Our Sector: Being a Students’ Union CEO (for 11 months)

Andy Morwood, Head of Student Voice and Engagement Westminster SU: “Last year while I was at Westminster, the Chief Exec did me a pretty massive favour and let me go on a secondment to St Mary’s Students’ Union to be Chief Exec for a maternity cover role. I finished it off in the spring and because I’m a reflective sort I figured it might be worth writing about and MAYBE one or two things might be interesting for people. This is what I wrote back in May”

Small and Specialist SU’s are amazing

At Westminster the Engagement and Activities team I was managing was made up of myself plus five staff (and a few student staff). For the running of the entire SU at St Mary’s there was myself plus six staff (and a few student staff). The union doesn’t do less than others, we cover societies, sports, campaigns, democracy, academic representation, commercial events, run an astonishingly large varsity, etc. But we definitely had to do it on much less resource than a significant number of HE Students’ Unions. The phrase spinning plates became a very regular part of my conversations very quickly.

How isn’t everyone else tired?

This may be related to the above point, but I couldn’t get my head wrapped round other senior leaders who do these roles and then seem to have energy to do other things? What’s the secret gang? Do you all eat broccoli and swear off alcohol?

An SU needs to be fully independent of the University to be most effective

This was the first union I’d worked at where all the staff were employees of the university, including myself. This meant that my line manager was one of the university senior management team, but I also answered to the trustee board of the SU. Everyone was incredibly lovely but I never quite worked out what would happen if one person told me to do one thing and the board told me to do another.

We also had to follow the university recruitment procedures for staff, which involved getting approval for a role (full business case), then submitting it through the HERA process, then putting it out and going through the university procedures for… etc. Not only was this SLOW but it also makes things hard to budget for because you don’t actually know what a role will cost until it’s been approved and gone through HERA.

If you’re going to work for a small organisation you hope that at least one of the things it’ll have going for it is flexibility, when a university imposes the full administrative procedures on the union you definitely don’t get that.

(Also for long winded tax reasons we had to pay VAT on staff salaries!)

NUS Affiliation is really expensive if you don’t have commercial outlets

1_eivk4t01IYETTelFDqyevgTo memory, I think the affiliation fee for NUS for St Mary’s was around £15k (4% of our block grant). The way it’s always been sold as worth it at the other places I’ve worked was the access to the commercial trading arm of NUS meaning staff don’t have to spend time cutting deals for the shops and bars. But if you don’t have anything commercial then… well it becomes a tougher sell. Even more so when the training for officers is extra money on top of things. Even more so when free events aren’t really things that you have time to go on because you’ve got 6 different plates to spin (told you I used it a lot) doing things that absolutely have to be done as opposed to going to the thing that sounds really good but is a nice to have rather than an essential thing.

Wouldn’t it make sense to have a lower affiliation fee for unions that don’t need access to the trading wing of NUS? Or maybe not charging for things like officer training which everyone sends their officers to.

Where do you go when you need to get legal advice?

I’ve been lucky enough never to need to have to get legal advice. I nicked a sweet from Tesco once but my mum caught me and that was the end of my criminal career. However, when the trustee board asked me to get legal advice on a Memorandum of Understanding with the University I was completely flummoxed. In the end (with the board’s permission) I just asked other chief execs if it made sense, but if I genuinely did need to get independent legal advice, where do you go? How do I know I’m not getting ripped off?

Chief Executive doesn’t feel like quite the right job title

For starters I was completely unable during my entire time as chief exec to not say something along the lines of “but it’s not as grand as it sounds” when someone asked what I did due to my terminal inability to feel comfortable with job titles that I don’t perceive as being for me, but Chief Exec doesn’t seem quite right.

A few months ago the Freakonomics podcast had a special series about CEO’s. What they do, where they come from, what toothpaste they use, all the good stuff. The Chief Executive is empowered by the board to pretty much make any decision (though they have to answer for it eventually). The example that sticks in my mind was the new Chief Exec of Microsoft writing off the company’s entire 7.6 billion dollar investment in Nokia in the first few months that they were put in place. In a Students’ Union, a Chief Executive can’t just make a decision, they have to work with the officer team, get their buy in and in some cases get them to make the official decision. Sometimes the officers will say no, which is fine because that’s how SU’s work. But the weird mix of civil servant implementing decisions and political special advisor trying to give officers the best advice they can is a really weird one.

What’s the right title? Goodness knows.

How are you meant to understand commercial elements of your role when you’ve come through a non-commercial side of the student movement

I didn’t get into the Students’ Union sector because I’m particularly driven by profit. The roles I’d done up to now have largely revolved around volunteer management, strategic planning, delivering training with outcomes being (generally) measured on numbers of students involved with things, successful campaigns, election turnouts, etc. In this role I was suddenly the lead staff member with commercial responsibility. I’ve never had training on that and it’s not something I’m aware of courses for. I raised it at the first London CEO get together as the thing I was most worried by but was challenged by another CEO who said something along the lines of how as long as you set the values which you want to see implemented then it’s not something to be concerned about, which I suppose works in bigger unions but in the small ones where you really have to be involved in everything then it doesn’t really work out like that.

Fundamentally, how do you manage staff in an area where you don’t specialise/have a great deal of knowledge?

I’m incredibly pleased I got the chance to do the role. I’ve learnt an astonishing amount and from what I understand wasn’t too awful at the gig (as close to a self compliment as you get from me). I’m glad it was a temporary thing though, I didn’t realise quite how mentally exhausted I was till I’d had my first week off after finishing and noticed how I was literally walking in a more relaxed and slower way because I wasn’t worrying about work things. Self care is no joke gang.

I’m definitely not put off wanting to do it again somewhere else at some point because having done it once you’re able to say legitimately the next time you know exactly the things that you want to have in place or do rather than having a rough understanding of the theory of what you’d like to do.

For now though I’m looking forward to getting back to Westminster SU. I’m definitely not leaving Students’ Unions, after all…

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