The Next Best Thing

I’m guessing you don’t need one more person telling you how to manage through the COVID-19 pandemic or the economic downturn. I’m also guessing you’re close to your wit’s end wondering exactly what to do right now. The unknowns may be keeping you up at night. The knowns may be upsetting your stomach.

My inbox is flooded with people who suggest they know what’s best for my business right now. Very few of them know my business well enough to offer real solutions, though I’m finding nuggets of helpful ideas and counsel sprinkled about. Those kernels of wisdom are helping me navigate through my current perplexity to imagine life after all this complexity. In that spirit, here are five kernels I’d like to believe could be useful to you right now.

  1. Keep your eyes open. As much as you’d rather nap, this is no time to sleep at the wheel. New information seems to emerge every hour that can shape your decisions. That requires a level of timely responsiveness that feels otherworldly. We’ve all made choices with inadequate information; we’ve twisted and turned Read everything you can from as many sources as you can. Pay attention to what’s happening outside higher education. Look beyond trusted peers. Seek input from business and industry, healthcare, public service, retail and the full array of other arenas that are coping with conflict. Step outside your regular news sources to hear different perspectives even if it’s painful.
  2. Imagine voraciously. I’m preaching to myself here. Now is the best time to free your creativity. Consider possibilities you never thought realistic. Create mental pictures of how life could be in 2021 if you make all the right decisions now. Determine to be optimistic. If there’s an upside to disaster, it’s the window of potential it brings about. Fresh thinking, new solutions and unfiltered ideas can flourish in an environment tilled by disruption. This is no time to hold back. How are you planning to succeed? What’s your next best thing?
  3. Don’t cut off your nose. It’s tempting to call some expenditures superfluous that simply are not. Records show that companies who maintain or increase marketing investments during difficult times rise to the forefront more quickly when the economy improves. As you are trying to intelligently budget for the coming year(s), remind yourself that your investment in areas like sales (recruitment and donor acquisition) and marketing (teeing up for sales) are paramount to ensure your sustainability and to guarantee you’ll have ability to regain your strength. Be wise about any decision to make “equal” reductions across your campus. Not everything on your campus has equal weight of importance right now. Your customers and constituents are evidence of the significance of your need to invest in your efforts to woo and communicate well.
  4. Keep spirits bright. Encourage. Uplift. Celebrate what you can. But tell the truth. Be honest about the challenges without wearing your anxieties on your forehead. This summer your enrollment numbers may bounce all over the place. What you could count on in the past, you can’t now. Indicators are faulty and variables are countless. Be truthful about that. This week’s promise may be next week’s sad news. Be cautious with what and how you “share.” One of our watchwords lately is “clarity is kind.”
  5. Prepare for extreme pivots. I’ve been watching a Smithsonian documentary series called America in Color that presents a history of the US with film footage that has been digitized and colorized. What I’ve found fascinating in the storytelling is the both the repetition of disaster we’ve faced as a country and the resiliency we muster to get back on our feet. In most circumstances, what seems to rescue us is our ability to pivot. From wartime refitting of manufacturing plants to New Deal employment strategies, the ability to change course with extreme disruption always seems to coincide with recovery. No doubt, opportunities will arise from these concurrent disasters we’re facing now. In the last recession, student populations burgeoned; for-profits especially jumped at the occasion. Given the dramatic unemployment increases we are experiencing, we can expect that people will return to school for more education or retooling to fill newly created jobs. You may not see how current events will positively influence your institution. See point 2 above. The entire country has had to make friends with technology to remain connected in a time of mandated shelter. How will you adapt to this new widespread skillset? Millions are without employment and for some that will be permanent as old jobs are made obsolete. How will you help students prepare for a very different future? We’ll come out of this disaster a different country in many ways. How will your institution help shape that difference?

Sometimes we think of “the next best thing” as something less than “the best thing.” We think it’s okay, but not great. It’ll do. But what if we thought about that common phrase in different light? What if we could imagine that the best thing is coming next? That we could create the next best thing. Isn’t that the purpose of higher education? To learn how to create? To discover new knowledge? To explore new territory? To uncover possibility? Let’s embrace our missions to serve students to the best our abilities equipping them to carve a new path and a new world on the other side of disaster. Let’s do the next best thing. Better yet, let’s do the next right thing.

Maybe you have granddaughters who delight at the Frozen movies. Maybe you’ve heard these relevant lyrics to Next Right Thing from Frozen 2:

I’ve seen dark before, but not like this

This is cold, this is empty, this is numb

The life I knew is over, the lights are out

Hello, darkness, I’m ready to succumb

I follow you around, I always have

But you’ve gone to a place I cannot find

This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down

But a tiny voice whispers in my mind

You are lost, hope is gone

But you must go on

And do the next right thing

Can there be a day beyond this night?

I don’t know anymore what is true

I can’t find my direction, I’m all alone

The only star that guided me was you

How to rise from the floor?

But it’s not you I’m rising for

Just do the next right thing

Take a step, step again

It is all that I can to do

The next right thing

I won’t look too far ahead

It’s too much for me to take

But break…

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.