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Decorating your cubicle at your new job? Heading up research at your lab this summer? In a recent survey by SH101, about two out of three students who responded said they expected to have at least one job or internship this summer. Whatever you’re doing, for whatever reason, it’s worth strategizing about ways you can use the experience to develop leadership skills.

Why leadership? Two reasons: First, employers love leadership. Four out of five employers look for leadership skills on new graduates’ résumés, according to the Job Outlook 2016 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Second, “leadership” is broad enough that you can potentially find ways to demonstrate relevant characteristics and skills in any situation—whether you’re working as an engineer or a camp counselor. For more comprehensive resources, and to make your experiences work on your résumé, see Get help or find out more.

What counts as leadership?

Here’s why it’s worth getting comfortable with the idea of yourself as a potential Here’s why it’s worth getting comfortable with the idea of yourself as a potential leader. Not all leaders have the title “president” or boss other people around. Leadership is about having influence and inspiring others to take productive action. When you think about leadership, remember these key points:

  • Leadership takes many different forms, and not all of them are readily apparent.
  • Leadership spans many skill sets and personality types.
  • Anyone can learn to lead, even in unconventional situations.

We can hone leadership skills without winning a war or finding a cure for disease. Leadership includes these skills and more:

  • Interpersonal communication
  • Community-building actions that strengthen a shared sense of purpose
  • Conflict resolution and teamwork
  • Motivating and supporting others, including acknowledging their efforts
  • Managing your time, and helping others manage theirs, including delegating tasks and keeping a group on track
  • Including people who are often marginalized and excluded
  • Giving and receiving constructive criticism
  • Innovative thinking

Does everything have to be about your résumé?

As much as we’re talking here about career potential, other goals are valuable too: earning money to pay the bills, developing yourself personally, supporting your family, and having fun. It’s OK if your summer isn’t directly about building your future career. It’s worth thinking about it through that lens, however, because you might find that your role has some career relevance that you hadn’t spotted initially. For example, working retail or in the food industry can build customer service and communication skills.

3 strategies to build leadership experience you can use later

1  Remember that metrics matter:

Hiring managers want to know the numbers. Use statistics and precise information. How many events did you help staff? Your organization’s social media followers grew by what percentage? How much money did you help raise? How many like-minded companies did you reach out to about a potential collaboration? When you took over tracking inventory, how much of your boss’s time did you free up for them to work on growing the business? Track your activities and tasks on a spreadsheet for easy access in a job search.

How to keep track of your workplace goals and accomplishments

  • When you’re getting started in your job or internship, talk to your supervisor about realistic, measurable goals. For example, your goals may include writing a certain number of blog posts, signing up a certain number of customers for a rewards program, or developing enough knowledge that you can take on some managerial duties before the end of the summer. Look for some element of challenge and an opportunity to show your skills and effort, but not setting the goals so high that you can’t meet them. Your supervisor can help you figure out what’s attainable.
  • Keep a simple spreadsheet outlining what you did in the job or internship. This can help your current supervisor write future letters of recommendation, help you flesh out your résumé and LinkedIn profile, and help you prepare for interviews. You might be amazed at what you accomplish in one summer.

2  Think about ways to add value:

Future interviewers will want to hear your stories about specific projects, ideas, or accomplishments. Here’s what that could look like.

Find ways to demonstrate your initiative
Managers love when employees or interns propose new projects to expand their programs or increase revenue. These types of projects show innovation, creativity, and commitment, all valuable leadership traits. It’s especially valuable if your initiative will be sustainable when you’re no longer around to do it. Just make sure you have enough time to complete the tasks you were initially assigned and are in a position to take on any extra work.

Consider what you could accomplish this summer:

  • If you’re working at a nonprofit, you might volunteer to create a spreadsheet and tracking system for prospective donors.
  • If you’re in retail, you might volunteer to redesign the store’s website or brochures to attract new customers from the local college.
  • If you’re a camp counselor, you might design and lead a new activity to keep campers engaged.
  • If you’re at the mom-and-pop ice cream stand, you may want to highlight your readiness to work a double shift to cover for coworkers who bailed, or your willingness to design T-shirts or signs.

3  Think about how these experiences could transfer to your career:

Future employers want to know that you can apply those same skills to their own organizations and challenges. When preparing for job interviews, plan how you’ll tell your stories of overcoming challenges, developing your own projects, and helping your employer accomplish their goals. The creativity, persistence, and dedication that you put into that new sign, updated database, or increased Facebook “likes” could translate into real, usable assets at your future company (or your current company if you’re seeking a promotion).

How to approach barriers affecting marginalized communities

What if you’re part of a community that has historically been overlooked or undervalued? Identify your learning style and share it with peers and supervisors, says Jodie Collins, supervisor of Multicultural and Student Programs at Olympic College, Washington: “Don’t be afraid to share some of the barriers with [your] peers and supervisor if the environment allows for it. Open communication will assist in positive navigation with most situations.”

If you have a condition that may be relevant to your presentation or performance, it can be useful to address it (without necessarily disclosing a diagnosis). For example:

  • “Verbal instructions can be harder for me to remember. It would be helpful if you could give me written notes or emails about my assignments to make sure I have what I need to do my best.”
  • “This is my first time working in an office of this type—I hope to learn a lot this summer. It would be great if you could point out to me how things work, even if you think it might seem obvious, so I can learn even more.”

Put this into practice: How to make it work in person and on paper

Almost any work placement can provide opportunities to develop leadership skills. Here, students identify what they learned from short-term roles in four different fields. Jeff Onore, a career coach based in Massachusetts, discusses how they can present that experience to employers—in person or on paper. These strategies are relevant to a wide range of career interests, skills, and experiences.

Student perspective

How to talk about it

Store manager


“I was a manager for a major big-box store prior to entering college and briefly while in college. I had seven employees in my department who reported to me, and other employees in the store also sought me out for help and leadership related to their job. People knew that I was available and willing to help, and that I wanted them to succeed.”
First-year graduate student, Ashford University (online)
“It’s important this student comes up with a certain amount of specificity. Employers want to hear the candidate talk about things in a way that the candidate’s past can illuminate their future. Use the phrase, ‘For instance…’ So when you say that people knew you were readily available—is that because you were only given six hours to do inventory? Or when you found out last minute you had to open at midnight? Go into the interview with five to six ‘best moments at work’ ready to go. Know them and prepare them.”

Childcare


“I gained a lot of leadership skills in a job in a daycare. Working with children aged six weeks to five years presents a new challenge every day, sometimes basic and other times very complicated. It requires making a lot of judgment calls on your feet and then communicating about your decisions to parents and supervisors later.”
—First-year graduate student, University of Delaware
“Own this; confidently say [you] gained leadership skills working in a daycare, a role that some people would play down. You can say, for example, ‘One thing I’ve learned about leadership: You need to stay calm.’”

Student perspective

How to talk about it

Program coordinator


“I just received a promotion so I’m an administrator of an adult learning program. I’m going to help create new programs, organize program development for other adult learning facilitators, as well as work with local organizations.”
Second-year online student, Indiana Institute of Technology
“If you’ve been promoted, it’s important that the promotion is obvious on your résumé. Employers want to know that someone else bet on you—it puts them at ease. Make it clear on your résumé by adding dates alongside your old and new title. Or you can highlight your current role with a note at the bottom stating, ‘Began as this title, promoted to this title in this year…’”

Summer camp


“I was a camp counselor, which makes it easy to gain authority over the group, but more difficult to have a common communication basis where they feel comfortable talking to you about what they need [while also respecting] rules you set into place.”
—Third-year student, University of Central Arkansas
Include the metrics, and put some meat on the role:

  • “22 campers, 24/7 responsibility
  • Organized camp-wide Olympics, securing buy-in from the head counselors and students.
  • Facilitated the closing ceremonies for audience of families, recognizing each student.”

Presenting the tough stuff: How 5 students can address workplace obstacles

The workplace brings frustrations and constraints, as well as opportunities. Here, students describe five barriers that may make it harder for them to transfer certain skills and experiences into jobs after graduation. Jeff Onore, a career coach based in Massachusetts, looks at ways to approach it. These strategies are relevant to a wide range of career interests, skills, and experiences.

Student perspective

Expert perspective

1.  Gender/sexuality bias


“I am unsure if I can give my most valuable leadership positions—as president and vice president of finance of the Queer Student Alliance—on my résumé, for fear of discrimination or implicit bias against me.”
—Second-year student, Tulane University, Louisiana
“There may be room to say you effected social change as president of a student alliance. Be prepared at your interview to be asked the name of the organization. If you’re applying to pretty liberal employers—universities, arts, etc.—this may not be an issue. In more conservative fields, the reality is that this can be trickier to navigate.”

2.  Sexual harassment


“Sexual harassment has caused me to leave an internship at a law firm.”
—Second year graduate student, Johns Hopkins University, Maryland
“No one will ask why you left an internship the way they might ask why you left a job. In this case, focus on what you learned in the internship.”

3.  Economic hardship


“It’s very difficult to participate in unpaid internships, offered by many nonprofits, when the cost of higher education is so debilitating.”
—Fourth-year graduate student, Emory University, Georgia
“Employers understand that financing college imposes more constraints on some students than others. If you don’t have much internship experience in your field, go right to this framing: It was important for you to work, and this is what you accomplished in the jobs you held (your good work ethic, your time management, and so on).”

4.  Deafness and disability discrimination


“[It was problematic that I had] no access to communication: American Sign Language, transcripts, closed captioning, etc.”
—First-year graduate student, California State University, Northridge
“If your college has connections with companies that do a good job accommodating deaf and disabled employees, start there. Some employers can be identified through the Lime Connect Network for the STEM fields or through chapters of the US Business Leadership Network in all fields. Disclosing deafness or a disability is unpredictable—some employers will be much more receptive than others. In the US, your right to reasonable accommodations on the job is protected by federal law. You can encourage an employer to contact the Job Accommodation Network for free expert help in figuring out accommodations. Or you might decide an employer isn’t worth the struggle.”
—Lucy Berrington, former editor of Student Health 101

5. Age and gender discrimination


“Discrimination based on age and gender is something that I have been faced with, as I am a young female in the engineering field, which is predominately male. I know I am sometimes underestimated and pushed aside by peers because of this, but it only fuels my fire to be stronger and show them my leadership skills.”
—First-year graduate student, Villanova University, Pennsylvania
“The STEM fields are looking to recruit more women. Recognize your value to them. There may be a certain amount of age and gender discrimination, so it’s important to determine what the company culture is like. The first thing to do is to network through the engineering department at your school. People are often kind to those who have had a similar experience. Look at Glassdoor.com for information about the culture at corporate engineering departments, and use internships to take the temperature of different work environments. A large company may prioritize discrimination training; a small company may give you a chance to get certain kinds of experience more quickly.”

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Article sources

Jodie Collins, supervisor, Multicultural and Student Programs, Olympic College, Washington.

Jeff Onore, career coach, Waltham, Massachusetts.

National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2017).  Job outlook 2016: Attributes employers want to see on new college graduates’ résumés. Retrieved from http://www.naceweb.org/s11182015/employers-look-for-in-new-hires.aspx

Student Health 101 survey, February 2017.


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Lydia X Z Brown is a graduate student at Northeastern University School of Law, Massachusetts; a gender/queer and transracially/transnationally adopted East Asian, autistic activist, writer, and speaker/trainer; chairperson of the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council; visiting lecturer at Tufts University’s Experimental College; and board member of the Autism Women’s Network. Photo: Lawrence Roffee.