How do you go from ‘just’ a clerk to a great clerk?

26 Sep 2022, 6:00

Governance professionals like clerks aren’t there to set the strategic direction of a college. But they can still create ripples of change, writes Lisa Farnhill

The role of a clerk was described as an “unseen strategic leader” in a paper by the Further Education Trust for Leadership.

In other words, the clerk might have a quiet yet forceful alternative standpoint. This includes influencing perspectives and challenge around equality, diversity and inclusion.

Although my perspective isn’t entirely unique, perhaps my experiences are.

I have witnessed and suffered acts of devastating inequality. I have stood up for myself, stood in alliance with marginalised co-workers, risked my own career progression and educated myself and my children about what is right and wrong. But I haven’t always got it right.

I’ve backed down, admitted defeat, and walked away when the fight was too fierce and personal losses too great.

The erosion of confidence when faced with an unwinnable and unjust fight remains a large chip on my small shoulder.

As a clerk, I’m responsible for advising the governing board and ensuring compliance with regulatory and statutory requirements.

I guide, steer, advise, and yes, I carry out administrative tasks, but overall, my role is strategic.  

This enables my pursuit of what sometimes feels like a one-woman mission to right society’s wrongs.

This for me is when governance must go beyond compliance. My position enables me to empower change.

However, seeds of doubt creep in. Because as “just” the clerk, I have no vote, I don’t write or approve the policies, “set the strategic direction” or “determine the educational character and mission of the college”.

So how do I ensure I can have a positive influence in my work?

This is where I don’t give up.

I recall one occasion in a board meeting where a staffing report was challenged. The discussion was: “Our workforce isn’t overly diverse. How does this compare to our student cohort and community? Is our staff body representative?”

The response was an evidence-based assurance that our workforce reflects our student cohort and local population.

So the challenge ended.

But was this enough? I felt we could go further to champion diversity, including neurodiversity.

As a college, we’re a beacon of the local community and have the most supportive, inclusive college culture.

How could we ensure this seeped out into our community, enabling us to be the root of change for our town?  I thought wider.

Why was our community not diverse? Were we looking at this backwards? Could we work towards our community reflecting our college diversity rather than us reflecting what is already there (or not there)?

There was also a clear business case. Governance studies have proven diversity improves productivity and feeling included ensures students enrol and stay.

We weren’t thinking wide enough.

I was left conflicted. Pleased there was challenge, disappointed there wasn’t more, yet knowing it is my place to guide and not to challenge. Knowing I can’t change the world.

I was left conflicted

I didn’t give up. I decided if I thought there was more the college could do, there was more I could do, but perhaps not alone.

As the Association of College’s director of diversity, Jeff Greenidge knows legislation, history, trends, best practice, and how to deliver a message with impact.

Additionally, Jeff is chair of a governing board in a non-diverse town, and knows first-hand how to use college governance as the beacon of change.

Jeff listened, shared ideas, and offered support. He embedded my message of endless possibilities for positive change into an engaging and thought-provoking session for our governors. I felt proud again.

I had done what I was there to – influenced and facilitated. I had been a great clerk, not ‘just’ a clerk. With a supportive, responsive board, I felt empowered again.

I also then delivered our message to the AOC CPD week. Jeff knew that I wanted to influence change, and he supported me to do it.

In turn, attendees felt empowered to begin their own ripples of change.

So can you start your own ripple and be the beacon of change? To build an inclusive future for everyone, we need to ensure everyone knows that they are not “just” anything.

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