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KCLSU: a strategy journey

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This interview with Steve Vaid, Chief Executive of King's College London Students' Union (KCLSU), outlines their exciting and involving approach to strategy development.

Where did your strategy journey start?

I started my role with KCLSU in July 2006, and it was my first job as a chief exec. I’d learnt from my experience with other organisations that a strategy will only work if it’s owned by all staff, trustees and beneficiaries. It needs to be alive, so this was the backdrop at the start..

I had a 100-day plan when I joined – it was very simple. It was about talking to as many people as I could – staff and students - getting their views and doing some analysis. I talked to each of the 12 trustees, 40 full-time staff, and key funders. Plus as many of the students as I could (we get 4,000 new ones each year; 20,000 in total).

I knew I couldn’t just arrive and implement a new strategy – we needed some breathing space, and from the research I did we were able to develop a forward plan – aimed at putting some correctional operational actions in place. To buy us some time. To enable us to create a momentum for the future.

It was an 18-month plan tackling the infrastructure; creating an organisation that had the basics in place to flourish. It didn’t look at all at the needs of our beneficiaries and was purposely internally focused and addressed things such as structure, reward and recognition, IT, learning and development, SORP and SOFA.

We knew that in parallel with implementing the forward plan, we could develop the longer term strategic plan.

How did you go about developing the strategic plan?

We wanted to create a 3-5 year plan ready for launch in July 2008, just as the forward plan was ending. We decided to employ a top down – ‘hothouse’ – and bottom up – ‘grassroots’ – approach. This combined the need for direction from the top, with the need for ownership and involvement from frontline staff and input from our students.

Explain how the hothouse and grassroots approach worked

Well, the hothouse involved me, the SMT and the board thinking about the first page of the strategic plan: our vision and our key aims for the next three to five years. We gave ourselves six months to do it. The board is made up of eight students so our beneficiaries were in the discussions right from the start. The rest of the board is made up of four non-students who bring professional expertise, supported by me and the SMT.

We made the mistake of thinking we could do the vision by committee. You can’t! Fortunately we have a marketing expert on the board and he helped us draft the vision in a sentence. We had looked at a wide variety and knew what we wanted. We captured in one sentence what we are about:

We strive for a world in which every King’s student realises his or her hopes and dreams and fulfils their potential as a student and a citizen.

We then had to tackle the task of translating the vision into some key aims for the next five years. We ended up with aims covering four key areas; the wordy sentences we produced again had to be boiled down into something punchy:

  • ensuring that every student voice is heard
  • providing pro-active student support and advice
  • making informal learning a part of everyday student life
  • championing the role of students in society.

And where did the grassroots come in?

Once we had the four aims we decided on two kinds of inputs, from staff and from students.  

For staff, we identified three champions from the frontline teams (those working day to day with students). They were people we thought could articulate complex ideas and who had passion for our work. We gave them a grid with the aims and asked them to explore all front line services with the rest of the staff group, coming up with ways that all departments could meet the aims over the next 3-5 years.

We repeated the exercise with student staff (temporary staff who are also students). Then again with the SMT. It produced a lot of research. We wrapped out heads in cold towels and started to analyse it all!

What emerged were some key themes:  

  • there was more unmet demand than we realised
  • we didn’t know enough, so research and analysis would be key
  • our students are generation Y and their tie with the virtual world is very strong
  • we had to listen more (this was the first time we’d asked).

All of this suggested that the strategy would have to be emergent, and would come out as we learnt more and built capacity. We could map out year one of the strategy from what staff and students had told us with confidence, but thereafter we would need to wait and learn from what emerged.

We took this back to the board with a view that two things now needed to be decided: why we exist and how we want to work.  This resulted in a really interesting philosophical debate about our culture. The words we were using (words like democracy for example) meant little to our students. We realised that we were going to have to change our culture through our strategy. We were too introspective; we had to become more externally focused, risk-taking and innovative.

So you looked at vision and aims, then at mission, and realised you needed to do work on the culture. What came next?

We realised that we needed to create one concerted picture across the organisation, one view, owned by staff through their involvement. We developed a strategy tree (PPT) and took it out to staff via a series of workshops. We said ‘this is what you’ve told us. Year one is clear. We will form year two and three once we have learnt from year one’.

We got them to question and test out the final ideas, as well as gain a deeper understanding.  Eighty-two per cent of them said in a later survey that they felt that they had actively contributed to the development of the strategy.

We then ran a staff development day to develop a new set of values. We created a ‘Top Gear'-type Cool Wall.  Cool (well, sub zero) on the left and Not Cool on the right. We had a range of verbs to describe KCLSU and staff had to place the verbs on the Cool Wall.

We identified six to form a value set (PPT), and our HR team turned these into a set of competencies and related behaviours. The idea is that we appeal to minds with the aims and to hearts with the values.

So what about implementation?

We’ve developed a one-year operating plan (PDF) for the first year of the strategy – it’s like a zero-based budget. In a format everyone can own – we are all appraised against it. It was cascaded by line managers, who were briefed on how to present it. It’s also on the website.

There are initiatives for each of the aims in year one, with the person responsible and the timeframe.  We are able to say very clearly where we want to be by the end of the year, and are in the process of developing a scorecard to help us track progress.

What about your external stakeholders, how were they involved?

We ran three  expositions – roadshows really – and invited funders in to hear us articulate the first phase. We had stalls down the side of a large room – each stall took a different aim – and expanded on it. Brochures, plans, the conceptual model, any kit (or artefacts) we could produce to illustrate what we planned to do. We gave them a presentation of the strategy and the impact we planned to have.

For students, as well as putting the plans online, we also made a big impact at the Welcome Fair (the first week of the new academic year). The previous year we had 4,000 students participating in 14 events – this year we got 14,500 students at 65 events. It really showed the strategy in action.

So six months into the new strategy, how’s it going?

Well, just to show that even when you work really hard to get ownership and involvement at all levels, things can still blow you off course, we are just recovering from being blown!You can’t take your eye off the ball – and that’s exactly what happened.

Unfortunately, I became focused on an unexpected external challenge at the same time as two of our projects encountered a problem. Progress halted and we’ve only just pulled ourselves back on track. In fact, we probably have lost the momentum for the first quarter.

Fortunately we’ve grabbed hold of the problems and have put management controls and reporting in place to alert us of such things sooner should they happen again. It just shows that we are always learning and that you can’t let go of things; you need to be constantly nurturing, reinforcing, engaging and pushing until the strategy is embedded.

We’re going to have a relaunch for the last six months of year 1 – reinforcing our focus for the next six months, based on an interim review of progress. And I’m going to get the help of another strategist to help me implement and reinforce the strategy across the organisation. Whatever happens our four aims will hold true and we have a concrete set of deliverables that everyone believes in to perform against.

(Help with reading PDFs - Adobe conversion tool is a free way to convert PDFs to web pages so you can read them online.)

Page last edited Jun 26, 2017

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