Although internships have long been a staple of an HBS education, today’s MBA candidates have different expectations – with a new set of challenges for interns and employers alike.

Students are interested in working in a variety of organizations, with many seeking smaller companies where they can make an impact. An intern’s willingness to “go big” with a small company may be good news for recruiters of any size, creating an opportunity for more hands-on involvement and greater creative thinking. But few smaller companies, especially start-ups, have the human resources staff necessary for managing the recruiting process, and larger institutions may lack the structures needed to accommodate the more entrepreneurial candidate.

In either case, large company or small, interns and employers must work together to design an internship project that rewards both parties. “Remember, you only have eight to twelve weeks of internship,” Piemonte says. “Students and recruiters should meet together and plan ahead to make the most of the available time.”

For Piemonte, the keys to success include:

1. A clear reporting structure: “Our students are pretty ambitious; you want them to have a good learning experience with a senior manager who can serve as a mentor,” he says. The ideal mentor should be prepared to meet with the intern regularly, preferably at least once a week.

2. A defined deliverable: “Students want to own their projects,” says Piemonte, “and you want them to work on projects important to the company.” A precisely defined deliverable – such as a proposal, a presentation, or a product/process design – keeps interns focused, and conveys a seriousness of purpose both parties respect.

Defining success at an African start-up

In Nairobi, Kenya, Amanda Cotterman (HBS 2012) leads EquaLife Group, a start-up dedicated to “building and creating consumer-related businesses” in Africa. Five employees work at the holding group level; an additional fifteen run its leading current venture, Little Steps Childcare Centers.

Over the last five years, Cotterman has employed four HBS interns. “It’s a benefit to students to learn on the ground, and a benefit to us to get quality talent,” she says. “We’re always thinking about where they can add tangible value over a short period of time.”

EquaLife’s most recent intern, Kristina Hristova, took the lead on “fleshing out” an online training program for potential childcare givers. For Cotterman, success depended on flexibility from both sides. “Because we’re a start-up juggling many challenges at once, we don’t know what the project will be until the intern arrives,” she says. “We brainstormed with Kristina to guide her thinking, then gave her a lot of ownership on taking charge of the project.” For a deliverable, Kristina was asked to investigate and select the most appropriate technology platform for the training.

Cotterman offers several suggestions for designing a successful project:

1. Clarify expectations: “Interns come with goals in mind,” says Cotterman. “Make sure you know what these expectations are and manage them from day one.” Close cooperation “creates a better relationship and helps you get a better work product.”

2. Assign a point person: Like Piemonte, Cotterman stresses the importance of regular direct contact. “You need a point person responsible for your interns, someone who takes ownership of the relationship.”

3. Help prepare the ground, especially in an unfamiliar location: Given an internship’s short duration, there is no time to spare on the lifestyle basics. Cotterman helps her interns find a place to live, navigate transportation, and arrange for essentials like cell phone service. “Otherwise,” she says, “you waste the first few weeks just settling in.”

4. Establish practical goals: “Everyone wants operations experience,” says Cotterman. “But do they really want to change a diaper? We need to think of ways interns can watch operations and do research, but not get stuck in the day to day.” She sets firm limits: “No projects that take a long time to implement, or that rely on local knowledge to get done.”

For each employer and intern, project design will naturally reflect a number of considerations unique to their particular circumstances. Yet Piemonte and Cotterman do suggest a few bedrock principles to help projects, large and small, fulfill bigger ambitions. “Interns and decision-makers should meet early in the summer,” Piemonte says, “to show their mutual interest and commitment.”

Cotterman agrees, and believes recruiters must respect the commitment an internship requires. “Interns need your company to guide them,” she says. “They’re not cheap labor; the internship is a responsibility for both parties."