Preparing the next generation ("Next Gen") is a critical step on the path to succession in a family business. There are many ways to create development opportunities, starting with exposure in “small bites” from a young age, in age- and stage-appropriate ways. Think: formal education programs, or spending time in the proverbial “mailroom” (or its equivalent), or accompanying a family member on a job, and more.
One steadfast and valuable method to expose the Next Gen to business has been internships, typically starting in high school or college. Summer learning opportunities develop younger family members’ individual capabilities, create important connection or “glue” to the business and other team or family members, and critically, build a bridge for enterprise continuity.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers collected data from companies with internship programs and published their results in mid-April of this year. Sixteen percent of respondents revoked summer internship offers, 23% planned to rescind them, and 39% planned to move internships online. Other companies are delaying internships’ start.
Across the board, this year, “students have to be ‘adaptable’ and ‘flexible in what a meaningful summer opportunity could be,” says Sharon Hansen, director of career and postgraduate development at Ursinus College. And, re-imagining internships is just one more way that organizations’ agility, imagination, and flexibility are being called on these days.
So, what is one to do if this key source of development is—like so many other things—disrupted in today’s context of a pandemic and down economy?
Drawing on CFAR’s perspectives on Next Gen development and the importance of applied learning, we are putting forth a few ideas for Next Gens and business leaders to approach Summer 2020. Whether the internship is cancelled altogether, or substantially changed, rather than viewing this summer as an opportunity lost, instead, we feel this summer is an opportunity for mutual gain in the context of this once-in-a-generation moment.
— There is no better lab to study leadership in times of crisis than through observation now. Next Gens can watch how leaders are responding to the market and customers; communicating with employees; pivoting operations rapidly; etc. There may even be opportunities to support teams dedicated to re-opening. What a rich experience to help a group charged with thinking through operations in this new environment!
Business leaders can provide important context to emerging professionals. Highlight similarities or differences about today versus the 2008-09 Recession. Share insights about the organization’s regional, industry-specific, or other characteristics and how they influence the way the company is weathering this storm. Exposing Next Gens in a developmental—not overwhelming—way to the current concerns around safety, legality, ethics, and profit could be useful to the individual and company, now and in the future.
— Videoconferencing opens up new possibilities to form and preserve relationships, and to mentor. Despite social distancing, Next Gens can forge or deepen connections with team members, building credibility with potential future colleagues, and learning from them. Consider organizing virtual peer lunches, or informational interviews with people whose career paths are intriguing. Often, it can be intimidating, hard-to-schedule, or both to ask a superior to meet and talk about his or her work. But, working from home, as many are now, opens a window—many professionals may be more willing or able to have a conversation.
Business leaders can take an expansive view of this virtual reality. Where can younger people—potentially more agile with technology—gain visibility and add value by helping with or organizing virtual meetings? Second, if the optics of having a Next Gen at the table in certain in-person settings weren’t right, could their joining virtually be less intrusive or more appropriate? Finally, what important lessons can Next Gens learn—about work-life integration and authenticity in the workplace—from this time?
— Independent or portable projects create value for the Next Gen and the business. Next Gens can contribute meaningfully by taking on a discrete, time-bound project that can be done relatively independently, and perhaps carried out agnostic to location. There are too many possibilities to list, but some that come to mind include: conducting research or benchmarking competitors, or outlining a plan for a new product or service delivery method.
There is no shortage of items on one’s wish list. To that end, this summer business leaders can scratch one item off the list by asking a Next Gen to take ownership of a particular question. Ask the Next Gen to not only submit a written summary, but also present or report out on the findings or plan at summer’s end. The Next Gen polishes his or her presentation skills, and the company receives a briefing on a topic of interest.
Looking out to the future, should the fall semester begin virtually for students, Next Gens could relatively seamlessly remain involved with the business by continuing to work on discrete or portable projects. This could be a boon for the Next Gen and the business. The Next Gen helps the business to reach certain goals, and the business has the distinct benefit of having an “on call” Next Gen thinking partner.
— The current moment calls for innovation. This is a unique moment for Next Gen in that it is prompting business leaders to question the way things have been done, including delivery of products and services, networking and messaging, and caring for employees. Next Gen can bring their fresh perspective and generational voice to these topics, adding important perspective that represents current or future customers. Now is the time to share views and ideas—they could make a lasting impact.
Business leaders can choose to embrace this moment for blue sky thinking and swift actions. Whereas normally, the youngest participants in a meeting may be the quietest, or may experience the business as hierarchical, today’s moment calls for generative conversations and quick problem solving that could flip these behaviors and notions on their heads. Next Gens, whether formally interning or not, can be invited in to provide ideas and think through plans. The best ideas, no matter their source, are critical now.
This summer will be anything but typical. Internships may be cancelled or wholly changed by going virtual, for example. That said, this summer’s experience should not be viewed as “less than.” With flexibility and adaptability, Summer 2020 can be an opportunity for the business and Next Gen—perhaps more valuable and learning-rich than an internship at another time.
If you have any ideas or opportunities that your organization is seeing for Next Gens and interns at this time, we invite you to share them with us. And, if you would like to think through an internship question you have with us, please be in touch on social media or at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will keep the conversation going on LinkedIn under #InternshipInterrupted.
CFAR Briefing Note, 2019, “NextGen Development: Building and Leveraging the Capabilities and Interests of the NextGen.”
 Wall Street Journal, “Students’ Summer-Internship Plans Evaporate Amid Coronavirus Pandemic.” April 22, 2020 by Patrick Thomas.
 The New York Times, “Summer Internships Won’t Be the Same This Year.” Dealbook, April 20, 2020.
 Inside Higher Ed, “Uncertain Job Market Awaits Soon-to-Be Graduates.” By Greta Anderson, April 28, 2020.