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Climbing into the lifeguard chair for the summer? Decorating your cubicle at your new internship? In a recent survey by SH101, 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 college 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, including working as a lifeguard or camp counselor. For more comprehensive resources, and to make your summer 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 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, developing yourself personally, keeping busy, and having fun. It’s OK if your summer isn’t directly about building your résumé. 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 or club’s social media followers grew by what percentage? How much money did you help raise? How many like-minded organizations 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 interning at a small nonprofit, you might volunteer to create a spreadsheet and tracking system for prospective donors.
  • If you’re working retail at a local business, you might volunteer to redesign the store’s website or brochures to attract new customers from the local college.
  • If you’re a sleepaway 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 (depending on their strategic goals).

How to approach barriers affecting marginalized communities

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—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

Government agency


“I worked with [a county probation department], and I was taught to be more responsible and take deadlines seriously. I also learned that you yourself are solely responsible for your work and to always double-check [everything].”
—Third-year undergraduate, California State University, Channel Islands
“Working with a probation department tells me the student is mature and professional. Employers like to see people do challenging things in challenging environments. Stress the fast pace as well as the empathy you need to work in that field.”

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

Amateur theater


“As stage manager for a college play, I knew that some cast members got along better than others, but all had to interact. After and before rehearsals, I’d ensure everyone was in a decent mood, and work out any misgivings.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Wayland Baptist University, Texas
“Stage Manager, 2014–2017:

  • Four major productions: South Pacific, The King & I, Romeo and Juliet, The Bachelor Goes Live.
  • Casts of 20–40; crews included lighting, sound, props, and costumes; coordinated these often conflicting departments and teams.”

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 undergraduate, 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.”

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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.