There is a common misconception that to be a leader, you need to be in an official management position. This simply isn’t the case. You can be a leader in any role or position you take on, whether at uni or in your career, and leadership skills are important because they make you more employable and can give you an edge in the job market.
The good news is that as university students or recent graduates, you probably already have more leadership experience and skills than you realise.
So, how can you develop your leadership skills at university and then demonstrate them in such a way that will help you get your next career opportunity? Keep reading to gain a better understanding of what leadership skills are, how to develop them at uni, and how to sell them to prospective employers in order to advance your career.
While it’s generally expected that if you’re interested in managing people you’ll need strong leadership skills, you don’t have to have a team or be a manager to be a leader. You can exercise leadership in any role or position you hold, whether you’re studying at university or in the workforce.
You might be thinking, ‘Sure, that’s great. But why would I want to spend time developing leadership skills, if I don’t want to become a manager?’
This is why.
One 2017 report claims that over 70% of employers consistently identify a number of skills, including leadership, teamwork, work ethic, and problem solving, as key résumé attributes (Peck, 2018). In addition to this, The Foundation of Young Australians has identified that in the future world of work, workers will need to be more self-sufficient and able to lead themselves (2017).
As Peck explains:
'New graduates frequently bemoan the paradox that many face as they seek their first post-graduation employment: you cannot get a job without experience, you cannot get experience without a job. For students to break out of this vicious circle, they need to be able to (among other things) find meaning in various co-curricular experiences and gain the skill of articulating what they have learned to others (2018).'
It’s safe to say then that developing leadership skills is important. But how can students go about developing their leadership skills while they’re at uni?
There’s a strong connection between student leadership and job readiness, so it only makes sense that university be the time you start developing these skills.
USQ Bachelor of Human Services student Jade has held a number of different paid positions at the uni. He says, ‘The university experience is an environment for learning. There’s no other way to put it. I’ve learned so much through my experiences at USQ that I wouldn’t be able to list all the ways it prepared me for my current work. I’m a very different person with very different skills than before I started studying, and I have a whole lot more career options and employable skills, confidence and knowledge’.
Bachelor of Nursing graduate Ariela graduate Ariela also held a number of leadership positions when she was a student, including Student Representative for the School of Nursing and Midwifery, which involved representing nursing students at student forums and committee meetings. She says:
'I think one of the most important skills I gained in my leadership roles is taking initiative. It can be hard at times to have the confidence to get your ideas heard but when people see that you are taking initiative, it shows that you are enthusiastic about what you are doing but also want to make a change. As more and more people saw that I took initiative, people could see what I wanted to achieve and in turn this built my confidence – not only to apply for more leadership opportunities but it also influenced how I approached my nursing degree.
'Another thing I liked the most about my leadership position was the networking skills I learnt by going to different meetings and events as a student representative. Networking is such a crucial part of leadership and it is a skill that I am still using to this day in my nursing profession. University showed me that you can learn in many different ways and can get experiences not only through your degree, but through the people you meet and the opportunities that you take.'
These are some of the transferable skills you can learn while at uni that will prepare you for a leadership position in the workforce:
High-quality idea generation. At university, you develop strong research and analytical skills that will help you really understand issues and allow you to develop solutions to problems based on up-to-date evidence.
Team work. One of the most effective ways to develop your team work skills at university is by participating in group assignments. If the program you’re studying doesn’t tend to include the opportunity for group work, other ways you can develop this skill at university include participating in student clubs or sporting teams.
Self-leadership and the ability to work independently. As a uni student, assuming you don’t always leave your assignments to the last minute, you’ll have experience managing your time effectively, being self-disciplined and avoiding procrastination in order to meet assessment deadlines. These skills demonstrate to employers that you are self-directed, organised, able to set your own priorities, make decisions and work to achieve goals in a timely manner.
Adaptability and resilience. Ever lost an assignment or had to reshuffle priorities in order to meet a forgotten-about deadline? Being able to adapt to unexpected change and achieve your goals anyway shows employers you have the highly desirable transferable skills of adaptability and resilience.
Communication skills. At uni, you learn how to get your message across in a persuasive and interesting way via written and oral assessment, and you’ll definitely find this experience comes in handy in the workplace, no matter what type of position you hold.
Dedication to continuous learning. Graduating from university doesn’t mean you will never have to study again. A good leader recognises that they will need to continue learning throughout their career, and can admit to, and learn from, their mistakes.
Motivation and leadership of others. As a leader, you know how to share your knowledge to up-skill others and communicate in a way that allows others to see your vision, change their perspective and motivate them to work towards achieving mutual goals. But being a good leader is not all about the skills, it’s about having the right personal attributes as well, such as strength of character and integrity, positivity, enthusiasm and passion.
‘I think when you’re in a leadership position, there is almost an assumption that you know how to do many of the tasks involved in the position. But like most people, you are always learning and have to learn to not be so hard on yourself,’ says Ariela.
There are a number of leadership programs at USQ that provide excellent opportunities for students to develop their leadership capabilities. If you’re interested in further developing your leadership skills while you’re at uni in order to increase your chances of landing a leadership position in the workforce, these are great places to start:
After you’ve graduated from university, and if you’ve participated in various leadership opportunities as a student, you’ll be able to sell yourself as the whole package to prospective employers, as you’ll have both knowledge and transferable leadership skills.
If you’re nervous about having a discussion with your employer about advancing your career and taking on an official leadership position, USQ careers and employability expert Michael Healy’s advice is to ensure career conversations are ongoing.
'It may start in a formal performance review or goal setting situation, but can also be part of regular check-ins or casual conversation. Let them know what you’re reading about and how you did on your last assignment. Ask them questions about what you’re learning to see if they can give you some advice or insight.
'But also, don’t beat around the bush. You can say to your boss, ‘I’m doing this study because I have an ambition to take the next step in my career’. Often, when they know that you’re taking it seriously, they’ll take a more active role in coaching you and pointing you in the right direction for advancement.'
If you ask to be considered for a leadership role and aren’t successful, Michael recommends seeing this as a learning opportunity, saying:
'Be serious and active about taking feedback and then acting on it. If you get told, ‘You don’t have enough leadership experience’, don’t just put that down to not having been in a leadership role. Think about how you can tell the stories of your leadership in the role you’re in. It might just be that you’re focused too much on job titles and not enough on telling good stories about your workplace behaviour and achievements.'
When USQ alumna Ashleigh was a student, she held a number of different leadership positions, including Student Ambassador, Resident Advisor, Meet-Up Leader and Our Ways Mentor. She is now completing a graduate program and has been able to put the leadership skills she gained at uni into good use via her involvement in the Reconciliation Action Plan Working Group and the Trailblazers (a passionate group of employees who discuss, develop, and implement initiatives that help make a meaningful difference in the lives Indigenous Australians). She says:
'These two groups have allowed my voice to be heard in the areas which are most important to me. My vision (like a lot of us) is to make corporate Australia an inclusive space to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and these groups are the vital steps for that. I am an active member in making this change for my chosen company.'
Looking for ways to further develop your leadership skills and promote them in order to advance your career and increase employment opportunities? Here are three suggestions:
1. Become a thought leader. Publish updates and ‘thought leadership’ articles on your industry, or other relevant topics, on your LinkedIn and Twitter profiles. Engage with others you’re inspired by and make connections that can help you in future.
2. Join a professional association. Professional associations offer many opportunities for early career professionals to take on leadership roles related to your profession.
3. Talk to a career professional. Did you know that as a USQ student or recent graduate, you can get free, confidential career advice? Contact the Careers and Employability team for more information and tips to help you leverage your transferable skills and gain a leadership position in the workforce.
Peck, A. (2018). Mapping career-ready skills through student leadership programs. New directions for student leadership: Leadership development for career readiness in university settings, 157, 71-83. Wiley. doi: doi.org/10.1002/yd.20280
The Foundation of Young Australians. (2017). The New Work Smarts: Thriving in the New Work Order. New work order report series. AlphaBeta, Sydney.