I’ve been lucky to work with many smart interns over the years and sometimes marvel over how much more together they are than I was at their age. Take Allison Stillerman, women.nyc’s remarkably capable intern—or rather former intern, as she was recently promoted to Associate Project Manager while still an undergrad at Hunter College.
Day to day, she performs an essential role running our salary negotiation partnership, along with anything else we send her way. Sure, Allison is bright, but that alone doesn’t account for her extreme effectiveness. She not only delivers consistently high-quality work, but she gets out ahead of questions and conflicts. What’s more, she’s mastered a practice that usually takes years: keeping problems from ascending the food chain and elevating only what is crucially necessary.
Being an intern can be tough, since it’s frequently one’s first exposure to a professional workplace (and plenty of unprofessional ones too, which require their own set of survival skills.) How did Allison figure it out so quickly? I asked her to share some professional advice. No surprise, it isn’t just for interns.
How have you made work easier for the people you work with?
When I first started at women.nyc, I inherited a lot of spreadsheets about the program, so one thing I did was create an information hub. Now, every piece of information about the workshops exists in one document. By having access to all the information in one place, people won’t need to ask me directly.
One difficulty of being an intern is that it’s almost always part-time. Becoming an indispensable member of a team requires that people can rely on you at all times, even when you are not in the office. By maintaining databases that are both up-to-date and easy to understand, an intern can be an asset whose value extends beyond the hours that they are at their desk.
By sending agendas and lists of questions before every phone call or meeting, interns can keep conversations productive and efficient.
People or tech skills: what’s more important?
Every position I’ve been in, it’s all about people skills. Those skills are how you get the internship or the job, and it’s how you become successful. My work is 100 percent interpersonal because it relies on creating and maintaining relationships to set up events.
Being at women.nyc has taught me a lot about professional people skills. I thought I knew how to write an email, but I’ve sharpened my ability to get to the point without wasting someone’s time. Similarly, by sending agendas and lists of questions before every phone call or meeting, interns can keep conversations productive and efficient.
What have you been able to teach people you work with?
Part of what many interns bring is the perspective of a student. Their voices are more and more relevant today. Having that perspective is valuable because a lot of what we do here at women.nyc is messaging and composing different ways to advertise programs. Every intern brings their own identity to work and should not be afraid to make use of their unique perspective.
Instead of asking ‘What should I do?’ try saying, ‘Here are my ideas. Is this a solid plan?’
How much initiative do you take and how much guidance do you seek?
I am fortunate that I’ve been given a lot of license and a lot of space, but I couldn’t do anything without the guidance of other people. Interns should not be afraid to ask for help, but it’s a good idea to try to solve the problem first.
I get nervous about emailing people who are very high up in an organization. I’ll ask for help with an email, but I take time to write a draft first. Instead of asking “What should I do?” try saying, “Here are my ideas. Is this a solid plan?” By taking a stab at something before asking for help, you signal to your supervisors that you respect their time while establishing yourself as someone with ideas.
Seek out ways to contribute as well as claim ownership of those contributions—not only will you be happier, you’ll be more creative.
What is the biggest mistake an intern can make?
One that I’ve made is not respecting my own work and time. I felt, “I’m lucky to be in this room. I have to be quiet and deferential.” I’ve come to realize that a quiet and deferential employee is not a particularly valuable team member.
Seek out ways to contribute as well as claim ownership of those contributions–not only will you be happier, you’ll be more creative. People will see you’re someone worthy of respect. It’s hard to take that first step and volunteer your thoughts, but it’s the only way to become the person others look to for valuable information. Once you speak up the first time, it’s hard to sit back and be quiet.
How do you make use of downtime?
Optimizing downtime is important, but at the same time, it is not a good idea to constantly request tasks from a supervisor, which creates more work for them. It is the responsibility of the intern to identify productive uses of their time. If there’s downtime, instead of scrolling through your social media, scroll through news websites or the feeds of related organizations.
I frequently discover stories that we might want to repost or highlight on social. Even if we don’t end up sharing those links, my supervisors know that I am engaging proactively to benefit women.nyc. Additionally, having a deeper knowledge of the ecosystem that an organization exists in can help an intern make connections and suggestions.
How do you balance schoolwork against your internship?
I really enjoy having different parts of my life that are separate. Interns have to be vigilant about differentiating their time for different tasks, since we are often pulled in so many directions at once. As soon as they bleed into one another it becomes very overwhelming.
When I first got my work email on my phone, I was constantly writing emails in the hallways in between my classes. However, I found that those hurried messages contained a lot of mistakes because I wasn’t fully focused. Connectivity is important, so I recommend scanning your emails once or twice a day to see if anything is urgent.
Each learning moment builds up your value as a future employee so that you’re not just working for a paycheck.
What does success look like in an internship?
A successful internship can be a launchpad to a job, whether it’s a promotion within an organization or a position post-graduation. Each day I look back at what I got done, and make a list of what I will accomplish the next day.
Interns should be deliberate about extracting wins that can go on a resume. These might be metrics (X women trained in salary negotiation, X percentage growth in certain areas), but could also be soft skills like conference-call etiquette. Each learning moment builds up your value as a future employee so that you’re not just working for a paycheck.
I’m really fortunate that I have a lot of ownership of the salary negotiation program. In partnership with the American Association of University Women, we’ve trained more than 3,000 women to negotiate raises or job offers. I frequently go to our events and meet the people we serve. I’m so proud of the types of resources we’ve been able to provide. I’m most proud of the impact that we have had for women in New York City. We get emails about how valuable the training has been. It’s just so gratifying.
Allison’s portrait by Alex Tutiven. Want to to be women.nyc’s next star intern? We’re hiring—apply here.