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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 it. Leadership skills ranked in the top 10 skills employers were looking for in their new hires, according to a 2015 Workopolis survey of over 250 Canadian 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 counsellor. For more comprehensive resources, and to make your summer work on your resumé, 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 resumé?

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 resumé. 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 resumé 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 camp counsellor, 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

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—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. Various career coaches and experts discuss 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

Administrative support

“I worked as an administrative assistant at the front desk of an office on my own (there’s usually two) for approximately a month. I was able to work at the front desk and do tasks that [typically] required two employees.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario
“This student explains the situation well, but I’d focus on getting into more specifics—you did a two-man job: How were you able to address issues in a comprehensive way? How did you help serve others at the company? Build on what you expressed in a more rigourous way that [provides] more outcomes.”
—Alan Kearns, Head Career Coach and Founder of CareerJoy, Ontario

Nonprofit sector

“My job consisted of collaborating with individuals who identify with having a disability and those who do not. We collaborated on creating a PowerPoint to present to several organizations within our own communities regarding technologies available to improve the quality of life for individuals living with a disability.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador
“Collaboration will be an asset to most employers as it speaks to the student’s ability to work as part of a team. The student might also play up skills required to work with diverse populations, research skills, and the ability to consolidate information into an impactful presentation.”
—Bryanne Manveiler, Registered Provisional Psychiatrist, Calgary Career Counselling, Alberta

Student perspective

How to talk about it

IT support

“I have worked in computing support for over three and a half years, and not everything goes as planned when technology is involved. I have learned how to take control of the situation when a lab or server failure occurs and how to manage both client emotions and my own frustrations when something doesn’t work. Leadership is also developed in being a guiding force to a diverse body of clients, who all have different experiences and perspectives, and to help them reach a solution.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador
“This student does a good job of highlighting some of the challenges in this role and the skills required to get the job done. Employers will value that the student is responsible, takes initiative, works well under stress, and has good people skills. On a resumé, the student can quantify their role as:

  • Provided computer support to a total of X clients (shows responsibility) with a % resolution rate (this speaks to technical skills and problem solving ability).”  —BM

Summer camp

“I was a camp counsellor, 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 counsellors and students.
  • Facilitated the closing ceremonies for audience of families, recognizing each student.”
    —Jeff Onore, Career Coach, Massachusetts

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. Various career experts look at ways to approach it. These strategies are relevant to a wide range of career interests, skills, and experiences.

Student perspective

Expert perspective

1. 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
“According to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, if an individual living with a disability is able to carry out the bona fide occupational requirements of a given role (the requirements of a job) with reasonable accommodations (i.e., that do not cause undue financial or other hardship to the employer), an employer is obligated to provide the accommodations necessary for that person to meet the requirements of the job. It could be that the employer in this instance was not aware of this obligation; if a conversation with the employer does not resolve the issue, it’s within the student’s right to file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.”
—Bryanne Manveiler, Registered Provisional Psychiatrist, Calgary Career Counselling, Alberta

2. 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 [your education] 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).” —JO

3. 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
“Unfortunately, this type of discrimination is very real. Focus on strengths and showcase your skills, accomplishments and talents with confidence. Also, find support systems and get involved—rely on friends and family, join in leadership activities, or participate in groups. These can help you learn new skills (professional development) and demonstrate your motivation to be a leader in your field.

“Feeling pressure to be stronger, smarter, etc., can be stressful. It’s important to be able to speak confidently about your strengths and accomplishments, but be authentic and true to yourself.”
—Michelle Cook, Career and Education Counsellor and Job Search Strategist, Calgary Career Counselling, Alberta

4. 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 resumé, for fear of discrimination or implicit bias against me.”
—Second-year undergraduate, 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.”
—Jeff Onore, Career Coach, Massachusetts

5. 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.” —JO

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Article sources

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

Michelle Cook, Career and Education Counsellor; Job Search Strategist, Calgary Career Counselling, Alberta.

Alan Kearns, Head Career Coach and Founder of CareerJoy, Ontario.

Bryanne Manveiler, Registered Provisional Psychiatrist, Calgary Career Counselling, Alberta.

Jeff Onore, Career Coach, Waltham, Massachusetts.

Student Health 101 survey, February 2017.

Workopolis. (2015). Thinkopolis VIII: The most sought after skills in Canada in 2015. Retrieved from

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.

Diana Whelan is a senior copywriter at CLEAResult. Previously, she was the managing editor at Student Health 101, and has written and edited articles for condition-specific publications distributed in physician offices nationwide. She holds a BA in Rhetoric & Professional Writing from the University of Hartford.