Where do leaders come from?

Is it necessary to hold a club office, or found an organization, or otherwise do something worthy of a leadership title to impress colleges? No. Not even close. There are countless roles on college campuses that require students from different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives to fill and flourish in them. Your particular skills can come from formal leadership positions, but they could also come from volunteering, playing the tuba, holding a part-time job, or virtually anything else that you cared enough about to commit to it.

But while the formal positions and titles aren’t prerequisites for college, the behavior and impact of real leadership is always appealing. And thankfully, there are plenty of ways to lead without running for office or telling people what to do.

If you’d like some more perspective on just exactly what leadership is, how it’s viewed by colleges, and why those experiences are important, I hope you’ll check out these two reads.

First, a past post of mine, including the articles that are referenced and linked within the post. And this piece, Take Me To Your Leaders: What College Admission Deans Are Looking For, by Brennan Bernard, a high school counselor and education writer. Bernard asked a number of college admissions officers to share their thoughts on what it means to lead. Don’t expect a roadmap with a list of activities and roles that will satisfy the definition, because as you’ll see, their answers vary.

Here’s an example:

“Leadership is deep engagement in an area of interest—not necessarily an officer in an organization. Rather than the president of the student government, I love the student who has been the chair of the dance cleanup committee for a few years. Who wants that job? And yet, she consistently gets a few students who will stay late after the dance to clean up the detritus left by classmates. That, to me, is leadership. No accolades but lots of commitment and follow through.”

Deb Shaver, Director of Admission, Smith College

Yep, that’s good leadership.

I hope the differences in their answers will relieve, not frustrate students. There are lots of ways to lead. Almost certainly, one of them will be a natural fit for you, something that you enjoy and are good at. If you commit your time to that kind of endeavor, you’ll learn a lot, you’ll enjoy it, and you’ll impress colleges.

It turns out that leaders can come from everywhere.

Turn your organization’s line into a platform

For many businesses, clubs, and other organizations, there are two groups—leaders and followers. The leaders decide what gets done and how to do it; the followers perform the work. There’s nothing wrong with qualified leaders describing a clear vision and saying, “Follow me.” But relegating the rest of the organization to following alone is like forcing all of them to stand in a line. When you’re stuck in a line, you can’t do anything but wait your turn. Any initiative or non-directed movement just means you’ll lose your place. The only option is to stand there, await further instructions, and inch forward when directed.

Instead of a long line, what if your organization became a large platform?

A platform is a stage, a place where people don’t just stand—they perform. A long line just means a lot of waiting around. But when your organization is a platform, every member has an equal chance to stand up (on the platform) and say:

I’ll do…
I want to try…
I’ll take responsibility for…
I can help…
I know how to…
I’ll pitch in to…
I can make a difference doing…
I’ll fix…
I’ll change…
I’ll experiment with…
It might work if I…
I will make sure…

Imagine how much more your organization could accomplish, how much further your people could go, how much good you could do if you made the change from a place of waiting to a place of performing.

Leaders, to make the change, use the platform as both an invitation and expectation. Everyone is invited to step up. Nobody gets to sit back and wait to be told what to do. Assume that most people want to contribute and make a difference (most really do). And acknowledge that once the platform is in place, the best thing a leader can do is help everyone stand up and offer their best performance.

Once you let people stop waiting in line, those who care the most, who are willing to take responsibility and do the work, will rise to the top. Anyone who doesn’t will be left back in the line.

It’s better for the organization. It’s better for the people. And it’s a much better way for everyone involved to stand out to colleges.

Adventures in babysitting

Nearly two years ago, I wrote this entry about a sophomore in high school my wife and I were about to interview to babysit our then infant son. We were impressed with her initiative in offering up her services on a parent listserv, and with how responsive and mature she seemed in her communications with us. Too many families might think that babysitting isn’t a remarkable enough activity if a student wants to impress colleges, but as I explained:

“This kid is learning how to pitch herself in writing and in person. She’s learning how to meet people and make a good impression. If she gets gigs, she’ll be learning how to manage customers’ expectations, and hopefully, how to be remarkable enough that she’ll earn referrals and repeat business. And she’ll be earning (and hopefully managing) her own money. I can’t imagine that she could learn any of these things at Harvard Summer School or at a pay-to-play expensive summer program in a foreign land.”

So, whatever happened to that sixteen-year-old?

  1. We hired her.
  2. She’s been our go-to babysitter for two years.
  3. She was recently admitted early decision to Dartmouth.

No magic formula. No contrived experiences designed to impress. Just a smart, nice, responsible, hardworking, happy kid who wanted to go to Dartmouth, but also had enough confidence to know that she’d be just fine wherever she went.

Parents and students, I hope you’ll go back and read that past entry (here’s the link again). And I hope you’ll think twice about choosing (and especially about paying for) activities based solely on what you think will impress colleges.

Make them great, too

Author Simon Sinek’s recent blog post argues that a great way to find more fulfillment, meaning, and satisfaction in your career (and I would argue in your extracurricular activities) is to help others find the same.

“If you want to get a better job, first and foremost, take charge of your own lot. If you wish to feel more engaged, fulfilled and happy at work, make it your obsession to help the people around you find more engagement, fulfillment and happiness in their jobs. Create it. Not simply for you. Create it for the people around you.”

At first glance, that might seem like a nice sentiment that doesn’t necessarily translate into career success. But there’s a growing body of writing and research that argues just how vital helping others is in pursuit of your own success, some of the most convincing of which comes from University of Pennsylvania’s Adam Grant’s book Give and Take, which I discussed in a past post.

And this approach aligns nicely with Stanford’s Jim Collins’s recommendation that while you can’t necessarily change an entire company (or school, or club, or organization), you can create a pocket of greatness by focusing relentlessly on your particular area.

Collins isn’t arguing that you should selfishly focus on your own interests alone. He’s lobbying that you take responsibility for what you can make great. And if you work with other people, you can make them great, too.

Will you stay for the story?

Startups get a lot of attention in the press. The vision, the big ideas, the risk—it makes for good headlines and memorable stories. But a startup isn’t a business. It’s the start of a business. And starting a business isn’t nearly as difficult as executing your idea, keeping your promises, and staying in business.

Activities in college admissions work the same way.

Many students want to highlight the startup-style headline on their college applications. They proudly list that they “started a club,” “founded a non-profit,” “or “launched a fundraiser.” But colleges know to look for evidence of the story that follows the start. If your club only held one meeting, if your non-profit exists in the paperwork alone, if the fundraiser never actually raised funds, your startup story doesn’t have the same impact.

I’m not discounting the value of initiative (I’ve written about its importance before). And I’m not suggesting that colleges will only appreciate what you start based on how you finish. In fact, there’s a lot you can learn from trying your best to execute something that didn’t work. But even learning that lesson will require that you do more than just start.

So yes, if you’ve got an idea, if you see a need you can fill, if you’ve got the gumption to take the lead and the risk, then start, found, launch, etc.

But if your only motivation is to list the start on your college application, you might consider redirecting your time and attention to something where you’d be excited to stay for the story.

How engaged are you?

After 30 years with over 30 million employees, The Gallup Organization has found that a highly engaged workforce is the difference between a company that outperforms its competitors and one that fails to grow. And their descriptions of the different levels of engagement may help students identify just how engaged they are in their chosen activities.

Gallup breaks employees into three different categories of engagement:

1. Engaged.
These are the passionate people who care deeply about the success of their organization. The mission and goals speak to their values. They work hard because the work and the organization matter to them.

2. Disengaged
The disengaged are checked out. They show up to work and do what they have to do so they won’t get fired. But they don’t feel connected to the company or the work. They’re not bringing energy or new ideas. And they have no interest in putting forth any extra effort beyond the minimum.

3. Actively Disengaged
These folks are just plain unhappy at work. And they act out on that unhappiness. They don’t just decline to contribute anything. They work against the organization by undermining what their boss and their coworkers are trying to get done.

Look at how you’re choosing to spend your time outside of school. Are you excited by what you do? Does it matter to you? Do you work hard because you love the work, the people, and the purpose? Do you light up when you talk about it?

Or are you just going through the motions? Even worse, are you making negative contributions?

The students who fit the definition of “engaged” with their activities are the ones who show the most passion, who make the biggest impact, and who stand out to colleges.

If you don’t fit that definition, try a new approach. Or try a new activity.

Accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z]

Laszlo Bock is a former SVP of People Operations and Senior Advisor at Google, and the author of Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. His LinkedIn piece shares his personal formula for crafting a winning resume.

Accomplished [X] as measured by [Y] by doing [Z]

The formula could be applied to crafting winning college applications. But I think it also could help students evaluate just how much of an impact they’re making in and out of the classroom. You don’t have to be the president, MVP, or first chair to make valuable contributions. Even the role player in the club, the recipient of the Coach’s Award for effort rather than playing time, or the consummate good natured oboe player who isn’t the best musician can still be vital to the spirit and success of their respective groups. If you consider how your participation fits into the formula (which pairs well with my advice here on how to measure impact), you’ll contribute more to—and get more from—your chosen activities.

Suggested 2017 activity adjustments

One of the most prevalent symptoms of college admissions mania is overscheduling. Too many kids just have too much to do. And while you can’t decide to stop going to school, and you probably shouldn’t decide to stop studying, it’s possible that some of your activities just aren’t adding much to your life. And if they aren’t adding value for you, they won’t bring value to your college applications.

As you begin 2017, I’d encourage every student, especially those freshmen, sophomores, and juniors who may still be exploring and identifying which activities mean the most to them, to evaluate how you are choosing to spend your time and to consider doing less.

I’ve written extensively about the dangers of overscheduling, and the potential value of quitting. So for those who are new or who weren’t readers when these posts went up on the blog, here are a few suggested reads to get you up to speed.

First, a past post on how to evaluate your activities.

Here’s one that illustrates the college admissions risk of overscheduling, and another to help you identify if you’re too busy being busy.

Here are two posts, here and here, on the potential value of quitting, and a third that encourages you to make sure that the benefits of quitting for you don’t become punishments for other people.

Chosen and done right, your extracurricular activities should be among the most enjoyable parts of high school. But getting there can sometimes mean making adjustments. You don’t always know whether or not an activity will make you happy when you start it. So use this fresh start of 2017 to take a look at what you’re doing and decide if you might benefit from making different—or fewer—choices about what to do.

Five benefits of holiday jobs

The holidays offer a great opportunity that many high school students overlook—the chance to work a part-time job. Many local businesses, especially stores and retail outlets, will hire seasonal part-time or even full-time workers to help out during the busy holiday season. Beyond the obvious benefits of earning extra money (a nice bonus if you’ve got gifts to buy), here are five advantages for high school students who get a job.

1. You’ll get work—and life—experience.
In addition to the work experience to put on a resume (a big advantage for a 16- or 17-year-old, especially one who’s never held a job), there’s something to be said for experiencing another part of the world outside of high school, especially one that doesn’t involve the expense of a formal program or extended travel. If you work for two weeks at the mall, a warehouse for an electronics dealer, or the local Christmas tree lot, you’re going to learn and experience things that you can’t find in your day-to-day high school life. And believe it or not, most college admissions officers would much rather read an essay about how you learned to successfully get Christmas tree sap off your hands than one about how traveling to France “broadened your cultural horizons.”

2. You’ll gain confidence.
I don’t care where you work or what you do—if you work hard and do a good job, you’ll earn some confidence along with that paycheck. I’ve worked with many students who talked about how working the drive-through window, answering the phone, or working a cash register actually helped them become less shy. And even reasonably outgoing students become even more so when they take that skill and bring it to work with them. The ability to introduce yourself to someone you don’t know, to look someone in the eye, to stay calm and composed under pressure—all of these are examples of confidence that can be learned or improved in the workplace.

3. You’ll learn to sell.
Yes, one type of selling is interacting with customers who are considering buying this toy, blouse, phone, etc. But when you make an unhappy customer feel better, you just sold them on a new perspective. When you share a new idea with your boss that she agrees with, you just sold her on your suggestion. When you win over your co-workers and work hard enough to earn their respect, you just sold them on your worth as a new member of the team. If you can get good at selling—in all its forms—you’ll have plenty of jobs and other exciting opportunities waiting for you in the future.

4. You’ll work with people who are different from you.
You can certainly learn how to work with people in your high school clubs and organizations, but almost all of those people are fellow high school kids. My first job at age 16 was washing cars at a limousine company. I worked for a boss who was openly gay (that was notable in my town in 1989), with a co-worker who spoke only Spanish, and with several drivers who brought real life worries to work about paying their bills and feeding their families. These weren’t experiences I was getting while sitting in class all day and playing soccer in the afternoon. Plenty of high school students I’ve met talk about wanting to break free of their high school bubbles and experience something different when they go to college. But you don’t have to wait, and you don’t have to travel, to do it. Scoop ice cream, take tickets at the movie theater, or process inventory in a stockroom, and you’ll meet, work with, and learn from people that you wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so otherwise.

5. You’ll learn more about how to be successful outside of high school.
The world doesn’t look or work like high school. Everything isn’t measured by a grade. You don’t know what’s going to be on the test because the test is happening all the time. And often, there’s not even a right answer. If you want to be successful, no matter what field you hope to enter one day, you’ve got to work hard, figure out what’s valued, solve interesting problems, lead people, add value, prove your worth, and make yourself indispensable. I don’t care how good or bad your GPA and your test scores are, they don’t measure everything. And the working world offers a treasure trove of lessons that you can’t get in any AP class.

Passion projects

My mother-in-law’s 70th birthday party this year was an outdoor affair that featured a jazz quartet. All four musicians were high school students from two different schools. They’d found each other when two members posted an ad online looking for high school musicians interested in playing gigs and earning extra money. They were fantastic. And they looked like there was no place they’d rather be on a Friday night than playing their favorite jazz tunes to a crowd whose average age hovered around 60.

That small quartet encapsulated a lot of what colleges want to see from students, and what it takes to be successful.

Initiative: two students had an idea and did the work to make it happen.

Passion: they obviously love to play jazz.

Responsibility: they routinely make and keep their promises to each other and to the people who hire them.

Impact: they’re great musicians, and the party would not have been the same without them there. And I’m sure they make the same impact wherever they’re invited to play.

Individuality: I know a lot of students who play in high school jazz bands (these four girls play in theirs, too). But not many have taken that interest and channeled it into an entrepreneurial part-time job.

Likeability: they were likeable in person, and by demonstrating the traits above, they’ll be likeable on paper during the college admissions process.

I would be shocked if I learned that they were doing any of this just to put it on their college applications. But if I were their college counselor, I’d make sure they featured this passion project prominently.