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In with the new

One officer team is on the home straight, another is starting their warmup.

Without an excellent induction, you risk a bumpy transition — and there’s a lot at stake.

The importance of induction

Think of it as insurance. Over the past year, even the smallest of students’ unions will have spent £50,000 on their officers and staff, as they work to deliver their strategy. The biggest ones will have spent well over a million on their elected officers and student-facing teams alone. That’s a huge investment and it will be repeated year on year. Are you making progress towards your long-term goals, or are you rolling the rock up the hill and letting it fall back down every summer?

Are you doing everything you can to protect this investment on behalf of your members?

Losing key people is dangerous. In any other organisation, losing the entire leadership team at the same time would be a five-alarm crisis, one that keeps the risk team awake at night in cold sweats. For students’ unions, it’s just another July. But just because it’s normal, doesn’t mean that everything will be OK.

Projects fallen through cracks, careful stakeholder management undone, hard-won knowledge evaporated — the list of work-destroying consequences of an inadequate induction is endless. Make sure you’re protecting the value of all that work through a clear and well-managed induction plan.

It’s up to staff to prepare for this by generating an induction plan that tackles all of the downsides of staff/officer turnover head-on. The following principles will put you on the right path.

(Note: This doesn’t include handover, the one-to-one exchange of knowledge/projects/etc from each outgoing officer to their successor. That’s a very important aspect of induction — big enough for a future article of its own).

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There should be a single person with clear and explicit responsibility for overseeing the induction process.

Ideally a senior member of staff with the knowledge and arm-twisting experience needed to bring together a complex plan that spans the whole union.

This individual should also have the clear backing of the outgoing officers, the managing director, and every senior member of staff. Induction is not a task that some managers or departments can duck out of, no matter how much they want to. Do what you need to do to make sure everyone across the organisation understands its importance, and is pulling their weight accordingly.

You won’t pull together a decent induction by simply allocating two-hour slots to each team leader.

That’s only going to make your colleagues see it as an imposition on their time, rather than what it actually is: an opportunity for every single manager to start the year off right.

Don’t ask team leaders what training they will give. Ask them what they want their team to achieve next year..

If you ask managers what they want to do for induction this year, you’re not going to spark much creative thinking; they might just dust off some old training and get back to their current priorities.

Frame the induction as an opportunity to achieve more next year than this year. If you ask them:

  • What could have been better about last year’s induction?
  • What do you wish the current officers knew/did/led earlier this year?
  • If you could induct the relevant officers in any way and any timeframe, what would it be?

Poke your colleagues right in the imagination and see what they come up with. Then ask them to bid for time in your induction calendar — however much or as little as they want.

If they want thirty minutes rather than two hours, do it. Otherwise you’re just wasting ninety minutes of everyone’s time being somewhere they don’t want to be. If they want four hours spread across two days to do something really exciting and new, great.

Tell people what to think and when to think it

Lots of ‘new starts’ will take place within a few weeks of each other — new officers, a new academic year, a new financial year, perhaps a new strategy or a new operational plan.

Summers are not quiet times in students’ unions and your staff may be tired and in need of their summer holidays. That means they’re receptive to a well-delivered message of renewal and optimism — capitalise on that.

Pick a day — 1 July, 1 Aug, 15 Aug, any day that works for you — and tell everyone that’s when the New begins and the Old is consigned to history.

A consistent, optimistic message about the coming year, that references clear strategic goals and recognises in advance the hard work people will put in, will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Making use of the different internal communications buttons and levers you have, press home this message of renewal as hard as you can. If you can mark it with a celebration — cakes, a drinks reception, a staff/officer mingle — then don’t turn that opportunity down.

There’s a few more subtle things you can do to foster a ‘fresh start’ feeling in the office. Block off an afternoon for everyone to clear up their desks and get the common spaces tidied up in a group effort — hire a disposal company that will take away anything to make this easy. Tear down all the old posters, wipe off all the whiteboards, give everyone fresh copies of the strategy and other key documents.

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Create new relationships

Induction doesn’t just have to be for your new sabbatical officers. There’s probably a lot of crossover with how you welcome and induct new staff, so if there’s someone starting at around the same time, consider inviting them to most or all of the sessions.

A bigger change would be to invite part-time officers to some or all of the induction, if they are available. The full-time officers could benefit hugely from earlier contact with their closest volunteers in a formative environment. But you could go wider than that. Why not ask key university staff to bid for time as well — or even local community figures?

Connect everything to your strategy and values

The entire induction plan, and the process of creating it, should be couched in the language of your organisational strategy and your values. This is not only good messaging discipline, but an effective frame through which contributors can create their learning points and content.

Your strategy and values should not just be the subject of one of the sessions, but a clear influence on the whole project.

Don’t take ¯_(ツ)_/¯ for an answer

You might run into some bumps on the way. Some staff might be used to giving the same training every year, and some outgoing officers might be less than keen to dedicate their full energy into an effective handover and induction.

Well, tough for them. Looking back at the first point, the person organising the induction needs to have clear authority and backing to shake things up for the organisation’s sake. So it’s time to get firm with reluctant participants. Support them with clear explanations of what you expect from them — learning points, bids for time, reflections on what can be improved on previous years — but don’t let anyone wait out the clock on this one. It’s too important.

Good luck!

Andrew Keenan