Ways to Build Your Leadership Skills

Tiffany Franklin, Associate Director

Photo credit: iStockPhoto - marchmeena29

Now that summer is finally here and you are starting the internships you have worked so hard to secure, it’s the perfect time to consider ways you can make the most of this opportunity and build your leadership skills. Focusing on your professional development while you are in entry-level roles will help you gain skills that not only help your current team, but could also position for opportunities in the future, whether with your current organization or a new one. Just as athletes train throughout the year to improve their performance during the season, you can use this summer to design your leadership strategy.

It’s helpful to consider the qualities that make a strong leader: emotional intelligence, strategic risk taking, effective communication, relationship building, flexibility, problem solving, resilience, vision, and the ability to listen and take purposeful action. Great leaders possess a solid grasp of fundamentals in their field, yet they also surround themselves with people who make up for what they lack. They are constantly learning and envisioning what could be, but not ignoring current realities and historical context. They excel at conceptualizing a path and empowering a team to bring that vision to life.

Reading a list like that sounds like a tall order, especially when you’re in your first internship, but you have been building many of these skills for years through coursework, activities, sports, volunteer work, summer jobs, and more. Here are ways to cultivate your leadership skills. Notice that many of them do not involve an actual leadership title right now – instead, it’s about focusing on what you are learning.

  • Leading/Contributing to projects: Volunteer for more responsibilities. Seek out opportunities for impact and ones that may not seem glorious, but are important for building the foundational knowledge.
  • Build your network: Look for opportunities to work across your company; look into affinity groups or other ways to become involved in your company’s community beyond your own department.

  • Learning opportunities: Does your office host lunch and learns, webinars, or speaker series? Attend these both for the content and to meet more people.

  • Seek out mentors: Express genuine interest in colleagues and what they do. These initial conversations can turn into regular coffee chats and may help you find a mentor within the company or new work friends.
  • Leadership within professional associations: Become involved with your industry’s professional associations. The rates for student memberships are usually reasonable. Volunteer to help plan an upcoming event or help with the next conference. This will greatly expand your professional circle, can be a lot of fun, and a perfect way to learn from others in the field.
  • Learn as much as possible about your field and leadership in general: Read industry publications and remain informed on current events. Look at the syllabi from top MBA programs like Wharton and see which books their students are reading about leadership – check those out and discuss what you learn in your networking.

Taking these steps will help you build valuable skills to benefit you throughout your career. Enjoy your summer and remember that Career Services is here to help you with this process.

Learning from Grad Students About Graduate School

Peter Stokes

An essential part of figuring out if you are really interested in graduate school, and getting advice about how to get there, is to talk to people in the field that you want to get into. If you want to get a Ph.D., it’s vital to talk to faculty in a relevant field. If you’re considering an MBA, for example, it makes sense to talk with people in the industry you plan to go into, to investigate what the MBA will do for you, if there are specific programs to be recommended in your field—and even if you will actually need the MBA at all.

It’s also an excellent idea to talk to current graduate students in the field you’re interested in. They have been through this process of making decisions, and submitting applications, quite recently, after all. They can share their experiences of that—and also let you know what life really is like as a graduate student. A superb resource for Penn undergraduates who want to connect with graduate or professional students at Penn in any of a very wide variety of fields is the Graduate/Undergraduate Mentoring Program, run out of the Graduate Student Center. If you go to www.gsc.upenn.edu/mentoring you’ll find information about the program, and the form to fill out if you want to be assigned a graduate student mentor. It’s a terrific way to meet and learn from someone doing what you hope to do.

TO DO: Connect with your Mentor…

One of the best ways to prepare for life after Penn – as well as to help you make the most of your time at Penn – is to find a mentor.  Once you have one….the idea is to stay in touch!  Alumnae Liana Esposito (EAS ‘2007) has kindly shared her recommendations for connecting with your mentor, enhancing your experience at Penn…and beyond.

TO DO: Mentoring

Making the Most of Your Mentor

  1. Get involved! Having a mentor will help you learn about career options and may guide you through an often overwhelming process of choosing a career path.  Your mentor may become the start of your professional network.
  2. Be proactive. Do a little background research on the type of industry and position in which you may be interested.  Mentors are volunteers who participate in the program because they want to assist people less established in careers by providing information and advice.  Allow them to help you.  Be proactive about establishing contact and initiating the conversation.  Understand that having a mentor will not guarantee you a job or an internship.  Talking to your mentor will shed light on a type of job or industry of interest to you and put you in direct contact with a professional in that field.  Your mentor is a personal resource who will guide you as you explore career options.
  3. Ask the hard questions. General questions will get you an overview but specific and direct questions will allow you learn more from your mentor.  For example, you could ask how it is working for [insert industry/company/etc. here], but you will learn a lot more by asking what is it that drew your mentor to X, what keeps them at X, what is the most challenging thing about being a part of X or one thing that they would change about X.  Asking poignant questions will give you thoughtful and direct responses and facilitate your conversation.
  4. Nurture the relationship. Be conscious of how much time passes between e-mails or phone calls.  Often, it is easier to decide at the beginning of the relationship how often you will be in contact.  There is no “correct” schedule, the amount of contact depends upon both parties and their availability.
  5. Learn as much as possible. Take advantage of the personal time with a professional in your field.  Share your resume with your mentor and get feedback.  Ask for advice about academic and career decisions.  If given the opportunity, meet with your mentor in person, tour their work facility and meet and speak with some of their coworkers to expand your network.

On-the-Job Development

by Sharon Fleshman

Many of you will be starting new jobs in the next few months and you’ve probably already heard the term “on-the-job training” mentioned in one place or another.  I’m going to tweak the language a little bit and use the term “development” as some organizations are currently doing. There is a finite quality implied in “training” which typically has a beginning and end. On the other hand, I think that “development” points to more of a dynamic and continuous process.  The bottom line is that wherever you find yourself, you need to be proactive and responsible for your own development.   To that end, here are some steps that you can take:

Embrace the present. It’s good to plan ahead and envision the future, but you also need to make sure that you focus on the job that you have been hired for.  Take advantage of all of the resources at your disposal so that you get off to a strong start. Attend relevant training sessions offered or sponsored by your employer. Ask good questions and be on the lookout for potential mentors.  Be clear on the expectations regarding your role.

Assess.  Most employers have at least an annual review process for their employees, but you should not wait for your formal evaluation to assess your performance on the job. Ask yourself a few key questions periodically. How am I using my strengths and skills in a way that produces results and maximizes impact?  What are some areas for improvement for me to work on?  How should I elicit constructive feedback from my supervisor and peers? How can I best align my work responsibilities with my own work values and goals in this environment?

Network. I realize that we’ve already inundated you with encouragement to network, network, network, but the benefits of networking are not limited to searching for that first job. Building bridges to others on the job, through professional associations and by way of alumni networks can pave the way to progress at your current employer as well as future career opportunities.  While you’re at it, don’t forget that networking should be reciprocal, so look for ways to give good information, advice and leads to those who have helped you as well as current students who will follow in your footsteps.

Broaden your horizons. Once you have established a solid track record in performing your current job responsibilities, it’s time to develop in other areas that can expose you to new people and possibilities. Think about skill sets that you need to move forward in your career.  Is training available in those areas?  Perhaps you can participate in special projects or committees that involve staff from different functions or departments.  Remember that similar opportunities also exist outside of your job; professional associations and volunteer work are two potential contexts for your career development.

As you transition from your time at Penn, I hope that you’ll see your first (or next) job as an opportunity to continue your journey of lifelong learning.

Add value to your experience at Penn…and beyond

One of the best ways to prepare for life after Penn – as well as to help you make the most of your time at Penn – is to find a mentor.

One of the best ways to prepare for life after Penn – as well as to help you make the most of your time at Penn – is to find a mentor.  Mentoring opportunities can arise in many ways – for example, discovering that you really connect and enjoy talking with your faculty advisor – or be born out of more formal programs for undergraduates and Alumni such as those profiled on the Career Services Networking and Mentoring webpage.

The Penn Engineering Mentoring Program is one such program, pairing first year students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science with SEAS Alums.   Participant Praveen Bains (EAS ’13) has kindly shared her experience in connecting with her mentor below, illustrating some of the many ways such a relationship can add value to your experience at Penn…and beyond.

Pondering Majors: The Penn Engineering Mentoring Program
By Praveen Bains, EAS ’13

I remember when I first applied to the University of Pennsylvania and came upon the question that asked for your major. At the time, I was definitely uncertain as to what I wanted to do with my life, but I ended up checking the box next to “Bioengineering” and thinking “I’ll just figure it out later.”

Later came in the form of second semester, when I still hadn’t decided if Bioengineering was for me. In an effort to figure out what to do, I signed up for The Penn Engineering Mentoring Program.  [Open to SEAS freshmen, students can apply and select potential mentors from a database of SEAS Alumni volunteers.] After reading through the possible mentors and selecting a few of them, I was paired with a Penn Bioengineering alum, Julie, who was currently working as a patent lawyer in New York City. It was an ideal match, since I had been considering attending law school and pursuing patent law upon graduation from Penn.

I sent an initial contact email to Julie, introducing myself to her and giving a brief background on my career ponderings.  A few days later I was greeted by an enthusiastic response from her; she introduced herself and encouraged me to ask her any questions. From there we corresponded by email for the rest of the semester, mainly discussing her role as a patent lawyer, but also about the random happenings in our lives. It was a very casual and comfortable conversation. She was even in the midst of planning her wedding, but still found time to respond.

During the summer, we decided to set up a conference call of sorts. I was a little nervous initially, since we had built the mentor-mentee relationship via email; I wasn’t sure how she would be on the phone, or how I would come across. But the talking session was a success. We chatted for an hour over my motivations for becoming a Bioengineer, the differences between Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering (which I was considering at the time), and her own career path. Julie proved to be an invaluable resource. After talking with her, I realized that patent law was not the right fit for me, and that Chemical Engineering would be a better base for my future career.

Last summer I officially switched my major from Bioengineering to Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. It was a huge relief to finally have my path set. I am very grateful to Julie for helping me with my decision, and for being open to my questions.

Stay tuned for future posts from some of our esteemed Alumni Mentors!