Our Sector: Leadership and Talent

Ben Ward: We need a clear strategy on talent

I’ve just returned to the Union after a really energising visit to Liverpool for Students’ Unions 2016. Year on year the growth in the event does feel like it’s delivering on the original vision of becoming the go to occasion for our leadership and development of the sector. At least that’s what I sort of think. In reality, I think I’m energised by seeing our new officers motivated, excited and on the starting blocks of the greatest year they’ll ever have. The same feeling which I guess most of our 4000-strong career staff are having this time of year. I don’t know that for sure because not much of what we do is intentional.

Students’ Unions are transformative organisations, making critical interventions on quality, retention, achievement, happiness, affinity, skills development and civic education. All that seems more and more accidental as time goes on. What is it that really underpins our ongoing ability to deliver all these things, do we have an understanding of how and why we have the impact we do. Over the last 10 years, we have concentrated much on organisational development of the sector. Partly that’s been driven by a need to get our houses in order as we’ve registered as charities, partly it’s been a refresh of our business model as the world around us changes and part has been a general need for organisations in receipt of public money to demonstrate effectiveness. We’ve got a great story to tell (backed up by the sector in the recent Green Paper consultation). We should however be worried about our profession.

I was reflecting with some other senior managers over the last few days how difficult it has been to recruit people into what I would describe ‘core purpose’ roles. Those people who will drive forward our agenda around advocacy, representation and fulfilling our ambition of being the definitive voice of students. Why is that and what is going wrong? Over the last decade we’ve seen some really well-meaning attempts to create a sense of professional practice. The specialist groups, run on a shoe string without serious strategic support have brought together staff at all levels of the movement to explore challenges but they never really find and co-create solutions. When our new Head of Education and Advocacy starts in two months’ time, where should I send them to get under the skin of the profession they are joining to learn our culture, customs, wisdom and underpinning theory? Let’s contrast that with two very different roles also in our space; a Head of Student Life in the UK and an Associate Director of Student Activities in the USA.

If I started a role leading a Student Life department of a UK University, I could join the Association of University Administrators, and as part of my induction explore the CPD framework which is the agreed standard for their profession. The underlying competencies and behaviours are referenced in job descriptions, events, training programmes and academic reading to give me a clear path on which to develop myself during my time in the role. The framework was co-created by professionals and funded by the HEFCE Leadership, Governance and Management fund (the same money which created the SU Code of Good Governance). It feels owned, agreed and championed by the whole sector and brings order to the chaos of quite a disparate sector. If I was just starting out, I could have been through the graduate programme developed jointly with AHUA, bringing the best and brightest into the sector from the entry level.

If I was in the USA, it is likely that in order to qualify for a role such as Associate Director of Student Activities, I would have at least a degree (or probably a masters) in Student Affairs and a deep understanding of student development theory (see Chickering). I would also subscribe to the core competency framework of a national organisation such as the Association of College Unions International (ACUI) or the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA). I would understand exactly what development programmes I would need to take part in at which stage of my career and my profession would be recognised and intentional. I happen to think it can go too far, and the level of innovation and change feels very stagnant compared to the speed and agility of our organisations. There must however be a happy medium.

I was excited to see the focus on employer brand in the new NUS strategic plan, but it’s about so much more than that. We need a clear strategy around attraction, recruitment, induction, development and exit. Underpinning it needs to be a series of values, competencies, skills and academic rigour (it does exist but isn’t curated). If we work together in the same way we did to develop Endsleigh, NUS Services, SUEI and so many other things in our history, we can solidify our professional place in our ever stronger organisations.

Jim Dickinson: What we need is leadership

I’m typing with a sore, “Popworld” head after Students’ Unions 2016, and as ever there’s a mixture of reflections- there’s positives, like the energising atmosphere, inspiring plenaries and comradely networking; and there’s negatives- frustratingly truncated discussions, an acoustically challenging awards night and too many sessions with the same old formats. Theming the conference around E&D seemed right and important, but the resultant lack of workshop breadth did feel restrictive. That said, it was overall a good event, these things are always full of contradictions and we shouldn’t underestimate how hard it is for our national partners to tread the fine lines involved.

I’ve been attending this event or its staff dominated antecedents for the best part of 20 years now, and whilst I’ve enjoyed its recent incarnations as “Students’ Unions 20XX” I’ve had a nagging sense of there being something missing from the proceedings. And it’s only this week that I managed to put my finger on it.

I am in a profession. I do a job that others do. That job is not the most important in the world and nor do those that hold the job have the biggest “needs” but I do think we think it’s an important job in the world which we inhabit. We want people to do the job well- to be knowledgeable and skilled and on the top of their game. We want people who occupy this role to be diverse. We want our student officers to get the very best support to enable them to most effectively deliver for their members and we want our staff to be managed in a way that drives up their effectiveness and impact.

And I think all of that needs leadership. I think my profession– being a senior manager in an SU- needs more than just (regional) networking- it needs leadership. And that leadership might mean many things:

  • It might mean making sense and meaning of the world around us and linking that to what we do as SU managers day to day
  • It might mean convening- discussions, partnerships, projects or teams to solve problems, generate ideas and get things done
  • It might mean reflecting on the challenges we face and identifying collective solutions to problems
  • It might mean advocating for the work we do, or defending the role we have, or pushing our behaviours to be more ethical and effective
  • It might mean creating spaces to share fears, work through worries and reduce the loneliness of the role we have
  • It might mean pushing us to be faster, or better, or kinder, or smarter- to know more things and adapt our role in changing times
  • It means identifying our competencies, celebrating our successes, planning our career paths and taking our recruitment and development collectively seriously

Since I’ve been involved in the student movement, that kind of professional leadership has existed in a number of guises. There was a time when AMSU and its coordinating committee and chairperson took on some of the tasks. There have been times when the NUSSL CEO offered challenge, thought leadership and convening skills. STADIA did it for some of us and NUSSL for others. Many of us remember a version of the NUS CEO role that appeared to be more about being the “National General Manager” than it was about running NUS. And countless others have played their part too, as regional coordinators, on projects or in action learning encounters.

What I do know is that right now overall there’s not a lot of it about, the new NUS strategy doesn’t contain masses of it and what is that’s around in the leadership of my profession is often furtive or undercooked in a way that is unhelpful.

This is not a call to recreate AMSU (whatever that might mean) or to split NUSSL back off from NUS or to demand that the NUS CEO role be more like some of its predecessors- the NUS group is now too complex to expect this additional role too. It’s also not a call to take officers out of events or return to the dark days of Golf Clubs and Barrelage discussions. Harking back to the past to solve the problems of the future can be fun but staring in the rear view mirror whilst driving usually causes a crash.

But it is a call to come together to do something about the development of and leadership of our profession. Working this out together- and with the involvement of our elected officers- should dominate our networking spaces, our contributions to mailbases and our regional meetings in the year ahead. We are leaders in profoundly uncertain times, when our organisations and student officers will demand the very best from those paid to support, guide and lead their staff teams. Part of the problem or part of the solution. Mumbling around the edges of events won’t help. Some leadership and will to sort this out from all of us will.

Posted in Our sector.

One Comment

  1. Hi Jim

    I have to agree with your comments. One of the major things I discovered after leaving the Student Movement was that the biggest issue, in my view, is one of Trust. The levels of trust within the movement are so low that leadership can not develop.

    You and your colleagues may want to look at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smart-Trust-Creating-Posperity-Low-Trust/dp/1442345721

    After spending 2 years debriefing myself for the world of Student’s Unions my view is that the biggest challenge faced by the sector from a HR perspective is one of Trust.

    Happy to discuss further if needed or wanted.

    Best to you all. You make a real difference to people’s lives.


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