Help interns grow their emotional intelligence

Don’t overlook soft skills when developing an internship program.
By Michael P. Griffin, CPA, and Allison Griffin Dimond, CPA

Help interns grow their emotional intelligence
Image by Trina Dalziel/Ikon Images

Good internships are mutually beneficial to students and accounting firms: They provide students with quality learning experiences and can be a pipeline of new talent for firms. Traditionally, the focus of accounting internships has been on technical proficiencies, but employers can also help students become well rounded by facilitating the development of their soft skills.

When interns improve their soft skills, they and their employers benefit. Employers that use a more holistic approach to intern development, working to improve interns' soft as well as technical skills, can improve their reputation as an internship provider among students and faculty. That type of goodwill might make it more likely that faculty will point their best students toward them as an employer and that interns will want to stay with them after graduation.

Students also benefit from learning skills that have been deemed critical in today's workplace. In the 2019 LinkedIn Global Talent Trends Report, 92% of talent professionals and hiring managers surveyed said it was important to hire for soft skills as much or more than it was to hire for "hard" skills. Eighty-nine percent said that "bad hires" usually lacked soft skills. Those findings align with the CGMA Competency Framework, which also highlights people- and leadership-related soft skills.

However, work still needs to be done to close the gap between new hires' existing proficiencies and employers' needs. The National Association of Colleges and Employers' Job Outlook 2020 report disclosed skill gaps in high-rated career readiness competencies such as professionalism/work ethic, oral and written communications, critical thinking/problem-solving, teamwork/collaboration, and leadership.

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE IS THE KEY TO SOFT SKILL DEVELOPMENT

Creative internship supervisors or mentors can coach interns to help them develop their soft skills by using emotional intelligence as the lever. Emotional intelligence is foundational to other necessary skills such as persistence, critical thinking, problem-solving, optimism, people skills, and prioritizing of tasks. In their book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves state that emotional intelligence skills subsume the majority of other important skills, including "time management, decision-making, and communication."

By understanding the components of emotional intelligence, internship mentors can figure out how to integrate elements of it into an intern's experience. The five components of emotional intelligence are generally thought to be self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Below are some ideas on how to help interns develop in each of these five areas.

Self-awareness

In the papers we ask students to write, many say that they expect not only to learn new skills but also to learn more about themselves during their internships. One way to encourage the development of self-awareness is to ask interns to list their technical and soft skills at the start of the internship experience and to revisit that list partway through the experience and again at the end. Such an exercise reveals to students their individual "blind spots," or weaknesses unknown to the student but noticed by others. When a mentor identifies and discusses these areas with the intern, it can facilitate the process of self-discovery.

Tactfulness is important. An intern who becomes aware of gaps in her skills and aptitudes may find such a realization to be temporarily humbling. With self-reflection and a considerate analysis by a mentor, the intern will eventually increase her competence and enjoy a feeling of increased self-efficacy, defined by the American Psychological Association as a "belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments." Repeated reflection can help an intern develop a continuous improvement mindset — a worthy goal of an internship.

An internship journal is another good practice for promoting self-awareness. By journaling, interns can practice a type of reflection that famed management consultant Peter Drucker called feedback analysis. This process involves several steps: recording, reflecting on what was recorded, analyzing, and taking action. A mentor can help with the "analyze" step of journaling by helping the student sort through the "what" (what happened), gain insight from the "why," and in some cases learn the "how."

Mentors and supervisors of interns can also use this kind of analysis on the job. For example, if the quality of an intern's work product is not up to par, a supervisor should help the intern think through "why" the quality wasn't there and "how" to better pay attention to detail the next time.

Self-regulation

Self-regulation involves controlling one's behavior, thoughts, and stress levels while pursuing one's goals. Individuals who are high in emotional intelligence are able to deal with stress and other negative emotions in an effective way.

Some ways to help interns build self-regulation include:

Modeling: Accounting can be a stressful profession, especially in fields such as audit or tax, which have strict deadlines and long hours. Interns can face additional stress from the fact that an internship is often their first entry into a professional work environment. This can produce disruptive emotions. It is key that interns see their supervisors demonstrate how professionals successfully deal with stress and anxiety.

Everyone involved with an intern in the workplace should be a role model. Showing an intern how to bounce back after a tough experience can be very useful modeling behavior. Supervisors should stress clearly and early on in the experience that they expect interns to have a "never give up" attitude and a proactive learning mindset.

Mindfulness: Firms may encourage or even provide on-site mindfulness training.

Encouraging pauses: Simply encouraging interns to pause and think before acting is also effective and can reduce their tendency to act impulsively. Some students are so anxious to show their value that their work product is hurried, so simply suggesting that an intern slow down and double-check their work can be helpful. Supervisors can also ask interns to prepare a checklist of quality control steps or just to take a step back to reflect upon their processes and why it is critical that their work be done accurately.

Motivation

Anyone trying to hire an intern seeks students who are self-motivated, and many do come to the engagement very motivated and self-directed. They usually want to learn and want to relate their book learning to the real-world work of accountants. Some students also report becoming more motivated, enthusiastic, and passionate about their careers when they see how their college course work connects with their internship duties.

Internship supervisors can also nurture motivation by emphasizing achievement through goal setting, requiring daily to-do lists, discussing weekly milestones, and celebrating "wins" (such as engagements successfully completed).

Discussing how an intern's work fits into the big picture can also increase motivation. Interns often mention that they developed more interest in their work as the result of a supervisor taking the time to explain the "why" of a project. They often find that seeing how their work contributed to the achievement of an overall objective, such as a client deliverable, is motivational.

Empathy

Having a caring attitude toward others can benefit all professionals, and accountants are no exception. Empathy is at the heart of emotional intelligence, and it is both an inborn capability and a fundamental people skill that can be developed over time. Often a student's level of empathy increases through real-world experiences.

Internship supervisors can model empathy by making an attempt to understand the challenges experienced by an intern. Sympathizing and relating to a newly hired intern's early days on the job is an example of empathy that the intern may someday apply when, as an established professional, she works with a new hire, builds client or team relationships, or navigates hard situations. Supervisors can also demonstrate sensitivity by helping interns face stumbling blocks — for example, by stopping by an intern's desk after a meeting (or arranging for a quick online check-in during remote work) to clarify confusing points or to see if the intern has any questions.

During remote internships, interns can feel isolated and find it difficult to connect on an emotional level. Letting interns know that supervisors are available and eager to be a resource can increase their sense of belonging and is all the more important when interns are working remotely.

If a student seems to lack empathy in a particular situation, his or her supervisor can address this. It's important to try to understand why the lack of empathy exists. For instance, it can result simply from poor listening skills and not paying attention to the details of the situation. In this case, an internship coach can tactfully identify poor listening skills and address them by asking the intern to replay the incident and to suggest a more empathetic response.

Social skills

Interns often note that one of the greatest benefits of their internship is the social aspect: working with professionals, meeting new people, and making contacts. Social skills can be enhanced, and an internship experience should proactively facilitate them. Employers should give interns many opportunities to build personal relationships and professional networks beyond helping them grow their LinkedIn contacts.

Students often need a nudge to "get out there" — to move out of their comfort zone and interact and socialize with experienced professionals. A planned after-work event such as bowling, a painting night, or a dinner with the team is a good start.

Intern supervisors should look for other opportunities to get students involved with professionals. They should encourage them to become student members of professional associations such as the AICPA and their state society of CPAs and encourage them to attend sponsored events. They can further advance interns' interpersonal skill development by finding opportunities for them to communicate with clients, interact with executives to gather data for projects, and approach firm managers and directors to ask questions.

Socialization can be a challenge during remote internships. Supervisors may need to plan more frequent check-ins, online social and networking events, and increased engagement with senior leadership through video discussions.

Instructing interns on videoconferencing etiquette and best practices (such as muting the microphone when not speaking, positioning the camera carefully and keeping video on, limiting distractions, and avoiding multi-tasking during online meetings) can also help create good social skills.

A PATH TO PROFESSIONAL SUCCESS

Accounting internships should be a transformative experience in so many ways. Think about how your "internship curriculum" can help an intern become immersed in the culture of your firm's work setting while developing technical skills and emotional intelligence. Consider what you can do as an internship supervisor to help launch an intern down the path to becoming a well-rounded professional accountant.


About the authors

Michael P. Griffin, CPA, is a senior lecturer in accounting and finance at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth's Charlton College of Business. Allison Griffin Dimond, CPA, is a senior tax associate in the Global Mobility Services group with PwC Boston.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-4125.


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