The most valuable asset any company possesses is human capital. Regardless of what industry you're in or who your customers are, your success depends on the people you employ to help you meet your business objectives. Your best people are typically the ones who don't just do what they're told but proactively look for problems to solve. At some companies, these people aren't even full-time employees.

Elon Musk recently recognized the value in problem-solving people when two Tesla interns impressed him so much that he felt compelled to hire them. After Mark Comeau and Matthew Lane took the initiative to come up with their own solution to a problem with the Model 3's gating issue, the iconic entrepreneur offered the two of them jobs as "professional problem solvers."

Being an intern was the most defining time in my professional career. It's where I learned to solve problems, not just execute tasks. I would be nowhere in my career without the benefit of executives taking a chance on my "crazy" ideas and giving me the time to listen and more importantly the resources to execute them. 

You don't know what you are capable of or what you can achieve until you are actually tested. And I would have learned nothing sitting in meetings or grabbing coffee. You should think of interns as a low-risk source for extrem innovation. 

The highest-value employees aren't always the ones with the highest salaries or the most experience -- they may, in fact, be interns. Innovation often comes from a separation with the status quo. If you're leading a company that doesn't typically offer internships, now might be the time to change that.

The Rise of the Modern Internship

Internships have been around since the early 20th century in the U.S., when students would take apprenticeships that would put them on the path toward membership in a union. The work requirements for young interns were clearly understood by both parties, and compensation was guaranteed. Sometime toward the end of the century, however, companies began treating interns as a source of low-cost or free labor, and that mutually beneficial relationship took a turn away from reciprocity.

Today, both paid and unpaid internships are common, but companies with the most effective internship programs are those that invest in their interns, offering them mentorship, perspective, and opportunities to make a measurable impact. The modern internship is essentially an audition for a full-time gig, and a successful internship program can be beneficial to your company in countless ways:

1. Interns can make you more innovative.

Interns introduce new perspectives to your workforce, and they can provide a combination of fearlessness and creative energy that sometimes eludes more seasoned employees.

Martin Stein, founder and managing director of national private equity firm Blackford Capital, manages $650 million in assets. But in a piece he wrote about interns, he made a very interesting point. The most important thing for an intern isn't to do a good job, it's to make sure they can't be ignored. 

That makes a lot of sense. If they just perform the task at hand, they're not memorable.

So, provide them with the right incentives that match what you are looking to achieve. Don't reward how well they can follow the rules but how far they can think beyond them and help innovate in your company. This was made clear to me when I was an intern and is what pushed me to be more than just an employeed but a problem solver. 

2. Internships teach your employees to lead.

Students and recent graduates who possess enough initiative and drive to seek out an internship generally become valuable employees. Moreover, internships give your current employees an opportunity to hone their leadership capabilities by teaching the next wave of talent. This interaction can be invaluable for both parties.

I was talking to Kevin Wijayawickrama, managing principal at Deloitte, last year about the changing nature of work and he had an interesting comment on how to grow in an organization today. "Young leaders especially should assess how they're viewed by senior management and plan to address any experience gaps. Be your authentic self and be true to what you want to do vs. chasing roles and titles."

At Deloitte, a company focused on leadership development, new interns get assigned to a mentorship team, which includes a counselor and an onboarding advisor. These full-time employees help interns navigate the workplace environment while teaching them the technical and soft skills required to succeed at a global consulting firm. In the process, employees are able to reinforce their own skills and challenge their own ideas.

It's time to discover what "professional problem solvers" could do for your company.

Published on: Mar 19, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.