The Hot Seat: Denis Shukur (UEL Students’ Union)

Monday 31-10-2016 - 13:22

Ahead of our second Black Leaders Conference this December, we spoke to Denis Shukur about his career path into leadership - from his early days as the "teenage rebel" son of a Labour party councillor through to his current role as Chief Executive at UELSU.

Tell us about your transition and journey into a leadership role.

Being the son of an activist who eventually became the deputy leader of the Labour party of our local council, the virtues of leadership were something forcefully instilled in me from a young age. But as any teenage rebel who revolted against the will of their parents, I did not pay much attention to it and on the contrary tried to be different.

As much as I tried to stay away from it, the more it surfaced in the opportunities that I encountered - the first being the volunteer role of a community advocate for an initiative called Tolerance and Diversity where I worked on fostering better community cohesion between the different communities in Tower Hamlets.

This gave me the confidence of knowing anything is possible as long as you believe in yourself and believe in what you are doing. It taught me three key lessons, which were the importance of; understanding people, respecting people and empowering people.

This belief was tested when I ran to be Vice President of my students’ union, which luckily for me resulted in getting elected. However, the most important transitional point was when I was internally promoted to be Deputy CEO of Goldsmiths Students’ Union - a position which gave me the scope to lead on multiple functions from a strategic viewpoint and set the direction of the union as a part of a Senior Management Team.

On reflection, it was the most important transitional point; as it tested me greatly in dealing with frustrations such overcoming the sense of not being listened to, while seeing colleagues with similar ideas being praised. It taught me the lesson of understanding that the main point of leadership is to ensure outcomes are gained and the core realisation of not having to be the person to do all the work needed.  

An important part of the transition was the support that I got from my manager in overcoming these challenges and frustrations and I am really grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to take on the role, as it has allowed me to be where I am today.

While there are almost 600 students’ unions across the UK, you’re one of a handful of Black chief executives working in the movement. What needs to happen to address this imbalance?

It is quite worrying to see the blatant pyramid structure where there is a tendency for Black staff members to be a larger cohort in bottom tier jobs, while the number of Black professionals shrink when you move up the tiers.

Universities and union board trustees/governors really need to ask themselves what they are doing to address this issue and what measures they are willing to put in place to address any imbalance they have.

One of which is taking an active step to diversify their boards and senior management teams (SMT). Furthermore, there needs to be a growth in willingness and understanding of how diversity at the top echelons of an organisation assists with adding values, two examples that I can easily name are; Cultural Value - which to me has allowed our Union to see issues from different cultural practices as compared to a conventional Eurocentric linear pathway. This in return has increased our engagement with our Black students. Secondly is monetary returns; Vivian Hunt in her recent publication ‘Why Diversity Matters’ shows findings that conclude with the statement that organisations with a diverse board/SMT outperform organisations that tend to have a homogeneous board.

Thus a diverse team makes cultural and monetary sense!

What work is UEL Students’ Union doing around Black representation amongst both staff and officers?

UELSU has one of the largest Black staff ratios within the SU sector. There are four senior managers including myself and 50 per cent of the union’s SMT are Black. Two thirds of the UELSUs permanent staff members also identify as Black.

As an initiative, we are looking to implement unconscious bias as compulsory training for all UELSU staff members as to ensure that we lead by example.

It’s often said that Black professionals have to work ‘twice as hard’ than their counterparts to break through the glass ceiling and become senior leaders in most industries. Do you agree with this?

Although, I don’t agree with the notion that we have to work twice as hard, from experience I have realised that Black staff members need to work smarter and understand the rules and norms of progression, which is consistent hard work, networking and upscaling workload (not doing more of what you would normally do, but participating in the tasks of your managers and seniors).

I believe the notion of working twice as hard comes from the need to demonstrate competence and excellence over a longer period of time in contrast to their counterparts, unfortunately this is something that I have noticed to be case. But overall, being smart pays dividends.

What advice would you give to an aspiring Black leader?

14 months has passed since I entered the role of a CEO at the University of East London Students’ Union and upon reflection, I would say to any young aspiring black leader - follow these five points:

  • Mentorship: the wisdom gained from my mentors have been invaluable and has allowed me to see matters on a more universal level then on a granular level. As well as allowing me to lean upon their experience for situations that I have not had any significant dealings with, which in turn has allowed me to make better informed decisions. The positive of this has been the ability to grow my credibility as well as acquiring a greater sense of professionalism amongst my peers.
  • Networking: making connections and getting people to buy into the purpose of the students’ union helped me gain many quick wins as well as lay the foundations for bigger wins for our students, not to mention opening up a pool of talent that the union can benefit from in the future.  
  • Shortcomings: realising that I don’t need to be an expert in all areas has allowed me to focus on my weakness and enabled me to shape the organisation in a way that allows us to recruit experts (who are far better than me) in areas that the union needs to improve upon.
  • Utilisation: Your education should not be wasted and kept in the realm of theory, I still use the lessons I learnt as a Geography and Politics student today - from scrutinising methodologies in our research with the intention of increasing the credibility of reports submitted to knowing the importance of good written and verbal communication.
  • Persevere: Don’t get dismayed by not achieving your goals the first time round, determination coupled with patience (perseverance) will eventually get you there.

We’re hosting our second ever Black Leaders Conference next month - why are you attending the conference and why would you encourage others to attend?

Having come to the second trimester of my professional working career, I want to start giving back to the Black community by providing a ladder down and supporting young Black professionals in overcoming barriers they might face in achieving their goals.

The Black leaders conference gives me the opportunity to do that as well as network with people that I believe would have shared similar experiences and struggles to myself.  

Can you sum up your career in the student movement and/or as a Black leader in three words?

Perseverance, adaptability, empowering.

Are you a Black officer or staff member looking to build networks and shape your career path into leadership? Denis Shukur will be among many more peers from the student movement attending NUS' second-ever Black Leaders Conference, which takes place in London on Monday 5 December. For more information, and to register,click here.    


Black, Features, Interviews, Union Development

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