Transcript: Modern Strategic Planning: Exemplars and Emerging Themes

On September 27, Aimee Hosemann and Rob Zinkan hosted a webinar about RHB’s latest strategic planning research. They cover the first two installments from a three-installment research report: Leadership Functions of Higher Ed Strategic Planning in 2023 and 54 Newly Launched Plans. A recording of the webinar is also available.

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Aimee Hosemann

Alright, thanks everybody so much for joining us today as we’re going to talk about some updates to research that we started in 2020 on higher ed strategic planning. And we’ve got some really refreshing things to share with you, some updates. We’ve got some new things that are happening in strategic planning since then and we’re so happy to have you all with us today. And I’m Dr. Aimee Hosemann. I am RHB’s director of qualitative research. I’m trained as a sociocultural and linguistic anthropologist and I’m a former faculty member at institutions as large as UT Austin and as small as Colorado College. And I’ve been with the firm for about three-and-a-half years.

Rob Zinkan

Thanks, Aimee. Hi, everyone. I’m Rob Zinkan. I serve as vice president for marketing leadership at RHB and am delighted to be starting my fifth year with RHB after nearly two decades at Indiana University in a variety of roles from campus-level vice chancellor to system-wide associate vice president. And if you have been following our research in strategic planning, welcome back. Thank you for your interest. And if you’re new to our strategic planning research or even new to RHB, welcome to you as well. 

And a bit about RHB briefly before we get into our research. At RHB, we help colleges and universities reach greater relevance. So all of our work, the design of our firm, it’s channeled toward that effort of greater relevance for institutions. And we work across four industry-leading practices. Enrollment Management, which is led by Ken Anselment, where RHB supports institutions’ enrollment success at every phase of the student journey from discovery to degree. Executive Counsel, where we help institutions with enterprise-wide change, which includes our work with leaders on strategic planning. Institutional Marketing, which as I said, I have the pleasure of leading, and there we help institutions in selecting and securing an authentic market position. And then Slate and Related Technology led by Erin Gore, which is the leading CRM practice for Slate in the world.


Thank you. And so just to give a little recap, especially for folks who are new, we initially launched our look into strategic planning in 2020 because as consultants we oftentimes are in engagements, we’re called upon to help institutions further their goals and their strategic plans. But we see a lot of them and we see that a lot of them look really similar. We weren’t sure exactly what made a good strategic plan and it can take so much time and energy on a campus to plan and then to execute a plan. So we wanted to understand what makes this a valuable process, why do people bother? 

Then at the time that we launched this research, it happened to coincide with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. And so for us, a really important question was what happens to these documents which are supposed to provide a roadmap to the future when there’s this unprecedented level of disruption? So after investigating 108 plans reflecting a wide array of institutions from all 50 states, we narrowed in on 16 that we considered the most strategic because they reflected changes in behavior. That’s what strategy is. And they backed that up with inclusive processes, with constituent friendly presentation, with metrics and checkpoints and accountability structures so that people understood what their role was in those strategic plans and what was expected of them.

And this quote about intellectual and processual conflict is one that we’re actually carrying forward from that research because it ties into some really important themes that we found in this most recent round of work that we’ve been carrying out in 2023. And to just sort of unpack this a little bit, one of the first things that stands out to us is it tells us, it reminds us, that conflict or to put it more positively, having good talks with our colleagues, is a normal process in higher ed. It’s something that you should expect to happen. And the only way out of that is through that. It also reminds us that decision making and weighing and prioritizing is part of the job in higher ed as this leader said. This is the president of an institution we pseudonymized as New Ignatian College. What this person is saying is you really do have to make that choice. What is going to be our strategy? A strategic plan that tries to be everything to everyone is either too vague or it’s doing too much.

So as we’re getting started here in the chat, let’s open it up. One of the things that quote tells us then is to think about constraint and to think about clarity. Where do we want to be going? So for you all, we’d love to hear, what do you think that should look like on your campus right now? What do you think the primary strategic goal or priority at your institution is? Financial stability, closing equity gaps, students first, all of these things are so important. We love to see this coming in and especially Natalie, thank you so much for mentioning students, Wayne, as well. One of the things that we discovered in 2020, if you’re not familiar with that research, is that a lot of strategic plans in higher ed don’t really know their students well. They’re not particularly student centered. And so bringing that into the conversation is so important, fulfilling our land grant mission.

Love that: operational sustainability. Thank you all. These are such important things and it’s really interesting. We can look back at this and think when Rob talks through the second installment, what’s new, how those priorities are matching what we’ve learned. 

So in today’s talk as we’re thinking about modern strategic planning, one of the first things that we’re going to do is walk you through some interviews that we did with leaders that we talked to in the first round of our research. We reached out to leaders at those 16 institutions with the most strategic plans and interviewed presidents, chancellors and other members of senior leadership teams to get their perspectives. 

As time has progressed and people have even asked us, what’s happening? What are they up to? What did they learn about their strategic plan with the benefit of the passage of time? We’re going to walk through some of that and then we’re also going to talk about, Rob is going to focus us on what’s new in strategic planning in 54, new plans that have launched since January 1, 2022, and here in green, these are pseudonyms for institutions that talked to us in this round of research.

When we did our first round in 2020, one of our interviewees asked if it would be possible to use a pseudonym for her institution. And that made total sense because when you really dig into the kinds of discussions that an institution should be having to create a good strategic plan, some of those can be pretty vulnerable. They can be really in-depth conversations because they’re honest inventories of things that you’re doing really well and places where you have challenges. These are people that we circled back around to in 2023 with a couple of new folks. The president of Mountain Abbots College and an associate provost at University of the Prairie volunteered in this round of research to give us both the current moment and a bit of a retrospective, and we’re so appreciative to all of our interviewees for their participation and their honesty.

Here are three important themes in our most recent research. In the first go-around, we were interested in discovering what sorts of leadership qualities, both at the executive level but also throughout an institution, help move a plan forward—things like honesty, things like an enthusiasm for addressing challenges, being honest, taking an honest inventory of your institution, things like that are really important and everyone is called upon to move a plan forward. One of the things that was interesting though is realizing that at that particular moment, at the beginning of the pandemic, people weren’t necessarily thinking about the larger structures in which strategic planning is embedded—what are our shared governance structures? What is our budget structure? And the reason for that is because at that particular moment there was a lot of unity on campuses. We talked to a lot of colleagues who felt very warmly and very proud of how they were moving and adapting and how good strategic plans were helping them through that moment.

Thinking about how we negotiate internal challenge wasn’t necessarily the first thing on people’s minds then, but in this go-around as we’ve gotten back to whatever it is that business as usual is right now, people’s concerns about shared governance are present in these conversations. We also will talk about the rise in chief strategy officer positions and then tie that together with the importance of (over)communicating. And one of the things that’s so interesting about this research is we captured this incredible array of vocabulary for how institutions talk about how they share decision-making, how they share power. Does “authority” play a role in that? And so we’re going to share some of that with you right now.

The president of New Ignatian, that institution that gave us that quote about processual conflict, said they use governance as their term for how the power structure and decision-making is oriented. And you note that’s not the “shared” part, it’s just “governance.” We actually gave him that quote back when we met up with him a few months ago and we said, can you tell us what’s going on now? And he said, well, actually things have gotten worse; that processual conflict is even greater. But one of the things that he’s noticed is that a lot of times he as the president might take the brunt of some of these discussions or conflicts, but they’re really about other conflicts on campus. He, as the person who bears the most responsibility for decisions that are made, he becomes the focal point of those. 

We want to note too, one of the things that he told us is that they follow the Chicago Principles in which having diversity of perspective and diversity of thinking is a favored value of their community. And one of the things that does is then normalize the process of bringing difficult conversations to the fore. And so for him, this is not necessarily a thing to worry about. 

This is a really normal process at Mountain Abbots. We heard about “shared governance” and that leader gave us this really beautiful metaphor of a stool that rests on three legs and each of those legs has to be equally weighted in order for the structure of the stool to stand. And so the legs there are faculty, the board and an affiliated religious order. And he as the president has to negotiate the interests of all of these different groups, including again, that religious order with whom they’ve not always had the easiest relationship. But all of these people, their concerns, all need to be noted and accounted for when making decisions.

And yes, thank you, Rob, for putting in the chat this question: What is the language for shared governance on your campus? I mean, we’re going to be walking you through some variety, but we know there’s even more than what we’re going to talk about and we would love to hear about that. So at Volente University, which was a participant in our first round, it was interesting to hear them talk about “shared accountability” in this round. And one of the reasons why they choose that framework is because they’re following the AAUP principle that authority should lie where there’s expertise. And the president, even though he is the president of the institution, is not necessarily an expert on everything. And it is important that they share respect and focus less on power. It’s also interesting to note that they are also an institution that follows the Chicago Principles. So it’s possible to build your governance structures using multiple kinds of philosophies.

And then one of the things that was interesting in these conversations is people will talk about “accountability”, they’ll talk about “governance,” but it is sometimes rare to hear the word “authority.” And we were having this conversation with Ternary Metro’s senior vice president for strategy, and he talked about authority and we said, wait a second, we don’t hear that word a lot in higher ed. That seems like a word that we almost want to avoid. Can you tell us more about that? And it was an interesting distinction to think about how accountability, which is really great and important oftentimes, is connoting having some sort of responsibility for outcomes, whereas authority is having the ability to make something happen in the first place. And authority sometimes has a bad connotation to it. But we also think that it’s not necessarily in opposition to having an inclusive process like an inclusive strategic planning process.

So as those of you who have done qualitative research know, sometimes at the close of a conversation with someone, they’ll drop something that is really interesting. It gets you going in this whole other avenue and the provost of University of the West, she’s at an institution that is leaps and bounds making wonderful progress with their strategic goals. They’re achieving renown for the things that they’re doing. And we’re talking, asking, how do you prioritize those great strategic goals and priorities with all of the other things that are happening on campus? And she told us this: “I’ll be a little blunt. Look on campuses as to who has budgetary authority. I have that authority versus a CFO who would prioritize the budget differently.” So she has the authority to prioritize academic priorities. This was so fascinating for us to think, okay, so one of the things that tells us is we can’t take for granted what the budgetary structure is. But also that makes us ask, is an unfunded priority or goal really a priority or goal?

We also heard about a variety of a participatory budgetary process at New Center University. The president has created a model that opens up the budget to a lot of campus visibility and participation. So if someone wants to fund an initiative, they need to put together a pitch, a well-researched pitch, bring it to her first, they’ll talk about it, think about whether she can sponsor it and whether it needs to be revised. And then they will present it together to an Integrated Planning Council that comprises faculty and folks from all over campus. And the goal here is that everyone understands that the budget should support strategy, safety and accreditation. Your funding request needs to apply to one of those things, but it allows the community to have the sense that there is a rigor to this, but also that anyone can participate in this process.

Another important element here is the way that presidents see themselves as part of a team. And one of the important teammates that a president can rely on is a person whose title is officially chief strategy officer or someone who carries out some of those duties as a de facto role where their title is actually something else. 

We’ve met chief strategy officers through this work and also through other parts of our portfolio. Across that there are a number of really common characteristics that people have, one of which is the ability to consume, analyze, synthesize data, a capacity to dream, understanding the institutional context and where the institution wants to go, being really curious about the marketplace, where are opportunities, and then also having that capacity to create relationships across the constituency, all of the various audiences that an institution needs to address. This person doesn’t need to be an academic. They can come from any role in the institution. If you yourself have some of these qualities that might make you an ideal person to help move strategic priorities forward. This also can be applied to unit level plans as well. A person can take this role at the unit level.

Getting back to this issue of authority, Ternary Metro’s senior vice president told us he was holding this pilot position. The president noted on the one hand there was a concern about administrative bloat, but at the same time nobody had the ball. In a situation involving a strategic plan, sometimes what happens is that everybody is responsible, which means that nobody is responsible or no one in particular is responsible. And so for Ternary Metro, it was really critical that they have someone who had eyes on the ball possession of the ball at all times. That meant that gave him authority to direct how priorities were enacted and that would be his full-time job. 

We also met at Volente, the second generation of chief strategy officer. We met this president and his first chief strategy officer in 2020. Later on after that person retired, he brought back his “prodigal daughter” back to the university to serve in that role. And what this really illustrates is for him as president, the utility of this position, this person keeps their thumb on what’s happening on campus, but they also help him direct attention where it really is necessary.

When we ask this person, why come back,iIt was so fascinating to see how they work together. He’s an attorney, she’s a psychologist, they have this really wonderful mutual respect. They work together well, but what are the other reasons that you would come back to play this role? She talked about how she was so impressed and how the community at Volente just soaked up and wove the strategic plan into the fabric of everything that they do. People all over campus understood how they’re teaching, how they serve students—all of those things move their strategic priorities forward.She said this great line, “It says something about how we work together.” The sense of collegiality, warmth, everybody pulling in the same direction was so palpable that of course she would want to be part of that.

And for New Center, for the leader of that institution, it is just so clear to her that she is but one person on a team and she is not elevated over those teammates at all. She pointed out her associate vice president for planning and institutional assessment as a champion on that team. Being on the call with them and seeing this associate vice president be able to get into her data dashboards and pull stuff up at a moment’s notice and give us the history of this metric, where it was going, what’s the forecast? Can you put it in context with other things? Having that access to data, that visibility and the transparency— think about how that weaves into the way that they share governance and budgetary authority on that campus and how that enables everyone to work together.

One of the things that we encountered as we were meeting people is that they were at different points than they were three years ago, for instance at the University of the Prairie. They were at a moment of taking a pause, getting ready to plan for the next plan and really thinking about, “who are we as an institution?” because, so often, institutions talk about their values, but they don’t necessarily connect how the strategic plan can be a way to express and enact those values. She talked about how sometimes those are abstract things and you can go to any institution’s website, see the mission, vision, values and see that definition, but that doesn’t necessarily tell you what it feels like to live that. Or, it doesn’t give you a concrete example of a time when someone has actually acted, for instance, with integrity. 

As part of their pause, they’re actually collecting stories about how people describe and enact those values so that they will port those directly into the next version of their strategic plan to say, “This is what it looks like. This is how we are supposed to behave and speak and this is how we will meet our goals.”

Another element here is the element of communication. And Patrick Lencioni talks about how executives are really chief reminding officers. One of their primary duties is to remind folks why they do what they do and why it matters so much. And he says, the best organizations in the world are the ones where leaders are reiterating culture, strategy, priorities, and remembering that these are not things that should only be imposed top down. They are things that everyone, bottom up, should be participating in. And the way to get that participation is through constant communication. 

Volente’s president and their chief strategy officer are right there on top of that. They love communication, they love over communication, and that is how they got to the point where so many of their community members, their constituents see themselves in the plan and understand what it is that they’re supposed to do. There is no communication from him, someone will receive that is not reiterating what their strategic goals are and what their values are and how people are supposed to behave.

And the president of Mountain Abbots, he said this really important thing which is especially given the number of different interests that he has to negotiate that (over)communication. He wants people to get sick of hearing from him. The flip side of that is, “It’s about communication and consultation, but not necessarily about consensus.” As president, he is also responsible for making the decisions that will move the institution forward in ways that other folks don’t have that same responsibility. That doesn’t mean that he does not need to be constantly communicating with them. 

We also saw a similar thing at New Ignatian where that president talked about one of the things that he sees that is kind of a trap some leaders can fall into is that they get stuck at this point where you’re about to do something. Say you’re about to launch a new program and people have lots of questions, sensible questions about what’s going to happen next. His point is, if you can’t answer that question, tell people you can’t answer that question. Being transparent about what you don’t know and what has to happen for you to know it is part of that process of over-communication.

One of the things that we walked away from our 2020 research with was that we were energized and hopeful because what we saw is that strategic planning doesn’t just have to be this thing that you do when you get a new president or every five years. It actually can be something that is a really hopeful and inspiring kind of process if you do it well. We’ve been able to take that and to widen our view and think about what are the other structures, policies and processes that need to be in effect, that need to be healthy, that need to be functional in order to facilitate healthy and productive strategic planning. 

To that end for you all, we’ve put together some questions that you can take back to your own campuses to think about, such as, how does our current governance and budget structure enable us to achieve our strategic goals?

If those things don’t line up, where is our ability to change? Who’s actually got that authority to spend money on the things that we say are important? If we don’t have a chief strategy officer who can be our champion? And where are the gaps in our communication? How do we need to fill them? All of these things are important questions for making sure that your strategic planning process and the plan fit well given the way that your particular institution operates. And at this point, I am going to throw it over to Rob. Thank you all so much.


Great. Thank you, Aimee. So that was one element of our research this year, revisiting exemplars from our previous research looking at 108 strategic plans. And again, those were plans that were active in 2020, and as we know, a lot has happened since 2020. So we wanted to examine how strategic planning is changing and specifically what’s new or what’s different in new strategic plans. So we define “new” as a strategic plan that launched in 2022 or 2023, and we identified 54 publicly available strategic plans that had started since January 1, 2022, and 54 is exactly half the number of plans in our previous study. These 54 plans, they were 34 from public and 20 private four-year institutions, and those colleges and universities spanned 29 states. And an interesting side note or something we always find interesting is that strategic plan documents are not always accessible at private institutions. So in some cases, we encountered a strategic plan website where there was college or university authentication required to actually see the entire plan.

And Aimee alluded to one of the core findings from our previous research that we saw more planning than actual strategy across these plans. And as she said, true strategy requires a change in behavior. So your plan should not be full of items that you should be doing already. Strategy requires focus, and that focus comes from making a set of choices, including choices about what you’re not going to do as an institution. In these 54 plans, we did see evidence of greater focus, most notably greater focus in what’s important to the institution—that is, fewer institutional priorities on average. So let’s take a look at that.

In our previous research for the 108 plans that were active in 2020, the average number of overarching priorities was 5.5. And then compare that now to new plans, the average number of overarching priorities decreased to just under 5.0. And what’s interesting is that the 16 most strategic plans out of the 108 in our previous research, those 16 had an average of 4.9 goals, exactly the number that we saw across the set of new plans. 

Having five overarching goals, that remains the most common spot where institutions reside. And you can see here a much more condensed range in the number of institutional priorities in new plans. That range was 3-7. Previously the largest was a whopping 22 overarching priorities. And there were also several examples from plans active in 2020 where institutions had 10 or more overarching priorities, far from exercising that focus that we’re talking about. 

We even looked at, how long are the strategic planning documents themselves? The average length of those plans that were active in 2020 was 22 pages. And if newer plans have fewer priorities on average, then we would expect that the strategic plan documents would be shorter as well. And that was indeed the case. The average dropped to 16 pages across these 54 new plans. The longest document among plans in 2020 was 88 pages. This time around it was 46 pages. And yes, there is such a thing as a one-page strategic plan. We encountered a few examples of those both then and among the new plans. 

And what about duration of strategic plans? This is a topic that can be somewhat controversial, and whenever we give a webinar or present at a conference, this question always comes up about length in time of a strategic plan. Is a 10-year plan too long? Can a 10-year plan still be relevant amidst a changing or uncertain landscape? Do you have to have a shorter plan? And for the 108 plans that we previously analyzed that were active in 2020, they averaged 6.6 years in duration. New plans that launched in 2022 and 2023 were more than a year-and-a-half shorter. On average, 4.9 years was the average. The median was once again 5.0 years. The longest was 20 years in duration previously. And in the set of new plans, the longest duration was 10 years. 

And it’s not surprising that plans are trending shorter in duration. The president of Mountain Abbots College went into this topic in our conversation, and he explained that the college has moved to a shorter term plan. They used to have a five-year plan; now they have a three-year plan, and they consider that a rolling plan. And from his perspective, the case was that a shorter plan allows us to be more responsive. We can still provide direction and priorities, but the plan is not necessarily set in stone when it’s only three years. But as we found in our previous research, a shorter plan does not automatically mean a more strategic plan among the strategic plans. 

In our original research, we did in fact have 10-year plans. Among those 16 most strategic, those institutions took a longer view for compelling reasons such as a longer timeframe to get out of the constraints of the day-to-day operational thinking in order to think and plan more strategically, or the fact that that timeframe may seem long in terms of strategic planning, but in fact was not necessarily long when thinking within the total lifespan of the institution, or that a 10-year vision would remain steady over the course of that time. But the institution recognized that the exact strategies and tactics to achieve that would change; they would evolve based on market pressures or market forces or what’s happening across the landscape. 

But of course, the reason for shorter plans often is that, hey, we can’t predict the future. There’s uncertainty. There’s this ever-growing set of challenges that we all know about, but that is the essence of strategy. Roger Martin, a strategy author and emeritus professor, as is Richard Rumelt, and those two sources, they were sources of both inspiration during our research and some research themselves on strategic planning and writing. And Martin explains that one of the distinguishing features of strategy is that strategy is about influencing the things that you can’t control, the things you don’t control. Planning, in contrast, addresses only the items that are within your control. 

Therefore, on the heels of the pandemic, we would especially expect to see new strategic plans launching in 2022 and 2023 to be more strategic. However, that was not necessarily the case in our analysis. We saw a lot of—what we saw in 2020—more planning and not necessarily a lot of strategy. And the common template of strategic plans, that would outline institutional ambitions. We’re going to grow or we’re going to add. Institutions doing what they’re already doing, but doing more of it or doing it better, trying to be more like aspirants, those who are perceived to be more excellent than their institution.

And one noteworthy item we saw in these new plans that we didn’t see in the previous study is strategic plans without a specified end date. There were no examples of this among the 108 active plans in our 2020 research. And as a side note, one of those exemplars, those 16 most strategic out of that 108, after completing their plan and having had a leadership transition, they’ve now decided not to have a formal strategic plan going forward. For the new plans in 2022 and 2023, we encountered four examples, four of the 54, so just under 8%, that did not specify an exact end date. So an interesting question, does a strategic direction make sense for you and your institution when the 5- or 10-year increments that are typical in plans or an end date that is associated with a nice round number like 2030, those are realistically, those are often arbitrary milestones.

One of those four institutions refers to its strategic plan, that is current now, that just launched simply as a strategy, which we liked for a few reasons. It should help avoid the conflation of strategy and planning. Also, we would imagine that campus constituents are more likely to know what the institution’s strategy is. That clarity and conciseness would definitely be an advantage. And then another institution refers to their strategic plan officially as its strategic direction, no end date. This is our strategic direction. And once again, a point of this is to ideally enable an institution to be more responsive as conditions change. 

And another factor in all of this, when we talked to leaders about the heightened sensitivity to changing conditions and further disruption, a clear theme was the challenge of shorter tenures among leadership roles and the constantly moving puzzle pieces within a senior leadership team. And one of our favorite quotes or one of our favorite quotes that we can sympathize, one strategic planning chair flat out said, “I just want to have a couple of years where we have the same president and the same provost and the same football coach.” And we’ll talk more in a little bit about well-being of faculty and staff. 

We also saw more language that conveyed overarching priorities in a less finite way. So terms such as commitments, guiding themes, imperatives, ongoing objectives, pillars, themes, those seem more continuous than being a finite goal.

In our previous research, here were the five most frequent overarching priorities. So you can see diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging goals appeared most frequently in plans. Overall goals around financial sustainability, community outreach, student experience and success, and research and scholarly activity were most common Among newly launched plans, it was pretty clear that institutions are largely pursuing the same types of ambitions. Nearly every goal fit into one of these categories or the next most common set of categories, which we’ll show on the next slide. And four of the five categories of goals from 2020 were, again, the most frequent across new plans. 

This time you see student experience and success was the most frequent overall in terms of overarching priorities. And that doesn’t mean that DEIB is less prevalent this time. And we’ll mention in a bit how new plans were more likely this time to include institutional values.So we saw DEIB expressed in that way, and then DEIB embedded in other goals throughout the plan. And once again, we have one installment of this research report dedicated entirely to institutions’ continuing commitment to DEIB. And that will be the focus of our next webinar coming up on November 1.

And in addition, this time the goals around financial sustainability, those were most commonly combined with discussions of operational effectiveness and operational excellence for the new plans. The next most common set of overarching priorities included academic excellence; research, scholarship and creative activity; and people and well-being. 

People and well-being, so interesting to see this one emerge. It was a new addition that we did not see present as one of the top categories in our previous research. And it’s not surprising that institutions are now wanting to put a higher priority on taking care of their people based on what everyone has been through during COVID-19 and what institutions experienced with the Great Resignation. 

And we tip our hats to Dr. Kevin McClure, associate professor of higher ed at UNC Wilmington, who’s doing some excellent writing, outstanding work in this area. And we cited his work in our report, and we heard about this in our conversations. We heard about faculty and staff exhaustion, burnout, low morale, and leaders seemed to be much more attuned to institutional energy and seeing that energy as a resource, an asset that must be managed. So for example, one strategy vice president talked about advancing their work—their strategic planning work—through existing groups and already formed committees versus creating new committees and additional workloads. And the very exercise of strategic planning should raise this question of, how do our strategic planning efforts, how does strategic planning affect faculty and staff, particularly if goals are centered around growth, around more initiatives, around more of everything?

And this overarching priority of health and well-being was expressed in a variety of ways from “valuing our people” and “supporting their well-being” to “fostering a people-centered culture” and “building on a supportive work environment.” And while it’s encouraging to see these additions to new strategic plans, bringing attention to employees and their well-being, the strategy or the set of choices to advance that wasn’t necessarily clear in these plans. Goals here were often pretty vague and were heavy on exploration. So for instance, exact initiatives within that were phrased, “explore improvements and infrastructure” or “support an organizational culture that reflects a commitment to the employee experience.” So we’ll be very interested to track these efforts. It’s great that institutions can now say, our people are our priority according to our strategic plan. That’s in the strategic plan now. But did exploring or did supporting a culture produce changes in institutional behaviors for the benefit of faculty and staff and their well-being?

And this gets to a really important related point because much of the discourse around strategic planning is often about setting a path toward growth, even in our own work, in our own writing. So for instance, we talked about the importance in our previous research of abundance thinking or assuming that you have enough to do what you need to do or enough to move the institution forward, provided you can make smart choices. And this is a mindset that can open up the institution and your campus constituents to new kinds of possibilities that maybe you didn’t have before if your mindset was focused on lack or insufficiency. So as we went back with interviewees from our previous research and talked about the lessons learned during the height of the pandemic. There was general optimism. These leaders were generally looking toward growing, innovating, responding to grand challenges and moving their institutions forward in a variety of ways and further bringing the campus community together. 

But again, as I just mentioned, we also heard and observed even in the tone of these conversations, some fatigue. And one example, Ternary Metro University, that conversation while we were discussing the institution’s plans, we learned that those constituents were actually hoping for a little less change, even if it was positive. And so the chief strategy officer there saw their role as helping to reduce the number of decisions on the table. And we noted in our previous research that all of the institutions, nearly everyone is planning for growth. They were planning for growth—specifically enrollment growth—and how it’s simply not feasible. Everyone cannot grow. And we’ve seen a decrease in postsecondary enrollment. 

So this possibility of degrowth is an interesting consideration in relation to strategic planning. It may be uncomfortable or may seem unthinkable to consider how a strategic plan or even a strategic direction that isn’t oriented toward growth and expansion could be beneficial to an institution. And we suggest that as part of the behavior changing and the choice-making that is real strategy, that leaders that campus constituents have these real conversations about when growth, stability, even degrowth, might be appropriate options. And that’s the real work of figuring out what your abundance is or how to preserve it or recharge it where you need to. So a really interesting element that came out of our conversations. 

Okay, a few more points from new plans among active plans. In 2020, 40% of them called on institutional values and explicitly stated those in the strategic plan. This surprised us a bit. We would’ve expected a higher percentage in our previous research because, are values really values if they’re not an evident part of the conversation about an institution’s future? That percentage jumped to 55% among the new plans that launched in 2022 and 2023. With the disruption from the pandemic and other factors, it does appear that leaders are recommitting to institutional values to some extent, ensuring that their institution’s choices about its future, that those choices are anchored in its values. 

And Aimee shared a bit earlier about how values were part of our discussions with presidents and with other leaders. And we would pose those same questions to you, some of the questions that came up that presidents were forthright about what they were grappling with. Are your values really attributes that your colleagues and campus community understand and live by? Do those values point you in the direction of where you should go next and possibly grow next? And what invitation do your values extend and who can be included?

And then finally, we want to mention reputation and brand. In our previous research, we found that brand and branding are not necessarily understood, certainly not consistently understood in higher ed, at least according to strategic plans. Institutions took a posture of distinctiveness in assuming that their programs or offerings were indeed world-class or superior or different. They just needed to do a better job of getting the word out for the awareness or the recognition that their outstanding programs deserve. In previous plans, mentions of reputation and brand were always within another overarching priority, so they were sub-goals or initiatives within an overarching goal. But this time we saw that reputation and brand was elevated in some cases to its own top-line, overarching priority. And you see the examples of that here.

But the fundamental understanding that institutions choose a market position and others—your constituents—determine your brand, that is still not apparent in current strategic plans; that you shape your brand over time by aligning everything you do and everything you say as an institution to the market position you’ve chosen. And then repeating and repeating and repeating those so that people will come to identify the brand you intend versus again, what we see in plans: getting the word out, more branding, better branding. And then back to choice-making, when we see here the overarching priority of “distinguish the university regionally, nationally, and internationally,” it begs the question, it appears that the institution is stating ambitions rather than making choices.

Great. Well, before we open it up for Q&A or begin that discussion, we do invite you to our next webinar about this research on November 1, “Committing to DEIB in a Continuing Climate of Challenge.” This webinar and report delve into the ways in which institutions are maintaining their momentum in achieving DEIB-related progress. As Aimee mentioned, DEIB continues to be a major emphasis across strategic plans. So you’ll receive that information in the follow-up materials. In addition, we will send you each of the three installments so that you can access these PDFs directly, this report in three installments, rather than having to complete a form. You’ll receive these along with the recording from today and this slide deck as part of the follow-up materials. 

And again, looking forward to the discussion, but we do want to express our appreciation for your interest in this research. We applaud your efforts, the important work that you’re doing to move your institution forward. Whenever we talk about this research or we give presentations and we tell people that we read 2,400 pages of strategic plans in the previous research, people usually groan in response to that because that’s the normal reaction to strategic planning. And again, in the new plans, while strategy is still largely absent across these plans, we do get excited. Aimee mentioned it earlier, we get excited, we get inspired, encouraged when we do see examples or when we do get to work with institutions that are making choices about where to play, how to win, and where strategic planning is truly a worthwhile unifying endeavor for their institution. So with that, let’s take a look at questions. Please feel free to add questions to the chat or the Q&A.


Yes, thank you so much, Rob, and we already have a fabulous question: “I’m interested to know if AI plays a big part in the context of strategic planning.” That is such a good question. Would you like to take that or I can start?


Please go ahead and start.


Great. So there are a couple of ways to answer this. Our RHB president, Sam Waterson, has experimented with ChatGPT to try to create a strategic plan. It is indeed possible—someone has been feeding strategic plans into that model. It does come up with some things that actually sound really close to a lot of strategic plans we’ve encountered. So on the one hand, it’s theoretically possible. On the other hand, one thing we will note is we are not observing at any large scale that institutions are indicating that they are using AI to generate strategic plans. With All of the questions that surround AI, one thing that we would advocate is that if that is something that your institution is interested in doing, that you be very, very clear with your audiences that is the approach that you have taken. What parts of that plan come from an AI model and how you would think about bias that is inherent in AI? How are you looking and critically analyzing what you get from that so that you can make use of it?


Yeah, such a fascinating question. We could probably do a separate discussion just on that and the ways that we’re encountering that. A couple of thoughts related to AI, one of which is thinking about strategic planning within the lifespan of the institution. And I’m reminded of, and I believe he said it in maybe the 80s, Amara’s Law about technology that we tend to overestimate the impact of technology in the short term but underestimate its impact over the long term. And I think that’s interesting food for thought as it relates to AI and understanding where it can be of value for you and your institution. Knowing that, as our wonderful RHB colleagues Erin Gore and Alex Williams and others would say, that technology is a tool. And so how do we leverage that tool in the most effective way?

And certainly we could get into a conversation about AI in relationship to teaching and learning, but as it relates to strategic planning, there may be ways that it can aid your planning. I mean, certainly as you read your strategic plan, it should not sound like it has come from AI. That’s even maybe a litmus test for your strategic plan is to put elements of it into AI (e.g., ChatGPT) and see what it spits out. Does your strategic plan sound like the strategic plan of another institution or is it distinctively your college and university? And that was an overwhelming observation when looking at those 2,400-plus pages is that strategic plans look alike and sound alike. Where is it evident that your institution is truly making choices and undertaking strategy?


Thank you. And yes, Poppy, your suggestion about having even another conversation, especially thinking about how that’s going to integrate into pedagogy and what happens into the classroom, we would love to have that conversation. 

So another person asked, “Does AI show up in plans about how the institution will incorporate AI in instruction or marketing?” That’s a very similar kind of take on that question. And I do think I’m just going to speak as a former faculty, that faculty to whatever extent an institution can be really clear from the very beginning about what their policies and procedures around AI are going to be, even setting a direction for itself in terms of these are the ways in which we are interested in exploring and testing AI would be really useful. Having that discussion I think is so important. 

And then another question, “Do you think institutions are just hesitant to include strategy in a public facing plan? Would that perhaps be in private documents such as action or implementation plans?” That’s a really good question too. Rob, do you want to tackle that one?


Yeah, I love that question too, Cheryl, that we would expect more examples of that because if they truly are strategy, again, we use that Roger Martin definition of strategy about making choices of where to play, how to win, that those may be more proprietary or institutions want to keep those strategic choices and not make them as explicit necessarily. But if we’re listing ambitions, again, this gets a little bit into our previous research about the role even of marketing about, are we using strategic planning as a PR endeavor to make the institution look good and show everyone, here are all our things that we want to do and achieve and our ambitions or is it true strategy?

And in some cases, and one criterion from that previous research was institutions that took an honest look at where their shortcomings were, that they did this honest self-assessment, an honest realization of where they need to improve—and that can be hard to do, certainly hard to make that public. But it also garnered more support internally for the direction that they were choosing to go. But I think it’s a great question and if institutions are exhibiting strategy, then yes, I would expect to see fewer examples of maybe not a ton, certainly not among public institutions, but more and more privates who perhaps choose to not share the entirety of those strategic choices they’re making.


Great, thank you, Rob. And then another question, this one is really juicy. “What wisdom or best practices did your research uncover related to effective integrative strategic planning on campuses that are heavily siloed across academic units, functional areas, et cetera?” I mean, I think we could go back to our 2020 research there and talk about how with these most-strategic plans, one of the things that leaders were very intentional about was trying to pull folks out of those silos into working groups and trying to do that integration in several ways, one of which is a thing that we observed that not a lot of institutions did, but really strategic ones did was really try to survey, so get some quantitative data out of their constituencies, even external constituents, about what they perceived was happening on campus, how they understood things, where their own experiences and ambitions were leading them. They then would try to pull that together and then to host as many town halls or open conversations as possible and then to make sure that they are getting representation from all different parts of campus in those working groups. 

We mentioned earlier the fact that a lot of plans didn’t exhibit student centeredness in our 2020 set. One of the things that is also really important as you’re thinking about getting all of these areas together is to make sure that you have student representation on those committees and that you really give them the space to speak and to express themselves and to take very seriously what they say because they are one of those points where those units that appear to be siloed, they actually interact in the experience of the student. The student experience always suffers from factionalization, from functional areas not being well integrated. Having the student as part of that planning experience really allows you to see where those silos exist and to really get a sense of what happens when people are sort of focused on their own areas and they’re not integrating well with others. Rob, if you want to add…


I would just add, Aimee, and thank you for the question, that magic word of “integrative,” which we appreciate. It reminds us of our friends from SCUP, the Society for College and University Planning, and being part of their recent annual conference. We should say, when we keep talking about strategy as a set of choices or is making choices, we should add that word to it, that it’s a set of “integrative” choices that are made, and that’s a great threshold to consider. Looking across your overarching priorities, whether you have three or five or whatever that is, are those choices, are those overarching priorities, are they coherent with one another? Does your plan represent an integrative set of choices? And Aimee gave some great best practices for achieving that.


Thank you. And I know we are at time, we have a question here about strategic synergies and thinking about space. Let’s just say we could do an entire other webinar on that as we’ve been having conversations around campus planning, space use assessment, talking to design firms and things like that. So let’s put a pin in that one. I love that question. Thank you so much.


Great. Yes, we’ll close it up, and thank you again for joining. We’ll send all the follow-up materials. Feel free to reach out to us on Again, all of these resources we’ll send your way, and we certainly hope that a takeaway from today is a bit of inspiration and information to make strategic planning work for you, for your institution. That work that you do to move your institution forward and its strategic priorities is so important. And we wish you all the best in the important work that you’re doing. Thanks again for joining us today.


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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is the Director of Qualitative Research at RHB.

Rob Zinkan

Rob is the Vice President for Marketing Leadership at RHB.