I was born and bred (well almost) in Students’ Unions. My first involvement came as an activist and then officer in my own Students’ Union – North East London Poly now University of East London (it was whilst standing for a sabbatical position that I met my husband). When I graduated I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but knew I wanted to do something that involved contributing to the greater good for society. So when I saw the job of Commercial Manager at Kings College London Students’ Union I decided to apply and so my career in Students’ Unions began. In the course of my Union career I was General Manager (now the position is CEO) at Kings College London Students’ Union, General Manager of the Student Centre at the University of North London (I actually worked for the University – and only for 11 months, that’s a whole other story!), Chief Executive at University of London Union (ULU), a Director on the Board of NUS Services Limited, and then Chief Executive at Leeds University Union. When I arrived at Leeds it would be fair to describe it as a sleeping giant – it was a very large Union but no-one outside of Leeds knew anything about it. I wanted to see that changed and along with many other people helped to develop the Union Leeds is today. I’ve also sat on a number of Boards including the national mental health charity – Mind.
So what do I do now? Well I’m still a Chief Executive, but I lead a very different organisation – PSS (Person Shaped Support). At PSS, it’s our job to help people change their lives for the better– whether that’s through empowering communities, strengthening families, helping people to look after their health and wellbeing or creating safe and happy homes. For us, it’s all about the people who use our services. Everything we do is shaped by them and their experiences. PSS has been around for almost 100 years and, in that time, we’ve collected an awful lot of experience. We’ve seen things come and go and we’ve rode the waves of change to get where we are now – resilient, knowledgeable and ready to keep on going.
So how did working in Students’ Unions help me with my change of career? I certainly developed political nous. I don’t believe you can operate effectively in Unions without having this – particularly in more activist based Unions such as Leeds. PSS works in the world of health and social care so whilst we don’t have activists as such, we do deal with local councils, so knowing how to operate politically (with a small p) is definitely helpful.
I also learnt about working with partners. Whilst the Unions I led worked with many different partners the main one was always the respective university. Although the union was separate to the University, we were under no illusion as to their importance. Nowadays I work with very many different partners – numerous local authorities, various NHS bodies and a number of private sector providers. The lessons I learnt when in Unions have stood me in good stead.
I truly believe that Leeds became a stronger Students’ Union because it started to listen to the voice of students, rather than just those who shouted the loudest. Here at PSS we put a great deal of effort into listening to what people want from our services and involving them in design and delivery – as our client base is very wide that takes effort, but my time in Students’ Unions showed me it’s worth the investment.
Without a doubt my time in students’ unions stood me in good stead – it also gave me a husband!