“They are so talented”; “They ‘get it’”; and “The best part of the job is the people” are three quotes (of which there are many) that are right up there in terms of how frequently they are used in the students’ union sector.

The problem is that these phrases have become so commonplace within our SU vocabulary that I fear we may have (or perhaps already have) lost the sense of meaning behind a set of phrases that are clearly woven into our cultural norms.

  • Talented? But by whose/what metrics?
  • What does ‘getting it’ even mean? Do we mean having a level of respect and understanding that is translated through an ability to navigate the unique nuances of the political and democratic nature of student-led organisations that employ professional staff?
  • And if the best part of the job is the people, then why do people leave? Better pay? Personal circumstances? Or maybe even because of the people!

At this point, I should hold my hands up and say there have been moments throughout my time in the student movement where I have said all three of these things and on multiple occasions, and to fully call myself out I will have used these phrases on a spectrum that ranges from full belief in what I am saying to a passing comment that I think someone else needs to hear me say, sometimes for reasons I couldn’t even tell you. It is only when I started to take on more strategic roles in NUS that I would say I started to think far more critically about what I say and why I say it, and this comes from experience and building confidence to say what I mean, and mean what I say.

So why am I sharing these views now?

I am sharing them because I think there is a gap in our collective understanding, approach, and ability to translate phrases like the ones above into impactful action and meaning for a sector that brings an unbelievable amount of value to society, and a sector that is also notorious for saying ‘we don’t shout about our impact enough’. For me, storytelling is central to articulating impact, and everyone who has ever been involved with the student movement has a story to tell whether it be bad, indifferent, transformational, amazing, or otherwise – so could we be doing more in terms of mapping, tracking, innovating and being more deliberate in our approach? How can we harness and use these stories? How do we articulate how we manage and promote talent in the student movement and speak confidently to the rest of society about how we do it, why we do it, and the value of our strategy to the wider world?

Like with any strategy, there needs to be a vision. A vision that has collective buy-in and clarity amongst key stakeholders as to why the vision is worth pursuing, a series of goals that are worth scoring, and a clear set of tactics where everyone can clearly identify their role and why it's important that they play it.

We need to stop framing websites, job lists, and other transactional activity as ‘talent management, it's not, and you don’t need me to tell you that but sometimes it's helpful to remind ourselves of the obvious. I find myself coming back to the word ‘deliberate’ and will finish this short piece by posing several questions for which I would love to hear your thoughts and answers…'

  • Why are talent management strategies especially important for a sector like ours?
  • Does your organisation have an explicit talent management strategy? Would you be willing to share it?
  • Is there value and benefit for students’ unions of all shapes and sizes to be able to talk to people outside of our sector with one voice about our people, how we promote them and enable them to succeed?
  • Should we be deliberate in our approach as one sector, or should students’ unions do their own thing in this space?
  • How would you like to see the Association of SU Professionals further the conversation and its work in this space?
The Association of SU Professionals is a wholly-owned subsidiary of SU Professionals Ltd. SU Professionals Ltd is a company registered in England and Wales #12539954.
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