What Makes a Strategic Plan “Strategic”?

Findings from RHB’s Analysis of 108 Active Strategic Plans Across Higher Education

Your higher education institution probably has a strategic plan. What goals and ideals does that plan contain? What actions can you take to support the plan? What—and who—do you think strategic plans are for, anyway?

If you do not have an easy answer to those questions, you are not alone.

As frequent readers of these plans for our own work, we felt that plans often did not present or reflect the best scenes in institutional stories, nor did plans often map clear directions for where an institution should go and how to tell when it arrived.

In an effort to better understand the dynamics and components of strategic plans across higher ed, we undertook a detailed study of more than 100 active strategic plans. The study endeavored to capture a current plan from one private and one public four-year institution in each state, whenever possible. The instability of 2020 was a further driver for this research. We wanted to know whether these plans lent stability and guidance during the historic and fast-moving challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the spreading movement for social justice.

The plans we gathered raised some provocative questions:

  • What are strategic plans for, and who are they for?
  • What does it mean to be “strategic”?
  • Why is the process so complex? Does it have to be?
  • Amidst such rapid change, how relevant can a plan truly be?

We selected 16 plans ( of the 108 ) containing some of the most strategic tendencies and then conducted interviews with presidents of many of those institutions.

As a result, we learned about how truly strategic plans differ from the rest. We heard from our interviewees about how they led with authenticity and discernment to create inclusive opportunities to craft plans that inspire hope, excitement and action—even during massive instability.

This executive summary is designed to introduce participants in strategic planning processes to important concepts and actions that lead to effective and collaborative strategic plans. Download your copy so you are prepared to play your part in drawing the map for your institution’s journey toward greater success and stability.

By downloading the executive summary, you’ll also be signed up to receive the forthcoming full volume report, What Makes a Strategic Plan ‘Strategic’?, written for presidents, executive cabinets and others who will be in leadership positions during a strategic planning process. This book-length discussion will give you the confidence to engage in a productive, inclusive process that sets your institution on trajectory for stability and growth over the long term.


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Rob Zinkan

Rob is the Vice President for Marketing Leadership at RHB.