Intentionally Building Student Leaders Through Higher Education Programs


You can’t claim success if you don’t know how to define success! The worth of a goal is dependent upon its ability to be measured. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are frequently used by individuals and teams to define the level of success they reach in their initiatives. They are typically based on quantitative data such as due dates, the level of completeness of a project, or the number of deliverables that have been completed.

But what about finding meaningful KPIs for things harder to measure?

Soft skills are notoriously difficult to quantify, so it’s no surprise it’s hard to determine if you’re teaching those types of skills effectively. Leadership qualities like clear communication, good time management, trust, and emotional intelligence are all highly sought after by employers. Universities, colleges, and educators are realizing soft skills are a discriminating factor in their alumni’s futures. Schools are offering leadership programs and formal curricula, and groups that specialize in teaching soft skills have incredible offerings that can dial in on the more nebulous qualities that make candidates successful in their job search. Using KPIs, institutions of higher education show that their students are graduating with these valuable skills.

Why Soft Skills are Important for Students

Why are leadership skills, often referred to as soft skills, such a big deal? Historically, higher education focused on developing technical knowledge and abilities, with some classes using team projects or presentations to help students learn to work with others. Employers also used to focus on quantitative skills and degrees when they were hiring, planning to introduce leadership training and management opportunities on the job. 

But is it our technical skills that we use the most in our careers? After all, soft skills include communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving, which are common across all types of work. In fact, a 2021 survey found that 50% of respondents were predominantly using their soft skills more than highly technical skills – double the amount that claimed their trade-specific skills were used most frequently. Yet, that same survey found that nearly half of students were unclear or neutral about their ability to identify and acquire the right skills to reach their employment goals.

Employers have shifted their focus, as well. ManpowerGroup listed some of the most in-demand soft skills around the globe are resilience, tolerating stress, and adaptability. But employers are having difficulty finding what they want in their applicant pools, with 33% surveyed reporting it is hard to find future employees demonstrating strong accountability, reliability, and discipline. 

Soft skills are difficult for students to show on a transcript or diploma, but there are ways to quantify and showcase those abilities. We just need better ways to measure and communicate the achievements of students as they develop these types of skills. Defining KPIs around leadership education is an effective way to help students communicate their efforts to prospective employees.      

KPIs Driving Impact on Campus

Matthew Ohlson, Ph.D., is the Director of the Taylor Leadership Institute at the University of North Florida. The mission of the Taylor Leadership Institute is to “develop and promote leadership and character among UNF students and the community it serves through education, service, civic engagement, and research.” They have built several resources and programs to support students, regardless of what an individual has selected as their major. With each of these programs, students are able to complete activities that provide them with the types of skills employers are looking for and a way to showcase that achievement on their transcripts and resumes. 

Higher education institutions might consider addressing three KPIs when they assess their own leadership programs:

  • Enrollment
  • Engagement
  • Evolution

Each of these KPIs is important, and both educators and students can use the information in these categories to improve the offerings and opportunities in leadership programs. 

Key Performance Indicator: Enrollment

In a recent webcast panel discussion, Dr. Ohlson has seen an exciting trend at the Taylor Leadership Institute: consistently increasing enrollment. The Leadership minor offered through the institute is compatible with any other major and saw a 47% increase in enrollment between the Fall 2019 and Fall 2020 semesters. Even more exciting is the fact these students come from a variety of colleges within the greater university. 

During a time period when many academic institutions were seeing falling enrollment, the Taylor Leadership Institute continued to see growth. Their introductory leadership course enrollment increased 21% from Fall 2020 to Fall 2021, surpassing expectations for university enrollment trends in that period. These enrollment numbers are a solid indication the program is providing benefits to students, that the reputation of the program is growing, and that the students see it as a positive experience.

Dr. Ohlson attributes this success in part to their efforts to involve every college. 

“The recipe for success—you see the different colleges we’re connected with—we go to them and say ‘Hey, what do you want? What does success look like for you? What do you want to see more of?’” 

By creating opportunities for individual colleges and majors to contribute to the curriculum, the Taylor Leadership Institute has built a program that is universally helpful to students across the board, just like the skills they teach. Measuring enrollment is a great way to prove that you’re on the right track as you build leadership programs. 

Key Performance Indicator: Engagement

In addition to enrollment, leadership programs should also be considering the level and quality of engagement from their participants. Rodell Asher, EdD is the Director of District-wide Student Engagement and Leadership for Alamo Colleges District. With a large geographic area and students in varying life stages, it’s important for the Student Leadership Institute (SLI) to accommodate many different needs. They’ve designed a program that has services for high school and college students, as well as professional development opportunities for those who aren’t full-time students.

By offering for-credit courses alongside non-credit courses and experiences, SLI is providing the opportunity for students to select the option that best meets their goals and fits their availability. Topics aren’t just built around finding a career, either. Opportunities to volunteer and meet as a community outside of the classroom help students build their soft skills in meaningful, real-world settings. 

With over 1,200 students who have completed SLI’s Student Leadership Challenge program, Dr. Asher knows these are engaged, excited learners. Participants also receive a certificate of completion and recognition on their transcripts, demonstrating to future employers they have worked to develop their soft skills. Dr. Asher knows this level of engagement and effort will benefit graduates:

“It’s really neat to see the transformation and the growth of our students as they engage in leadership development and integrate into their varied settings. As we continue to develop students as leaders and collaborators, we know that our students are engaged—engaged students become engaged employees.”

Key Performance Indicator: Evolution

Part of cultivating leadership in students is giving them the opportunity to provide meaningful and constructive feedback. A great leadership training program should always be open to improvement, growth, and evolution. Ask students insightful questions about their experience, and to ask them often. Questions can include:

  • What was the most helpful activity or topic this session?
  • What do you feel most prepared to accomplish after this class?
  • What concept would you add to our syllabus, and why?
  • What do you need to learn in this program to consider it a success?

These kinds of questions can help educators identify both strengths and weaknesses in their programs. Dr. Ohlson received feedback from students that they wanted more mentorship opportunities. They have now built-in a mentorship program as part of their curriculum, involving community leadership and connecting students with people who have successful careers in their areas of interest. The program allows for participants to connect in the way that works best for them, whether it’s phone calls, video conferencing, or in-person visits. 



Leadership programs should always look to lead by example and be open to change and improvement, creatively serving students. FranklinCovey’s LeaderU courses are built to allow students to pick the topics and timing that serve them best, helping them build the soft skills they need most. Drs. Ohlson and Asher are both trained in, model, and teach the soft skill-building principles of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People course. Leveraging the course helped make their programs successful and transformational for the students enrolled in them.


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