You don’t need to be president of your student society to develop leadership skills.
Business and management academics have traditionally drawn a distinction between leadership and management roles. Leaders of projects and/or teams, they say, define and convey the overall vision of what can be achieved, inspiring other team members to bring their best to the team. Managers, meanwhile, ensure that ‘things get done’; they define the individual tasks that need to be completed, set the required standards and timeframes, monitor performance and budgets, and enable each team member to perform at their best.
In practice, employers seek a combination of leadership and management traits in graduate recruits. This is certainly the case when they advertise trainee manager graduate roles (most commonly available in the retail, hospitality, logistics and construction sectors) and graduate leadership programmes (sometimes known as fast-track schemes or accelerated programmes and run by large employers to prepare graduates for future leadership positions).
However, it is also the case when employers are hiring for any graduate role, even ones that have no leadership or management responsibilities. After all, savvy employers are always on the hunt for those who could progress within the business.
What do graduate employers mean by ‘leadership potential’?
When employers talk about leadership potential in relation to graduates, they are referring to how a variety of skills and qualities come together to ensure that an objective is achieved: whether that objective is the accomplishment of a task or the creation of a cohesive team. These skills and qualities include:
- Ambition (for yourself, for your team and for your employer)
- Decisiveness and being comfortable with managing ambiguity
- Problem solving
- Delegation, organisation and time management – both for yourself and others
- Adaptability and flexibility
- Teamworking and relationship-building (the best managers are team players)
- Influencing skills (the ability to inspire confidence in others and to get their buy in is essential)
- Communication skills
- Emotional intelligence (in order to help a team work better together)
- The ability to give constructive feedback and get the best out of people
- Commercial awareness (both team leaders and project managers have to allocate resources effectively and to consider the commercial impact of those decisions on the business).
How can you develop your leadership skills and gain management experience?
Getting actively involved with a group activity (such as with a student society or a charity) and taking responsibility for something is the best way to learn leadership skills at university. And you don’t need to be overall leader or society president in order to do so. For example, if you start out by writing for your student newspaper and then later become a section editor, you will still use management and leadership skills, even though you aren’t overall editor.
Taking on a coaching or a mentoring role can also develop the relationship-building and performance-enhancing aspects of management and leadership. This sort of role could be acting as a mentor/buddy for another student or coaching a sports team (whether for a local school or community group, DBS checks allowing, or for a team at your university).
A similar way to develop leadership skills – perhaps during the holidays or a gap year – is to take up a TEFL role or an opportunity at a US summer camp. In fact, any role supervising children is a great baptism of fire for leadership in a corporate role!
Volunteering for extra duties during a part-time job (for example, deputising for your manager in their absence or training new staff) will also give you a taste of management responsibilities. You could also seek an internship that will give you an insight into leadership. For instance, you could enter the TARGETjobs Management Undergraduate of the Year competition and win a management-focused internship with Enterprise Rent-A-Car (while you are there, check out the other TARGETjobs Undergraduate of the Year awards, too).
Remember, however, that you can develop the skills listed above – those that combine to make a good leader – on an individual basis, too, without having to take the lead on a project.
How do employers assess your leadership and management abilities?
If you are applying for a trainee manager job or graduate leadership programme, you are usually given exercises and interview questions that assess your ability to immediately step into management (with appropriate training and support from the employer). If the employers are merely keeping an eye out for future leadership potential, your leadership skills and behaviours will be assessed less intensively: for example, assessors will be more interested in whether you have good relationship-building skills than whether you could lead a team.
Ways that employers could assess your leadership potential include:
- Through games-based recruitment tests, online situational judgement tests (SJTs) or ‘immersive video experiences’ – all usually given during the application stage.
- Through what you include on your CV and covering letter.
- Through competency-based application and/or interview questions designed to find out whether you have used skills in the past, such as ‘Tell me about a time when you demonstrated leadership’.
- Through strengths-based application and interview questions, such as ‘Do you prefer taking a big picture view or concentrating on the details?’.
- Through application and interview questions designed to gauge your career ambitions, such as ‘What are your career goals?’.
- Through job-specific or scenario-based interview questions, such as ‘If you were manager of a team and one of your team members was underperforming, how would you handle it?’.
- If you are applying for a graduate management role, through a special kind of assessment day in which you try out the role of a manager at that organisation. For example, McDonald’s runs an on-job-evaluation as part of its trainee manager recruitment process, in which you join a restaurant crew for a shift, and Unilever runs a discovery centre day in which you complete such tasks as chairing a meeting.
- During other exercises at a more typical assessment centre, including how you contribute in a group exercise or, for some roles, you might be asked to take part in a role play in which you are required to show management abilities (for example, you might need to role play mediating between two colleagues who have fallen out).
Dos and don’ts for demonstrating your leadership potential
- When recalling examples of your leadership, DO consider the impact you had on the team. Think of times when your personal involvement has directly affected the way a group of people has worked and positively influenced the outcome. Simply being the person in charge of a group of people is not enough.
- When giving examples of your leadership, DO concentrate on your personal contributions: use ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ and use authoritative language, such as ‘delegated’ and ‘directed’.
- DO follow our tips on how to write up your leadership experience on your management CV.
- DON’T think that leadership is about telling people what to do without listening to them. A good leader always considers the team’s viewpoints. Remember this when carrying out the online tests and in group exercises.
- DON’T try to immediately take over during a group exercise: that comes across as pushy and arrogant. Instead, try to be consultative and direct the group’s discussions in more subtle ways, such as asking the team ‘Does anyone have thoughts on how we should approach this?’ or ‘Should I be timekeeper to keep our discussions on track?’. If someone does try to take over in a group exercise, challenge this in a calm and non-aggressive manner, perhaps by suggesting that not everyone has yet inputted into discussions.