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Off to a good lead: Students pick up valuable career skills in UI leadership program

Mark Binning thought he had a pretty good idea of what leadership was.

Student speaking from podium.
  Students who enroll in Iowa’s Career Leadership Academy develop leadership and employee-readiness skills through seminars, activities, and events, including student group presentations (above) as well as job and internship fairs (below).
  Student milling around at internship fair.

After all, the University of Iowa junior had experience. In high school he was captain of his football, baseball, and wrestling teams, and he attended leadership seminars through programs like the National Council on Youth Leadership.

Still, he came to college hungry to improve his skills, and joined the pilot class of the UI Pomerantz Career Center’s Career Leadership Academy in spring 2007—his second semester at Iowa. It didn’t take him long to discover that he had a lot to learn.

The academy taught Binning about different leadership styles and which one he possessed, and how to surround himself with people who complemented his talents and strengths. It exposed him to “the real world” by connecting him with community and business leaders who shared valuable insights about the working world. And it helped him develop job-hunting skills like networking and résumé writing.

“I thought we’d just be talking about principles of leadership. That was my expectation going in. But it was so much more than that,” says Binning, a finance major from Wilton, Iowa. “Because of the academy, and taking it while working a part-time job as a salesperson, I’ve seen an unbelievable difference in the way that I communicate with people and the amount of professionalism I bring to a situation. It’s interesting to see the difference in yourself in just a couple of years with a lot of high-level training.”

The Career Leadership Academy is a four-semester academic program that blends leadership training with career development, and encourages students to get hands-on experience by participating in mock interviews, preparing group presentations, and organizing a service project such as a food drive, a fun night for low-income families, or a community clean-up day.

“We want to engage the students in activities that make the principles we’re talking about more meaningful,” says program director Kelley Ashby. “You can’t learn to be an effective leader by just sitting in a classroom. You need to practice it.”

The academy began in 2007 with 56 students and grew quickly. This spring, 425 students are enrolled in the program, which awards one credit hour per semester. Classes are taught by staff from across the University, and any undergraduate who has completed at least one semester at Iowa is eligible to apply. Classes meet 80 minutes a week for 10 weeks of each semester.

The academy’s curriculum was designed around the results of local and national surveys that asked employers what skills and qualities they look for in new hires.

One of the first things instructors do is define what it means to be a leader.

“You can have the title of manager and not be an effective leader,” Ashby says. Think Michael Scott in the TV show The Office, for example. “And you can be an effective leader without having a title.”

The Career Leadership Academy defines leadership as a relational and ethical process of people coming together to make positive change. In other words, it’s not just one person being the boss and telling people what he or she wants them to do. Rather, a good leader is inclusive of other people and points of view, engages and empowers his or her team members, and works to benefit others and the community.

“It’s not a one-person show,” Ashby says. “It’s about people working together. It’s about relationships.” That, she adds, is an eye-opening revelation for some students, and a new way to think about leadership.

The career-development aspects of the academy include résumé and portfolio development; discussions on benefits and salary negotiations; and “What Employers Want” panels, where recruiters and supervisors talk about what they look for when hiring new graduates, how to make a good first impression, and what to expect from an entry-level position.

“The academy really gives you an inside look into the professional world and what people expect from you career-wise and also just in everyday life,” says Ben Durchslag, a recent UI graduate from Schaumburg, Ill., who plans to spend a year teaching English abroad before pursuing a graduate degree in psychology.

Binning, who graduated from the academy in 2008, says this insider knowledge makes the program invaluable.

“The academy is great for anyone who is motivated, has career aspirations, and is willing to work. It’s not just an easy credit hour,” says Binning. “This was one of the most influential things I’ve done at The University of Iowa.”

Employers agree that both the leadership- development and career-preparation aspects of the course are a bonus for job hunters. Chad Greenlee, a human resources specialist at GreatAmerica Leasing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says he likes seeing programs like the Career Leadership Academy on an applicant’s résumé.

“It just adds to their credentials,” he says. “They’ve gone through the rigors and achieved something that someone else hasn’t, so it elevates them. When they step into the workforce, they may be a little more prepared than the average entry-level employee.”

Learn more about the Career Leadership Academy at

by Anne Kapler






Published by University Relations Publications. Copyright The University of Iowa 2004. All rights reserved.

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