The beating heart: student governors

beating-heart sept13

By Dr Mark Pegg

I have been asked to speak to student governors about why the Leadership Foundation needs to listen to the agenda set by emerging student leaders and how we need to develop leadership skills for careers beyond the university boardroom.
I was delighted to be asked. I am a believer. Student governors make a real difference. At several levels – big picture thinking, where students influence university strategic decision-making, at the practical day to day learning about leading complex organisations and through significant early exposure to personal leadership development – all with long term benefits.

I was a president of a student union and student governor myself many years ago. It was a small college, but the principles hold good, and I still use learning from the experience pretty much every day. When I was at university we had a voice, but no real power. If lecturers were indifferent (sadly many were) the response was: ‘tough, like it our lump it’. If we did not like the rise in fees in a time of great inflation we went on rent strike, did a demo and occupied the university offices. We developed as political animals, but actually had zero influence in corridors of power or any decisive impact on decision-making.

Today, at the strategic level, the balance of power has clearly shifted in favour of students. With the NSS, student loans, overseas students, increased competition for students, league tables, it is obvious universities need to contract with students. To hear and heed the student voice. They need a responsible, empowered student representative body, one they listen to, respond to and incorporate the thinking in to decisions. Learning for student governors here is invariably around complexity faced by leaders, where decisions are ambiguous and difficult. To progress issues where student governors have a lot to offer – such as efficiency, sustainability, employability and diversity – is often hard. To turn discussion into decisions and then into action and achievement is never clear cut.

Learning from the best leaders, those who take this on, bring people with them and make it happen is gold dust. It is also a two way process. Students are more than  consumers; they are part of the body politic of a functioning university, part of the beating heart. It’s a commonplace observation that students should provide some reverse mentoring and inform senior decision making on the digital future – resources, investment and working practices on social networks, mobile learning and the learning space students need.

At the practical level, you learn so much about administrative complexity, how culture eats strategy for breakfast, the illusion that pulling a lever in the boardroom is necessarily connected to anything moving or more importantly, moving in the direction you want it to go.

I was fortunate to attend meetings held by a very good chair. At meetings I chair, I use this approach as my baseline and endeavour to live up to the standards he set. I learned about organisational dynamics and the politics amongst the members of the Governing Body, about facing up to difficult issues (what happens when you don’t) and the challenging business of negotiating student fees and rents.

Personal learning about leadership helped me throughout my career. I had formed a mental picture of what was needed. It helped me get a job as executive assistant to the chairman of a large corporation and to grasp quickly the challenging scope of the job and what doing it well looked like. As a CEO today, I still call on deeply etched memories of sitting on a Governing Body in leading my own organisation and, completing the circle, in the Governing Body I sit on today.

Being a student governor can seriously affect your life. Never lose the learning as your career progresses, stop every now and then to reflect on what you have seen and heard – the good, the bad and the indifferent – and make a mental note to use it to become the very best leader you can be.

Dr Mark Pegg is the chief executive of the Leadership Programme. The annual student governor seminar attracts almost 90 students from around the UK and is the first event of the 2013-14 leadership development year.