Our Sector: Venus and Mars? The SU officer/staff member relationship

In this article- a follow up to a session presented at SU2015- Leeds University Union’s CEO Aidan Grills opens up a discussion on the best and not-so-best of the working relationship between Union senior managers and elected officers.

One of the critical success factors for any students’ union is how well the relationship works between the senior managers and the elected officers. It is the same in a small organisation or a larger organisation. If the relationship isn’t working, students won’t be getting the best deal from their Union.

I’m fascinated in what best practice could be in the field of senior staff working with elected officer; is it Jed Bartlett and Leo McGarry? Or perhaps Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker? I’ve hypothesised that we can develop a matrix to show the best characteristics of elected officers and senior staff. After years of direct experience and discussion with colleagues, the two matrices below have been developed proving that Officers are indeed from Venus and Senior Managers are from Mars:


In this first model- where officers are from Venus – we have the two classic axis of Political Conviction, versus Social Skills (or the emotional intelligence). And like all good leadership models this gives us four quadrants:

  1. In the “Hollyoaks Students’ Union” quadrant we find the officers are socially quite adept but have no agenda for change, maybe just leading the odd campaign to improve the range of harmful products in the vending machines?
  2. In the “Animal House Union” quadrant the officers are having fun, they are popular in the bar and that’s how they got elected, but again we have no real manifesto for change.
  3. In the “Fibchester Students’ Union” quadrant we are having fun, but the political is so heightened that we are totally confused and not sure really what the SU is about?
  4. Finally, we have the quadrant where if “Carlsberg did students’ unions”, this is what they would create. It is great to be a manager in this quadrant because the Sabbatical Officers are socially skilled enough to grasp what they can and are going to set out to change; it is incredibly motivating to be a manager working in this quadrant.


In the second model- where managers are from Mars- again we propose 2 axes, but this time the first is the managers’ skill in tuning in to the political environment to help Officers achieve their manifesto promises. The other axis represents the methods they use to coach and empower Officers, making the experience developmental as well as politically satisfying.

  1. In the first quadrant we find the “Sir Humphrey” style of manager: there’s really not much trust of the Officers, whilst there is lots of potential for them to have an impact, it’s much easier for everyone if we leave that to the “professionals”!?
  2. In the Caretaker/Landlady-Landlord quadrant the managers and officers get on very well and it is like a nice family. The managers generally like to keep the Union running and keep it just as it always has been, since change isn’t really something we like to see!?
  3. The Very Civil Servant is well capable of managing anything the sabbs put in front of them, although we don’t want to seem too political do we…?
  4. Finally, we have the manager who motivates the Officers to achieve change and links the manifesto to the strategic vision of the Union. It is truly empowering to work with the Manager who provides the continuity so that Officers each year get to create change and fully impact their own Union.

I would suggest that positive working relationships between officers and managers will help ensure a positive experience for both, and needs to be a responsibility of the senior manager to ensure this happens. We should be explicit about ambitions, priorities, pressures, anxieties and may need to agree that you will not always agree.

As a final thought, the relationships as we have described are critical, but no dark art, it is just the same as any other healthy relationship and requires some skill and attention from both parties. We should just work on what matters in any relationship:

  • Loyalty, which builds trust
  • Laughing together
  • Be realistic about what you expect from each other, which builds understanding
  • Admit mistakes, which builds trust
  • And probably most important, devote real time to making it work, to listening and communicating and supporting each other


Posted in Our sector.

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