Internships: Building the Leadership Pipeline One Graduate at a Time






When I started my career almost 20 years ago, I began as an intern.  I remember being in college and a professor approaching me about an internship at a large, global multi-industry organization.  He was aware of my capabilities and career goals and knew that it would provide me with experience that I needed to get a full time job upon my graduation.  Well, he was right.   When I graduated, the company offered me a full-time job.  The internship turned into a 13-year career with the company. 

The experience was hugely beneficial for me as well as the company.  Interns are highly conscientious, motivated, well-educated and low-cost.  These young “go-getters” come with fresh thinking and bring innovative ideas.

I spoke with the training manager at Brown Shoe Company, a 130-year old wholesale and retail company of shoes.  She told me about a fantastic program they have in place called Accelerated Career Track. 

The ACT program, designed for recent college graduates, lasts 6-8 years.  During this time they receive a fully funded MBA with the end-goal of becoming a director.  The program is five years running with 25 participants currently and another eight starting in May.  These 25 participants did not start at the same time – two graduates began in 2003 and more participants have been added to the program each year since.    (The two participants who began in 2003 are finishing their MBA’s in April.) 

The participants rotate through five or six areas of the company. The first two jobs are the same for all participants – a regional store representative followed by a store manager position. From there, the participants move into a role in the corporate office. After about five years, they begin to spread out over the company and choose a true career path.  With each move to the next step, the participants receive a $10,000 raise. 

The program, however, does not come without lots of hand holding.  A lot of attention is given by the talent manager in charge of the ACT program.  She has regular conference calls with the participants and meetings with their supervisors.

  • 1/3rd of her time is on addressing HR-related issues – the employee does not like his or her assigned supervisor, or he/she is not learning quickly, etc. 
  • Another 1/3rd is spent managing the program. 
  • The last 1/3rd of the talent manager’s role is on career placement, development and tracking.   She must know all the participants and the organization well enough so that she can place them in the right roles.

The program has been highly successful.  As a matter of fact, the company is in the process of developing a “spin off” of the program for its internal high potential individual contributor population, called the Emerging Leader Program.  To date they have received 117 applications for this program. After careful review of applicant essays, a selection committee selected 11 individuals to participate.

Job-rotation internships like the one described here is a great example of experiential learning.  Join us at our Impact 2010 Conference to hear more examples of outstanding learning and talent strategies, and participate in our panel on experiential learning with:

  • Dr. Kim Armstrong, Senior Manager, Enterprise Lean+ Training, Boeing
  • Kee Meng Yeo, Director Global Talent Development, Amway
  • Matt Tabor, Leader, Action Learning Forum, Cisco

I am curious to find out about other companies that offer internship programs with such a specific focus on building the leadership pipeline.  If you have a program that you would like to share with me, please send me an email at


Andrea Derler

Leadership & Succession Research Leader / Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Andrea leads Bersin’s research execution team and also serves as leadership and succession management research leader for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. Focused on the continued evolution of Bersin’s research capabilities, her expertise lies in research on business leadership, leadership development and learning, and related talent topics. Her work about leaders’ ideal employee received widespread media attention in Europe and has been published in the journal Leadership & Organization Development. Andrea has a doctoral degree in economics (leadership and organization) from the FernUniversity Hagen (Germany) and a master’s degree in philosophy from the Karl-Franzens-University in Graz (Austria).

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