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From Intern to Rockstar: Fostering Employee Drive and Performance


From Intern to Rockstar: Fostering Employee Drive and Performance

During my time as a manager, I’ve had the pleasure of nurturing, counseling, and mentoring many employees. For me, it is one of the most rewarding experiences – to watch as an employee transforms from a fresh graduate into a battle-hardened employee ready to take on high-stakes client work. One employee in particular stands out in my mind. With him, we worked on goal setting, ownership and responsibility, motivation, and trust building.
At another company I worked for, we hired a developer, let’s call him Jim for privacy, straight out of university. He was recommended to us by the head instructor of the software engineering program. My team had an opening for a junior web developer and we were happy to finally have a referral come in. We were facing issues sourcing the right candidate because of budget restraints, candidate availability versus our project timeline, and required technical skills.
Jim wanted to be a full stack developer and he was willing to come on-board for a three month internship with the potential to convert into a full-time hire. Jim impressed everyone from the get go. Beyond the basic expectations of punctuality and congeniality, Jim learned quickly. He had never worked on a team before and thus had no experience with collaboration best-practices like commenting in code, making git commit comments, and writing a readme file. Jim quickly conformed to internal best practices and learned how to properly handoff code and project files to other developers down the pipeline.

Aligning Personal Drive and Professional Development

It quickly became apparent through workplace interactions that Jim’s personal interests and professional skills overlapped a lot. He posted related tech news in Slack. He spent his free time researching new technologies, staying up-to-date with industry trends, and experimenting with his skills in PHP development, frontend web development, and having an overall design eye.

About two weeks after Jim’s start, I worked with Jim to outline and design a larger capstone project due in two months that he would have complete ownership over. Jim was involved in the goal and milestone setting and architected his own internship and project. This project was in addition his typical day-to-day fixes of client software.

Additionally, when employees are involved in goal-setting, they are 3.6 times more likely to be engaged than those who are not. Having employees contribute to their own targets demonstrates that leadership trusts and values their opinions.

Nurturing Project Ownership

Jim was astounded that leadership entrusted him with this project: building out an AngularJS dashboard to administer and interact with our Firebase projects, send automated email responses with SendGrid, and create a login system with multiple permission levels. Jim was the only developer on this project and he saw how his direct contribution would determine the success of the project. We gave him the authority to make design and development decisions.

Jim took ownership of the project because he understood how it impacted our team. This tool would be the only way to administer our user database and needed to be used by multiple departments. He built out user permissions for differing levels of authority which helped maintain the data sanity. He demoed his project every couple weeks to share his progress and to gather meaningful feedback from other team members. From his feedback gathering, he learned how each department would interact with this tool and thus how to improve user experience.

When Jim launched his product, the whole team and senior leadership were blown out of the water. This internal tool would be used by nearly everyone in the company and we couldn’t believe that a fresher was able to buildout and optimize this tool in such a short time.

Furthermore, it showed that Jim was engaged in his work duties: honing skills that typically fall outside of backend developer roles, extending his thinking outside of his own craft, to design, UI/UX, and overall user satisfaction. This project allowed Jim to work on something that was his own and that made an impact.

Personal Development Supports Workplace Performance

It’s not just the quarterly targets and big achievements that should be acknowledged: setting and celebrating mini-milestones keeps employees motivated in their day-to-day roles.

In addition to yearly or quarterly goals, develop mini-milestones. Set goals to track what your team members are achieving on a weekly or monthly basis – and involve them in the milestone creation process. These don’t have to be performance-driven or KPI-focused. They can be social or cultural, or they can focus on personal development like – punctuality, collaboration, or communication.

For Jim’s personal development, I targeted communication. Our products, documentation, ticketing system, client comms — all were in English. English was not Jim’s first language and successful completion of his internship partially hinged on his ability to meet communication requirements.

I gave Jim the goal of learning English and assigned the task of watching a random TEDTalk video and preparing a written summary. We would discuss the videos in our one-on-ones, both to improve his spoken English and to tease out discussion on broader concepts which tested his critical thinking.

As Jim’s English comprehension grew, he became more vocal in daily standups. When Jim successfully provided complete English documentation for the application he built, we celebrated his English competency as a team with BBQ and beers.

A Collaborative Culture Fosters Employee Engagement

Employee engagement isn’t just the responsibility of leaders and managers. All employees in an organization play a critical role in ensuring everyone is an engaged and contributing member of the team.

In SHRM’s Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement Report, 70% of respondents placed high importance on working in an organization where employees are encouraged to take proactive action when they see a problem or opportunity. Another 65% placed high importance on colleagues that could quickly adapt to challenges or crisis situations, and those that meet workplace challenges with tenacity.

These figures demonstrate how important it is for employees to feel that they’re contributing to a team that has perseverance, agility and a goal-focused mentality. Fostering a culture of teamwork and problem solving encourages employees to think outside the box and solve problems within their teams, rather than relying on guidance from management.

Personal Investment from Management and Employees Pays Off

We extended Jim’s internship for another three months after which we converted him to a full-time employee. We knew he was a keeper even though the capstone project launch was delayed by three weeks due to items outside of his control (priority client work and ever-changing requirements from management 🤣).

I provided Jim with the space and time to set and achieve his own targets, entrusted him with development of mission-critical software, and helped develop his communication skills. In the end, his performance and my willingness to invest in him resulted in an atmosphere of mutual trust and collaboration.

Content Creation Manager at | + posts

Evan Daniels is the Content Manager at Wavely. Coffee and hip hop enthusiast, he mainly covers changes in recruitment, job seeking, and marketing.

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