your principal if you can sit in on the next presentation on your project.  Ask him to introduce you to the client as an intern and someone the firm has chosen to mentor in the business.  Then sit back and soak in the experience.  If the meeting is out of the office, ask to ride along with the principal to discuss ahead what the meeting is about and the issues at hand.  On the way back, debrief with your principal and discuss the client attitude, the sub-consultants and contractors efforts and the progress of the project.

"So, what's the take away here?  Clients appreciate knowledge, experience and your confidence to have an opinion and guide their decision making.  They also appreciate your willingness to find a solution when one may not be apparent."

Young interns are typically shy around clients, its normal.  After all, right there seated at the conference table is someone who can hold the firm's future in their hands.  If they like your design, if they like the process and if they like the results, they can propel the firm forward.  Surprisingly, they are just people like the principals of your design firm that have a business, a product and customers to serve.  Clients are much more like peers than superiors.  Sure, they may know their business better than anyone else at the table, but your principal knows his own business in the same manner.  It is an exchange of equals. 

There are two bits of advice I can offer:

First, know what you know.  When your experience has given you the right answer, don't be afraid to voice that experience, even if it's a qualified but firm answer .

Second, know what you don't know.  It's not a guessing game and not knowing every answer isn't a bad thing.  Admit it, express your ability to research and provide the correct answer, or defer to your principal to allow their seniority to answer and learn from the experience.   

Know that you are not expected to lead the meeting, you are there to listen and learn, your first two priorities as intern.  Those are your most powerful tools - ears and brains.  But also use your eyes to note the attitude of the meeting attendees.  Know their positions and interests in the project, from client, to landlord, or designer, engineer, contractor or sub-contractor.  Knowing the players will put their comments into perspective for you.  At the beginning or end of the meeting, exchange business cards (if you are lucky enough to have been provided them) with all present.  See where this is going?  

So, what's the take away here?  Clients appreciate knowledge, experience and your confidence to have an opinion and guide their decision making.  They also appreciate your willingness to find a solution when one may not be apparent.  Being studied, doing research, knowing what others do or have done all provide valid references for your client relationship.  As an intern, this is doubly difficult.  You have two "clients", your boss and his client.  This is what makes interns nervous.  Having said this, do your best to contribute to every meeting.  Make your presence known, even if it is asking questions of others.  You may discover that other's may have had the same question but were hesitant to ask.  Not bad.

To me, interns are special people deserving of great attention and respect.  I always see myself in my interns, recalling the day I was so honored to sit in the presence of our clients.   It completely altered my personal and professional conscientiousness about the client / professional relationship.  Give it a shot.

William M. Burwell  is a retired Architect and Interior Designer whose career focused on corporate interior architecture in sole proprietorships, and partnerships from 9 to 120 staff.  Bill retired in 2014 and began Burwell Consulting a Firm Marketing and Management Consulting firm, to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years.   Bill writes articles sharing his experience in four keystone practice areas:  Entrepreneurship, Marketing, Design, and Practice Management.  He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence. Check him out at