Supporting outgoing elected officers

May and June are always a vulnerable period for outgoing officers. Having spent the last couple of months with the long shadow of their successor looming over them, outgoing officers naturally have to deal with a mixture of competing emotions.

As a former officer in an SU, I remember the time well: thinking that the person taking over from me would be terrible compared to how obviously great I was, then having to eat both my words and a fat slab of humble pie when they easily outstripped my meagre achievements. Ever since then, I’ve kept myself alert to the type of wrongheaded thinking that I was guilty of so that as an SU staff member, and now as a university leader, I can best support both outgoing and incoming teams.

I was involved in SUs for a long time, and as the years rolled by I noticed some of distinct character types that emerge as sabbaticals look towards the exit signs (or furiously ignore them as the case may be). By identifying these behaviours, we can ensure that officers leave with dignity, and that you are not left picking up the pieces of a disruptive exit.

The Vacationer

From the moment that their successor has been elected, there is a certain mentality that will see their job as over. In football this is sometimes called “playing in flip-flops” – the implication being that whilst physically the player is on the pitch, mentally they are already on the beach because they feel there is nothing left to play for. Often, but not always, linked to a focus on their career post-office, vacationing can appear gradually across the last months or suddenly and all at once as they check out from their responsibilities.

What you can do to help them

  • Appeal to their vanity by getting them to think about “what their legacy is” – do they want to be the officer who was known for checking out and not getting stuff done in their last few months, leaving a mess for their successor to clean up?
  • Be realistic – if there is a project that you know they find difficult or disinteresting, accept that it’s not going to happen in their final months. Instead, focus them on the tasks that they really like doing or which naturally fit their specific skill set. At this point, it can be less about portfolio and more about practicality.
  • Manage the expectations of others – the Vacationer is going to annoy the people they work with. Their peers, the students they support, the staff members they work with – everyone is likely to spot the reduction in effort and commitment, with the associated frustration that brings.
  • Keep their eyes on the prize – if there is something still to play for (a major project close to completion or similar), keep emphasising this and reminding them of the role that they have to play – and if it works as an emotional trigger, how great that project would look on their CV!

The Accelerator

The diametric opposite of the Vacationer, Accelerators see the exit coming and it fills them with dread. They see all of the things that are left to do and they attempt to cram as much as they possibly can into every single hour of the time that they have left. Both inside and outside of their portfolios, Accelerators will challenge those they work with by both intentionally and unintentionally criticising their output or quality of work. However, whilst this can at times look like they really hate everything, it comes from a place of love and concern for the SU. Like a primary school boy running up to a girl in playground, hitting her on the arm and then running away, theirs is a love that they find difficult to express in other terms.

What you can do to help them

  • Emphasise their achievements – Show them what they have achieved already in their role. Celebrate those successes with them. Acceleration often comes from a place of vulnerability, where the officer feels that they haven’t achieved enough in their role to see it as successful.
  • Place them where they can be most useful – Accelerators can be either hugely productive or hugely disruptive for organisations. Get the greatest benefit out of them by harnessing their energy to advance those projects that need the greater input of enthusiasm. As with Vacationers, the portfolio is less important than production so it’s good to allow them to cross into territory that would ordinarily be seen as someone else’s (with that person’s agreement obviously.)
  • Be clear about what is and what isn’t achievable – I’ve seen great officers set themselves ridiculous personal challenges in the dying months of their regimes by picking problems or issues which are too complex or simply too big to be solved in the limited time available. This is no criticism of their personal skill, just the realistic acknowledgement of what can and can’t be achieved in the time available.
  • Be prepared to support the people they annoy – Accelerators create additional tension, both within and outside of your organisation. Make sure that you’ve put aside plenty of time in your calendar to meet with those people that the accelerator has exasperated so that you can allow them to vent that frustration and rebalance those relationships.

The Mandater

Sometimes but not always linked to the Accelerator, the Mandater has nothing to do with people but instead believes they can trump human nature through the use of the democratic systems at their disposal. A marked increase in interest in policy creation is a key indication of this trait, as the outgoing officer attempts to create document after document that will ensure that their successor MUST complete the work that they themselves either could not start or could not finish.

What you can do to help them

  • Focus them on their relationship with their successor – mandating often comes from the simple fact that they do not trust (and sometimes simply do not like) the person who is taking over from them. Rather than ploughing hours into creating policy documents, get them to spend that time getting to know the person who is taking over from them. An understanding of who that person actually is rather than their stereotyped perception of the individual can be hugely enlightening to them as well as dampening their fears.
  • Plan project continuation with them – where appropriate, show how their ideas are built into the ongoing work of the organisation, either through organisational planning or through the work plans of individual staff members. Get them to work with those people directly to share their thoughts so that they can see that their legacy won’t simple crumble the moment they walk out the front door of the SU building.
  • Manage the relationships around them – if they are intent on creating policy and cannot be stopped, ensure that those around that policy creation (both full time and part time officers, and democratic staff if you have them) understand how vital (or not) that policy is. Like with Accelerators and Vacationers, Mandaters can be incredibly helpful in pushing forward things that have been struggling to happen for some time. By getting others to focus on what is productive rather than disruptive, you can help the Mandater make actual, useful change rather than just greater bureaucracy and more dead trees.

The Steady Away

The dream. The passing of elections and the creation of a successor for them does nothing to their being as they continue to work in a calm and productive manner until the end of their time in office.

What you can do to help them

  • Nothing different to what you’ve done before – either you have already been supporting them effectively to this point, or you’ve not needed to because they are in fact, a figment of your imagination.

What next?

This is just a snapshot and I’m sure others who’ve worked with officers will be able to identify some other distinctive character types. Do use the comments function below to build on, challenge or refine some of the ideas.

And remember, none of this will be dealt with in isolation. It’s likely that you’ll have a team of officers who are each exhibiting different behavioural types all at the same time. Or maybe you’ve lucked out and got a complete team of 2nd Year sabbs – they are never a problem!

The main point is, as with all human beings, if are to best support them, we have to be able to empathise with what they are going through. That way we can ensure they get the best out of their last days with their SU and leave with that positive, happy sparkly glow we want all of our former officers to have.

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