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No job is too small to develop leadership skills

Director, Youth and Young Adult Segments at RBC.

The path to a rewarding and challenging career is a long, winding road. Developing the skills you need to get there starts well before you land your first full-time job, and continues throughout your career journey.

It sounds cliché, but it's never too early to get started. There are plenty of ways you can start building valuable skills, even when in school. Whether planning to start your own business full time or on the side, or seeking to move up the ranks of a large corporation, your skill-building journey can start much earlier than you might think and doesn't always have to involve formal training.

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Summer jobs, or part-time jobs throughout the school year, can be great foundational learning experiences for developing specific skills needed in the corporate world, such as collaboration, diplomacy, customer service and multitasking.

So, whether leadership ambitions start right out of the gate or are developed over time, how can students prepare themselves as future leaders – whatever their career aspirations are?

The power of a part-time/summer job

Anyone who has regularly pursued part-time and/or summer jobs is already getting a solid grounding in leadership skills. Whether serving customers in a high-pressure fast-food joint, being a counsellor at a summer camp or working in a health-care facility, these experiences can get your foot in the door when facing your first career interviews.

I spent a lot of my summers working as a camp counsellor in Algonquin Park. During my last summer there as a senior staff member, I was managing a team, was in charge of program planning, and was responsible for keeping hundreds of young girls happy, healthy and having fun during their stays at overnight camp. While the income was nothing in comparison to that of some of my friends working elsewhere, the confidence I built in myself, the leadership skills I gained and the fulfilling experience of helping other young women was foundational in helping me develop my abilities.

Savvy employers know that anyone working in food service, for example, is likely strong at multitasking and diplomacy. A summer camp job can help develop your project-management and collaboration skills. Working in health care or social services will highlight your empathy and compassion. Remember that these are all seen as essential leadership skills.

So when working on your résumé, be sure to include the leadership lessons learned in those roles. School activities can also boost your leadership skills, as they demonstrate your ability to work in groups and stay on task to achieve results. Don't underestimate the value of these experiences and how they have helped shape you.

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We've all been told at some point just how valuable networking is. Networking can be awkward and uncomfortable if you don't have much experience at it or if you are an introvert. I was "that" person as a student – I knew how important networking was, but I found it hard to do. But when I put in the effort, I always found it worthwhile. It gives you the chance to introduce yourself to people in industries you might be interested in pursuing. Youth associations, trade shows and job fairs are often perfect places to explore opportunities and talk to industry experts.

Taking the entrepreneurship path

Another increasingly popular route is entrepreneurship. Many people are choosing to be their own boss, before or after graduation. Studies show that upward of 50 per cent of students plan to start their own businesses, for reasons varying from wanting to be their own boss to a lack of suitable employment opportunities.

Consider what skills you can develop that will help you be your own boss. That means understanding the field in which you want to work, but also the other side of entrepreneurship – managing the business.

From legal and financial aspects, to seeking funding – these are important things for successful entrepreneurs to grasp. Will you need to incorporate? Will you need outside help or a business partner who can supplement your skills? Find the right balance of skills you can develop, and outside help or partnerships. For example, you may have a great idea for an online business and be an awesome manager, but do you have the technical skills to get it up and running properly? Or you may be great at developing technology, but weak on the sales part. Just remember that starting a business takes many skills, and you may not necessarily have all of them. The great news is that you do not have to go it alone – there are endless (free) resources available, and the influencers you have in your life may be more important than you realize.

The best advice I can give you – regardless of career path – is to network. Connecting with other entrepreneurs is vital when starting a business. Whether it's open-house events, LinkedIn, friends or family, seek out advice and mentorship to help you on the journey.

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Futurpreneur Canada is one of several great resources for getting seed funding and essential support. Find out what's available at your school, other universities and organizations nearby. Also seek out young entrepreneur competitions that allow individuals and teams to present their business ideas to panels of experts. Winners often receive funding, mentorship and services to help them jump-start their businesses. And even if you don't win, the experience is great.

Of course, when starting a business, it's important to keep your costs down. If you can't kick-start your operation from home, sharing office spaces for low monthly fees is often a good place to start.

Keep in mind that funding may take time. If you haven't saved enough from your part-time and summer jobs, you might start with small investments from family and friends. Take your business plan to a financial services provider who can offer some guidance on your financial options.

Last but not least, mentorship is critical. Don't be afraid to approach someone who might be able to help you navigate your new business venture. It could be a family friend who owns a business, a professor or someone you connected with at an industry event. Many people who have been successful in their careers are more than happy to share their experiences.

Whether building your skills for a future career path or starting a business – or both – it's important to establish the right foundation, from skills development to financial management. Getting started is as easy as doing some online research, where you will find plenty of helpful advice, educational materials and perhaps some inspiration as well.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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In our research, where we have interviewed over 150 CEOs, north of 30 per cent of senior executives are introverts Special to Globe and Mail Update
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