1. Identify the people who inspire you, and find out what makes them tick. If you love Apple products, Steve Jobs may be your idol, or perhaps you love the Segway and its creator, Dean Kamen. You can easily find out a lot of information about Jobs and Kamen—or just about any other prominent person in technology—so use it to look into what’s helped these people and their companies become so successful. Then emulate their good traits in your personal, scholastic, and professional life.
2. Develop a portfolio of projects. Participate in every hands-on, experiential learning opportunity that a balanced schedule allows. This way, you’ll have something unique to show a prospective employer (or venture capitalist) when you graduate, while other students will only be able to list their courses. In addition, you’ll be far more likely to retain the knowledge you’ve gained in classes because you’ll be applying it and, in the process, boosting your communication and interpersonal skills.
3. Learn the value of networking. When it comes to being a leader, whom you know is almost as important as what you know. Attend lectures on your campus and introduce yourself to the speakers. Check with your school’s alumni association to get a list of alumni from your program who want to connect with undergraduates.
4-Star Tip. In addition to E-mail, you can use LinkedIn or other social media tools to connect online. But remember: There’s no substitute for a traditional, face-to-face meeting, so if you can find a way to meet in person, that’s always the best.
4. Work in teams as much as you can. Whether it’s creating a solar-powered car, participating in a sport, or writing for the school paper, get involved with an organization that requires a team effort to produce great results. Throughout your career, you can be sure you’ll work in teams, and the skills you develop in school will help prepare you to lead teams when you graduate.
5. Seek informal leadership roles. You’re always a leader, whether you’re officially in charge of a team or not. Sounds counterintuitive, but you can lead from any position in an organization by influencing how people work together and how they make decisions. Usually people think that the leader is the president or the manager, but if you learn how to recognize and deal with various leadership styles from any position in a team, you’ll be seen as a leader when you take on your first job or internship.
6. Find your flaws—and fix them. As with any skill, leadership needs constant improvement. When you are part of a team, try to create a way to get feedback from team members, group leaders, and professors. When you have concrete feedback on how people view you, you can work to improve your skills, including communication and leadership. Plus, you’ll learn how to accept—and give—constructive criticism. That’s absolutely necessary for your future career.
7. Take a business class. As an engineer, it’s not enough for you to be technically proficient; you need to have business savvy. If you’re going to be a leader, you need to understand what a P&L is (also known as an income statement), read organization charts, know how to negotiate contracts, and be familiar with the myriad other functions that every top engineer needs to know. Otherwise, you won’t understand what to do when an accountant, lawyer, or middle manager gets in the way. A business course or two can take you a long way, and these classes are often easier to pass than your calculus course!
8. Take design and other humanities classes. There’s a wide world out there beyond problem sets, laboratories, and theory. Take a visual design course so you’ll learn to represent ideas graphically. Take a cognitive science course to learn how people interpret the world and understand it. Take a literature course to develop your knowledge and appreciation of the classic books, which will help you write and communicate more effectively.
5-Star Tip. Tomorrow’s leaders will have to communicate effectively across international borders and be familiar with other cultures, so develop some proficiency in another language, travel abroad, or meet students from other cultures. Start “globalizing” right at college.
9. Make your summers productive. Employers place tremendous value on practical experience. Seek out internship opportunities actively and early in your academic career. Try to demonstrate through your internships a series of evolving leadership experiences, and use the internships to build your portfolio of actual projects/products. New graduates who can show a commitment to using their summer to continue to learn are always viewed more seriously by a prospective employer.
10. Recruit and develop your personal board of directors. As an undergraduate, you might feel alone when confronted with hard decisions about the courses to take, jobs to apply for, or even balancing school work and your personal life. You won’t feel alone if you develop a personal board of directors just for you. Just as a company has a board that guides the organization, you can stock your board with professionals from organizations and companies, as well as former teachers and knowledgeable family friends.
Extra Pointer. Be sure to “nurture” your board of directors: Keep in touch with them, provide them regular updates, ask them for guidance, and be sure to thank them for any help they provide. And don’t be afraid of conflicting advice. If members offer different suggestions, you’ll have the occasion to balance off one idea against another and make your own decision—just like at a real company.