Transcript: Strategic Planning: Leading With Authenticity and Strategy

On April 12, Aimee Hosemann, Sam Waterson and Rob Zinkan hosted RHB’s latest webinar about its strategic planning research, analyzing 108 plans across higher ed. They discuss eight leadership themes that emerged from interviews with presidents of institutions that had the “most strategic” plans. For additional resources, you can watch a recording of the webinar, download the executive summary of the research, purchase the full-report book in the RHB Library or inquire about RHB’s executive counsel in strategic planning for your institution. 

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Sam Waterson

Good afternoon, everyone. I see attendees and participants rolling in, some familiar faces. So, welcome, and welcome to our latest, RHB’s latest webinar on our work in research and strategic planning across higher education. It’s wonderful to see you again. Rob and Aimee and I are all very grateful for your time and energy, and we will promise to make this a valuable hour.

Today, we’ll be speaking with Drs. Hosemann and Zinkan. Dr. Hosemann is our director of qualitative research at RHB, and she’s a wonderful contributor to our team and has authored our book on strategic planning, What Makes a Strategic Plan ‘Strategic’?, of which many of you have read. Some of you have seen the executive summary. And she wrote that and researched that with Dr. Rob Zinkan, who leads our institutional marketing practice at RHB.

Also assisting on the work was Connor LaGrange, a graduate researcher at the time. He was very helpful in helping us compile all the data to assess.

If you have not yet read the book or the executive summary, I encourage you to visit I’ll put that in the chat later, and you can purchase yourself a copy of the book. It’s a wonderful read, and today we’re going to go over some themes that we’ve found related to research, leadership, and strategy.

RHB aims to help institutions reach greater relevance, and all of our work, all of the design of our firm, is oriented around that. RHB is comprised four practices, one in Enrollment Management, led by Ken Anselment, formerly of Lawrence University; our Executive Counsel work, our work with presidents and boards, aiming to make institutional enterprise-wide change, like helping institutions plan strategically; Institutional Marketing, helping our clients find better organizational structures, better positions in the market, and more accurate, reliable data to work from; and of course, our Slate and Related Technology practice, led by Erin Gore, and it is the leading CRM practice for Slate in the world.

Today we’re going to talk more about our findings from our research across higher education, every state is represented. Rob, if you can click forward one for me. And, well, we’re going to work through findings on leadership and the attachment of strategy to leadership.

What we found, most interestingly, was that those presidents, those leaders that were realistic but visionary, were the most effective and that those plans had a more propensity to actually be strategic along the qualities that we’ve described in the book and that Rob and Aimee will go through today.

One of our favorite quotes from the study is this: “College presidents have to be visionary but not hallucinatory.” And that seems like a distance between the two things, but inspiring folks and compelling teams and constituents to action is incredibly important. And we do that through authenticity and accessibility and data and constituent-centered planning, making sure that our audiences are included, making sure that voices are heard, and making sure that goals are achievable and measurable.

At RHB we utilize this work to help advise presidents and boards and cabinets in their strategic planning ambitions, how to go about things. What is a strategic plan, why do it? And we’ve enjoyed great relationships in doing so.

So today I’m going to turn it over to Dr. Hosemann to lead us through several findings that I hope you’ll find incredibly useful, taking back to your campuses, and we’re going to allot plenty of time at the end for Q-and-A, and we look forward to your response. So, thank you. Welcome to RHB. Dr. Hosemann, please take it away.

Aimee Hosemann

Thank you so much for that wonderful introduction, Sam, and welcome. It’s so wonderful to have you all here today. So to get us started, let’s actually start with a little chat activity, and think about the quote that we just saw about being visionary versus being hallucinatory. What is a word that would describe to you whether the leadership at your institution were being strategic in their approach to planning and activation? What would give you a sense that planning and activation of a plan was progressing in the right way? Go ahead and put those in the chat and let’s get some conversation going.

Oh, I love that, data-informed decisions. Yes, we are going to talk about data in our discussion today, and so let’s set some context for that discussion. Identifying metrics, momentum, beautiful. These are all things that are going to be emerging in the conversation.

So we began a study in spring 2020 of strategic plans, and we see them a lot in our work as consultants because our work is to help you achieve your strategic priorities.

One of the things that we notice is that plans seem to be ubiquitous, just about everybody has one. They’re also a little bit variable in their content, even at the same time that it can be difficult to tell one institution’s strategic plan from another. So we wondered, what are these documents supposed to be? Who is supposed to use them? Who are they created for? And then what are people supposed to do once they have access to a strategic plan?

And I love the answers that are coming in here because we are going to be able to work these ideas into the conversation. You will see so much of what you’re talking about referenced here, and this is wonderful to see.

And as Sam was talking about in terms of constituent centricity, we saw a lot of plans that didn’t seem to know their constituents very well or know how to get their constituents interested in moving a plan forward. And another element here in our initial phase of research was that we were starting this research during the beginning of the pandemic, and we really were interested, if strategic plans are supposed to be these really important motivating documents, what are people going to do with those at a time of massive disruption? Are strategic plans useful in really unusual circumstances?

So we collected plans from each state in the United States, aiming to gather a plan from at least one public institution and one private from each state whenever possible, and then we compared all of these plans and we shouted out Connor, and here we’re going to shout out Connor again, for all of his help and energy in helping us digest and analyze this work. We collected data on plan timelines. How long were these plans supposed to be in effect? How many pages were they? How many goals were there? What were those metrics? Believe it or not, some didn’t have any. And we looked for other kinds of features, and then we were also interested in trying to understand whether plans referenced external conditions outside of the university. We also wanted to know if plans made reference to other important documents like strategic enrollment plans, DEI strategic planning, brand work, campaign case statements, all of these really important documents. And then once we had a sense of what was in common, we were really able to start then digging into what was unusual.

So this question of strategy, it seems simple, but delving into these plans, it was a little bit complicated, and what we were able to discern from comparing plans is that strategic plans are ones that are very honest about how the institution has been performing and what its opportunities are. They’re also honest about external conditions affecting them. They call for real change, and they are intentionally constituent-centric.

The plans that were most strategic contained a lot of evidence that the planning process understood the way that people experience the institution and that there were a lot of efforts to involve people at all levels of the institution in moving the plan forward. And we discuss that more in other places that we can review at the end of this presentation.

So the plans that were most strategic laid out these very clear roadmaps for changes in behavior tied to relatively few goals or priorities, encompassing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging perspectives, defined metrics, and several other qualities, and we determined that out of our set of 108, only 16 were truly strategic. And we can talk about what was strategic in those plans, but there’s actually an effectiveness to looking at this through the other side, which is if you have 92 plans that lack something, what are those things that they’re lacking? And you can see here the array of features, a lack of strategy, a lack of market orientation, a lack of clarity of institutional vision, where are we going to go from here? A lack of transparency, a lack of success measures, those metrics, a lack of student-centeredness, a lack of holistic perspective about DEIB, and also a lack of the participation of marketing and communications leadership from the earliest days of planning.

Our next step then was to reach out to presidents and chancellors who led those most strategic plans to ask if they’d talk to us about what that process was like and how they ran it, and we were really fortunate to get to talk to presidents, chancellors, and staff at seven of those institutions. And then two other presidents, one who was a president of a small liberal arts college and a president emerita of a historically women’s university, both of whom who had a lot of experience in this area, and then we also spoke with David Haney, Hal Williams, and Peter Eckel, people who have devoted a substantial portion of their career to understanding strategic planning and helping higher ed there and how to execute wealth.

And in the spring of 2023, so right now we are in the process of re-interviewing some of the folks that we talked to the first time around to see what they’ve learned, how things are progressing since 2020, and we’ve actually been able to capture interviews with people we didn’t get to talk to that first time. And so what is lovely for us is, today we are so pleased to be able to also introduce you to some of the themes that are emerging in our new work and more will be forthcoming about that.

So this slide shows you the pseudonyms of the 16 institutions whose plans we looked at. We use pseudonyms here because one of our interviewees asked that we do so, and we were happy to do that. If you think about what we learned about a really effective strategic planning process, it takes so much reflection and clarity, and that can feel like a really sort of intense community-focused experience, and so we were happy to offer that. This is just to introduce you to some of those names because you will see those in the presentation as we go along.

And so one of the things that’s been so fantastic about this research is that we get a just really interesting span of perspectives, behaviors, and mindsets from leaders and their institutions, so important and so contextual. But at the same time, we also get this really clear sense that there’s some general themes that emerge. So thinking about authenticity, honesty, abundance, drive, foreknowledge about challenges, trusting and delegating, imposing constraints, which is really important as well, and intentionality, and these are some of the things that we’re going to talk to you about today.

Rob Zinkan

All right, thanks so much, Aimee. And as we get into these leadership themes, we recognize that there are, just as Aimee said, there are differences in these leaders’ backgrounds, their experiences, their strengths, certainly differences in the types of institutions that they lead, and differences in the various challenges that their institutions face.

So these themes are not meant to be a template for leadership because the context is such a critical part of the equation, but because these themes emerged across our interviews with presidents with the most strategic plans of those institutions, we hope that these themes and these examples can help to inform and to inspire your thinking related to your own institution and your own situation.

So to begin, presidents led in the way that was most authentic to them with a discernment to assess when to be visible in the process and when not to be. It was clear that the presidents we interviewed had a great degree of self-awareness about their own leadership strengths, and they had a keen sense of what their campus community needed. They relied on this awareness and understanding to know when to be visible or how to give instructions to the community about what they wanted to happen during planning.

Among the 16 most strategic plans, we saw presidents handle this differently in terms of their own visibility based on what was authentic to them and what, in their view, would best serve their own institution.

So one leader, for example, saw an important role for himself in being the chief reminding officer about the institution’s values, constantly putting the strategic plan in the context of the university’s values and helping colleagues to think about those values a bit differently as being more actionable. Every communication from him about the strategic plan began by reinforcing those values.

We saw another leader who explained that any plan he was a part of would have diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging as an important facet because DEIB is everyone’s job. This was a priority for him, and by extension, that became a priority for the entire university.

Another president was present from the very beginning of ideating a new plan. In that particular situation, it was important that she set the tone appropriately by encouraging her campus community to see this not so much as a formal strategic planning process, but at the outset, a process of musing. So, getting this early focus away from that formality took away any pressure there might be on colleagues to come up with the right ideas right away, and it provided maximum freedom for them to be able to imagine.

And yet another leader, the president of Hardy Valley University, mentioned on this slide, tried to refrain from participating too much early on, and she in fact had scholarly training in language and literature, so she did some of the actual writing and revising of the plan herself while ensuring that the ideas and the content were coming from committees and working groups. And even though this is an institutional strategic plan, internal colleagues will still see the plan largely as the president’s plan, and in some cases, a defining piece of a presidency. But that doesn’t mean that there’s a prescribed way that the president should lead during strategic planning, so again, their leadership should be authentic to them.


Thank you. And the second point here is using the mindset of abundance thinking. Strategy requires change, which oftentimes requires spending, and against a backdrop in which there are a lot of challenges to higher ed, budget is one of those consistent things, and we oftentimes are sort of mired in discourse about scarcity and lack. And in the cases that we discussed with our interviewees, for them, thinking about that as a set of resources that are ready to be used in smart ways, the idea that there is enough to do what needs to be done, was one thing that allowed them the freedom to feel like they could engage in processes of musing or ideating and coming up with new strategy.

And the president of Volente University really described to us this so well, and he talked about the fact that every institution has a budget, you know you have money and he doesn’t like to hear, “We don’t have money to do things.” The question is, what are the choices that we’re going to make to enable us to do what it is that we need to do? And it also asks us to kind of think about, what are the other resources to which we have access? And one of those things is your smart, creative, invested people who work with you, your students, your staff, your faculty, and understanding them as people who are resources to draw on.

And again, this doesn’t mean that you have the resources to do everything. It means that you have the resources to do what has to be done, provided that you’re willing to make smart choices at the same time that you’re being creative.

And this is also tied into a theme that is emerging in our most recent round of interviews, which is exploring budgetary structures. So, thinking about how an institution selects and activates structures for supporting or approving the funding for strategic priorities is really important, especially when thinking about how institutions consider that funding. Do they put that in a separate bucket from operational or facilities spending? This is something that we are also exploring more.

This next one as well, enthusiasm and drive, this is another idea of capturing the sort of mindset or heart that a leader is bringing to this process, and the presidents that we spoke to knew their plans backward and forward. They had become incredibly fluent and conversant in their institutional history. They really took on that we when they would talk about their institution. And what’s so important there is that adopting the mission, vision, and values and then pairing that with energetic support for the plan is what makes it possible for a leader to cheerlead a plan and to drive community enthusiasm so that other people pick up that enthusiasm and they can carry that forward in their own roles.

And this even extends to students, who in these very strategic plans were part of the planning process and understood as people who could actually move some of the plan forward themselves. And the idea that people can see and take advantage of an opportunity to express their leadership, regardless of what their formal role is, is a really important element of strategic leadership principles, which should so suffuse your institution that it becomes a norm, that people understand that they have roles to play in your planning process.

And in order to be authentically enthusiastic, presidents really need to help co-create strategic plans that create a coherent narrative that makes sense given an institution’s history, and that story compelling component is really, really important, especially during a difficult time.

And when we talked to the president of Hardy Valley, she was telling us that institutional history, she was talking about we, “We went through this very difficult moment,” or, “We emerged in this really beautiful moment,” and that way of taking on that past and future and sort of blending them together in this really compelling story means that other people want to be able to tell that story too and your strategic plan can actually help them do that.

And at the University of the West, the chancellor there told us that people have actually been freely and organically working language from the plan, like parts of the title and some of the content, into the conversations that they’re having as they go about their day, which is a really good sign that people are interacting with the plan as a normal part of their experience of the institution.


Number four, some intuition and foreknowledge about what the challenges are. Leaders only undertook a strategic planning process after having gathered information from constituents about needs and wants and getting an understanding of their perspectives about the opportunities and the possibilities. This information gathering was typically the focus of the beginning months of a presidency, during listening tours, and this intuition and foreknowledge started developing as early as the interview process, when the president was—even before they were on campus—beginning to explore the possibility of a presidency there. So all of this then helps to shape a strategic planning process.

In our consulting work and in our speaking and presenting about this research, we’ve encountered additional examples of presidents who are leading in these ways, and I recently presented with a VP for marketing and communications who told the story of her institution’s strategic plan, and her president was asked, “How do you know the strategic plan is going to be successful?” And the president said, “Because I didn’t create the plan.” But her 100 days of listening that preceded the strategic planning process, those a 100 days of listening when she started, and the subsequent report from that listening tour, that served as the springboard into strategic planning and a framing for their process.

Across these 16 most strategic plans in our study, the presidents of these institutions were really intentional doing this pre-work needed to develop this intuition and foreknowledge. For example, at the University of Vermilion Valley, the new president was even facing questions about whether a strategic planning process was coming too late, it was taking too long to get started because she’d been in office for six months. But the president made it clear that she needed to get the lay of the land, she needed to get familiar with the culture. It was important to be guided by what she could learn from others before starting that process.

The ability to make an honest reckoning was not just a leadership theme, it was an overall theme of the plans that were the most strategic. If you’ve already previewed our book or executive summary or joined us for our previous webinar, being truthful about areas where an institution has fallen short in the past or is currently falling short, that helps to make a compelling case for change.

And it’s not easy to do this as a leader. It requires self-awareness and vulnerability. And frankly, it’s rare. It was much more common across the 100-plus plans that we reviewed to see the strategic plan serve as more of a promotional piece. “Here’s what’s great about us, here’s what’s great about our institution, here are the great things we’re doing, and our strategic plan outlines how we’re going to do more of these great things or become better recognized for the great things that we’re doing.”

But these leaders of the plans that were the most strategic, they had a genuine desire to engage challenges, and their planning processes entailed, as we say here, a brutally honest self-examination. Doing so then gives a lot of credibility to the goals and strategies within a plan.

The University of Vermilion Valley, we’ll use this example again, a public research university of about 23,000 students. They had one of the more compelling examples of this in our study, and the results of a campus culture survey that they conducted were, as their leadership told us during the interview, they weren’t great. So they then built a whole strategic priority around addressing employee dissatisfaction and making their institution a great place to work, which in turn would enable them to better serve students.

So being transparent about this challenge, that helped to build a persuasive case for change, a persuasive case for the strategies needed to become an employer of choice that intentionally attracts and retains the most talented diverse faculty and staff.

One more example here, North Woods University, also noteworthy. In the appendix of their plan—they were one of the more strategic or most strategic—they included responses from town halls to the question, “What is holding us back?” Which followed a list of responses about what makes the institution distinctive. So they included those themes, they included the discussion about what’s holding them back. And it’s uncommon to see this level of transparency, and the leader obviously is at the center of establishing that kind of environment.


Thank you. And for this one, ability to trust and delegate, there’s such a clear connection between what Rob has just described about listening to what the community has to say and a leader’s ability to trust and delegate.

Several interviewees that we talked to talked about this as a team process. And of course, while presidents are often evaluated on strategic plan progress, they have other duties to attend to, and so being able to lean on others to carry the process forward and to provide updates is essential.

And the new chancellor of the University of the West, for him, that meant that he called on a well-respected administrator who had been part of the campus community for a long time to be his eyes and ears. He made that person the co-chair of the strategic planning committee, understanding that he could understand that person’s perceptions and understanding of community dynamics. And leaders also assigned oversight of specific metrics and progress reports to others whose job descriptions included elements related to strategic plan goals, for instance, assigning any academically related metrics and accountability to a provost or to a dean of a college or school is one way to do that.

And then another option is to create a chief of strategy, a chief strategy officer position. The president of Volente University brought in a colleague that he had worked with at another institution to be able to do that. This person was really involved in the day-to-day oversight of the strategic plan and knew when it would be important to involve a president in a decision and when she could handle that in his stead as he was busy doing other things. And as we’ve been having our follow-up conversations, this has become another area of interest, precisely because the creation of this kind of position says something about the fact that institutions are acknowledging that strategic plans should not “sit up on a shelf,” as one of our interviewees said in another discussion. If you’re going to actually use these documents, they need to constantly be in conversation. They need to constantly be in activation. And so having someone whose task it is to keep driving that process, who is not the president, is often an essential feature of success on a campus.

Now, we’ve talked about co-creation, thinking big, ways of creating a lot of space for change, and that’s great, but at the same time, there are actually limits to what strategic plans can accomplish and there are limits to what kinds of actions are within any institutional leader’s purview, and so this is one of those places where being visionary becomes very distinct from being hallucinatory.

And college president and author David Haney distinguishes between gravity problems and wicked problems. Wicked problems are complicated, they’re thorny, they take a lot of work, but they are things for which you can feasibly propose a solution for a college president that would be something that was in their purview. On the other hand, a gravity problem is just like gravity. It is part of the milieu in which you operate, and it is not within a president’s purview to change that.

So one example to sort of highlight the difference there. For instance, if you think about enrollment challenges during a single cycle, that is an example of a wicked problem. The state budgetary problems that you’re facing during that same cycle are a gravity problem. You cannot fix the legislature yourself.

And over the course of our research, we have developed the perspective that the distinction between a wicked problem and a gravity problem might depend on context and your institutional specifics, but what matters here is really entering the process of being thoughtful about what it is that your institution has the ability and the capacity to address and what lies outside of that. And we heard about presidents taking on what Williams called the power to exclude, which means that they understood that they could say, “This is within our power to solve. This is not.” And as well, “This is within our power to do. This is what is not feasible for us,” so there’s two kinds of constraints that can be imposed there.

And the president of Volente University asked his employees when they were strategic planning about which of their duties they could dump if they could get rid of 20% of them, and this is another example of that trusting. He understood them to understand their duties well enough to know what was absolutely essential, and also understanding that everything that happens on a campus is not necessary for achieving a strategic priority.

And what we love about this example is it provides a really beautiful way to think about how asking the question, “What do we not have to do? What can we stop doing?” Thinking about that as a way that imposes constraints that actually allows you to access new solutions.


And number eight, exercising intentionality, which may seem like an obvious point, but it was such a pleasure to hear so many different examples from these presidents and leaders of their intentionality throughout all phases of strategic planning, from the actual planning to the execution of plans, and we especially appreciated examples of intentionality that were focused on audiences and those who are supposed to take action based on these strategic plans.

So we’ll give you a couple of examples here. We heard this beautiful story from Volente University. They had a retreat last spring with more than 100 across their leadership team and unit leaders and department chairs, and everyone was asked to share something that was successful during the pandemic, either professionally or personally. And it became this unifying moment. And a department chair stood up and said their takeaway was, “If we could do all of this during the pandemic, there’s no limit to what we could do as the pandemic recedes.” So, a great example of intentionality in a specific leadership gathering, and we saw even larger, more systematic approaches to this intentionality.

A few more examples. A campus community, one leader talked about how they were experiencing this saturation. Saturation was the word that they used, with the degree of change and all the change management. So they were more intentional in shifting and trying to avoid committee work. I think we probably would all give a thumbs up to that. But instead, they were trying to embed planning in other ways, meetings that were already happening, surveys and focus groups. We saw intentionality exercised in how one institution leveraged its strategic plan to give their campus community a common language for how they talk about themselves.

And then the University of the West, which Aimee referenced earlier, it was the intentionality of aligning a brand strategy process and a comprehensive fundraising campaign with the strategic planning effort so that there was institutional momentum created by purposefully linking those three major initiatives and making sure brand strategy was connected to the strategic plan, and that the comprehensive campaign to generate philanthropic support was based on the strategic plan. And I’m sure, as many of you have experienced, that can be like trying to get stars to align. So, a wonderful example of exercising intentionality.

A range of examples here, but a sub theme we saw emerge consistently was exercising intentionality in communications, and more specifically, over-communicating. The president of one institution said, somewhat jokingly, that he wanted people to complain about getting too many messages from him. And his advice was, “When you think you’ve communicated enough, you need to communicate some more.” And he emphasized this because strategic planning cannot be about consensus. So, constant communication has to be … It’s an absolute imperative, just as one of you mentioned in the chat, that you need all members to be involved, all members to be invested, and so constantly communicating with them about the plan, what’s happening, the progress, the process itself, over-communicating when you may assume that everyone’s in the know or you may not need to communicate as much as you do.

And the quote here, “If we’re going to move this forward,” this president said, “it’s all about communication. At the end of the day, some people are not going to agree, and that’s okay. It can’t keep us from moving forward.”


Yes, thank you. And your point there, Rob, about over-communication is reminiscent of those days of the pandemic when we were starting this research and when a lot of institutions got into the habit of over-communicating, and as we can assume, a lot of institutions have kind of dropped that habit, even though, especially when it comes to moving everyone forward, that’s something that you want to get back into the habit of doing.

And with that, we do want to circle back to what we mentioned at the beginning of this presentation about the fact that we were really interested in trying to understand what it was that the pandemic was doing to strategic planning, if anything. And with the benefit of being able to ask follow-up questions three years later, what we’ve continued to hear is that those plans that were most strategic had gone through that process of honesty, of abundance thinking, of being really self-reflective, and also thinking about what constraints are possible and really thinking about, what are the solutions to the challenges that individuals who are part of our institutional community face?

And because those plans had been so thorough in thinking about that brutal, honest self-reckoning, and also understanding where opportunities lie, the solutions that were present in the strategic planning, they could call right on those things during the pandemic, and there might have needed to be a shift in priority, but a lot of these institutions that thought through their strategic plans, they really were able to continue making progress and even to flourish in new ways precisely because they had done that really, really difficult work.

One way to think about that, of course, is student technology access or other kinds of educational access initiatives. That element of student-centeredness that we’ve talked about, that really helps institutions move through the pandemic smartly.

Another idea here that has been emerging in our conversation is that strategic planning sometimes can focus on institutional growth and stability, which makes sense, right? But at the same time, really strategic plans are able to achieve a really good balance of institutional priority and human priority. They understand that institutions are comprised of humans who have needs, and that the institution has responsibility towards them. For instance, that student-centeredness.

And ones that took that approach really carefully were really able to move into a vignette like what Rob described with Volente University, and one of the things that is really interesting and we think inspiring about strategic planning is it is a way to engage your community after a period of disruption in coming together, reuniting, getting reacquainted. It is a way to reconvene as a community and think about, who are we, what are our goals, what do we want for ourselves, and then to move forward as a community. And that’s just one of the things that will be coming in the next phase of our research.

Another element, thinking back to the pandemic, is issues around shared governance. How do institutions talk about who has the power to carry out a strategic plan initiative? Where does authority or accountability or responsibility lie? What do we do with those kinds of things? And so that’s another element that we’ll be bringing out.

And we thank you again so much for being here today. It’s been wonderful to have you and to share these leadership findings, and we hope that they’re really inspiring and that you will be able to put them to work for you at your institution, and right now we could open it up for questions and discussion.


So please feel free to add any questions to the chat, and while you do that, we will point you to a few additional resources at If you’re interested in learning more about strategic planning, we have a variety of resources available for you there. We’ve mentioned the executive summary of the research, which is about a 25-page or so white paper that you can download.

Our previous webinar from the fall, called “Strategic Planning That’s Truly Strategic,” is also available if you prefer that format. The recording, the slides are all there for you.

And then Sam mentioned the full-report book, What Makes a Strategic Plan ‘Strategic’?, and that includes overall findings from the 108 plans that we’ve reviewed and then the critical lessons from the 16 most strategic plans. And there’s a chapter in that book included on today’s topic, leading with authenticity and strategy. You can find that at

And of course, as Sam mentioned too, if we can lend an ear or a hand with your institution’s strategic planning, we are certainly ready to assist there. Questions?


Yes, it looks like we have some good ones coming in, so let’s tackle this first one. “Honestly, very little new here. Not a lot of risk taking or capacity for audacity. How about if someone kicks the hornet’s nest once in a while?”

This makes me think of University of the West’s plan, actually. It is pretty audacious. The title contains the word bold. And one of the things that is really audacious about it is that, let’s take for example their DEI consideration. They are really interested in thinking about, what is it that the university has the capacity to do, not just on campus, but socially? So, what can it do for the community around it, even for people that aren’t directly affiliated? But one of the great things that has come out of that strategic plan is some subsequent initiatives that are really questioning the nature of what the land-grant university should be doing for the world and urging them to push their reach, their innovation into new territory.


Yeah. That’s such an interesting point. I’d be interested in Sam’s perspective too about not a lot of risk-taking or capacity for audacity, and that is a great description of what we saw across 108 plans.

And in some of the other materials that we referenced, we give some specific definitions for strategy and what makes something truly strategic, and one of those ways was it’s not business as usual or it’s not things that you should already be doing. And so I even found the latest presidents survey that Inside Higher Ed released yesterday, and there was one finding, something like three-quarters of presidents recognized the need for transformational change or something that’s similar to the language that you just used here with that boldness and audacity, but that recognition that showed up in the survey results was not consistent with what we saw in strategic planning. A lot of doing things that we should already be doing, but maybe doing more of it.

And that’s, as we said earlier, and Aimee can provide some more examples too, one of those criteria for what makes something strategic is it requires a change in behavior. It’s not doing business as usual. It’s a strategy as an intervention. Aimee, which one would you like to take next? Thanks for all these great questions.


Oh man, it’s so hard to choose here. So, let’s actually follow up with the question of culture eats strategy for breakfast, because I think that that has something to do with some of the other questions, like that might help us get to our response about the challenges with employee engagement in the post-pandemic era. But let’s jump into that question, because it is absolutely correct that oftentimes culture and strategy are considered separate entities that are not functioning together at some institutions.


I know Sam has perspective on this too. I think that it’s such an interesting, the Drucker comment maybe gets oversimplified or overgeneralized, and we find this in our work across not just strategic planning but organizational effectiveness, and that interconnectedness of culture and strategy. It’s hard to separate the two, but the role of organizational culture is certainly a critical part of the planning process, and I think that gets back to the earlier point about presidents not jumping in right away to strategic planning and understanding the culture to begin with and the implications here on culture and change in culture. We also saw that manifested in the duration of strategic plans, where we will certainly see on this side of the pandemic that strategic plans will be shorter. We’re seeing more examples of rolling strategic plans, of maybe consecutive three-year strategic plans.

But we still saw among the 16 most strategic, examples of longer strategic plans, whether that’s eight years, 10 years. We’re seeing a lot of strategic plans launched right now in 2023 that go to 2030. And part of that, we found, among the 16, was because there was a recognition that there was a change in culture that was needed at the institution, and that is certainly not an overnight endeavor or something that can happen quickly.


The only thing I’d add there, Rob, is to John’s question … Hey, John … is the process also revealed quite a bit about organizational structure and design, meaning how do we address audiences within the current organizational structure? How does that help, how does that hurt, or hinder, rather? That was quite revealing throughout the research as well. So not only organizational culture, what permeates this place, what can we double down on in order to meet our ambitions, and what needs to go? But also, how is this place structured, and is it designed well enough to allow for information to flow, for missional alignment, for priorities to make their ways into individual divisions and units in a way that allows for coherence of not only buy-in, but translation of goals across in an organization? So, thanks for the question. We’ve got several more. I want to make sure we get to those.


Yeah. So we have a question here about the involvement of boards and trustees and what level.


Yeah, and perhaps, Aimee, you could share the Coastal Spring example? Which is one of the interviews where that became really apparent. And on the whole, I would say we saw this more at the approval process, not necessarily the planning process, but the approval process, and certainly examples where it’s seen as the strategic plan and progress towards a strategic plan, a bit of a report card, if you will, for a board’s oversight of the CEO president’s position.


Yes. The Coastal Spring example is the immediate one that I thought of because, talk about audacity, here you go. So, the president emerita of Coastal Spring talked to us about going to her board. Her college is facing significant enrollment challenges. They’re getting ready to kick off a strategic plan, and she goes to the board and she says, “I’ve got some ideas here. Why don’t you give me a significant portion of the endowment to activate these strategic plans?”

And to be clear, what was at stake here is that if she were not successful, if this plan were not successful, selling the college would have absolutely been on the table, so we’re talking like real existential crisis moment. And through that process of musing and really opening up creativity and investment and co-creation, and getting the board’s buy-in, one of the things she said, and this is something for all of us to take away if we’re thinking about having a conversation with a board, she said, “You come to them with two things, one of which is urgency and data. Essentially, you are telling them what the issue is and you’re going to tell them how to feel about it.” And she was so compelling in that, that they gave her the money.

And the short story is she was so successful that she left a college, she retired from a college that was becoming a known innovator in the field of educational access, opening up educational pathways to folks who aren’t on campuses. And I think that actually has a lot of lessons as well for some of the other questions here.

Chris, thank you for that response there about employee engagement. But thinking about that as one of those areas where, if you’re going to have any luck with strategic priorities, you need to think about that and to understand as well that culture doesn’t just come from the top. It is generated out of every interaction that people on your campus have. And so that is a reason to pay a lot of attention to precisely what Rob was talking about in terms of activating that mission, vision, and values, what Sam was saying about creating coherence there, right? Because paying attention to those things is how you generate the success.

There is a question in the Q-and-A about presidents’ involvement. That president is the public face, but the community is doing a lot of the work, even if other people don’t realize that. And so boards as well are an important part of that work. They oftentimes, as Rob said, are part of the approval process, but getting their buy-in, telling them what to pay attention to and how to think about it, is a really essential feature there.


Yeah, we could go on about this great question in engaging frontline staff and faculty in the strategic planning process, which certainly an inclusive process, a participatory process, but the dynamics are different now. There’s exhaustion, the Great Resignation, all of these things at play. And so our people, while they want to have a voice, it’s more work too, honestly, so how to navigate that, how to navigate the constant change, and even change in shorter tenures of presidents.

We were doing a follow-up interview with one of the 16 recently, and a strategic planning co-chair said, “We’re just looking forward to having the same president, same provost, and same football coach for two years,” and we get it. That’s the reality.

So this example that I mentioned of a chief strategy officer who was thinking about ways to continue to engage staff but not putting the burden on them of committee work or formal working groups I think is really interesting. And the Vermilion Valley example applies here as well because and their initiative around being a great place to work, because we’re seeing more examples of that in explicit initiatives about not just student success and student well-being, but employee success and employee well-being, and being intentional about that and ensuring that there are strategies and there are tactics and there are metrics associated with that employee success and well-being.


Thank you. And I think let’s pick up Diane’s question here about the role of revenue generation. How does strategy engage staff on this topic? That is such a wonderful question precisely because, as we noted and as we all know, budget is such an ever-present concern. You can’t not think about it.

One of the things is, and this also goes to Sandra’s question about tips to build this culture, is having everybody understand what the institution is about and what it’s doing.

That might seem like a simplistic answer, but sometimes in other work that we do we hear that there are people who have part of an institutional story or who understand the institution from a particular moment in time but don’t necessarily understand where it’s going and what the point of that is. And so understanding what your role does within that totality, so for instance, if you are a student-facing worker in housing, what is it that your role contributes to the success of the institution, which means the success of the students that you are serving? If you can understand your role in that, one of the things that that does is help create a sense of purpose around the work.

Another thing, and maybe, Rob, you could talk about this through the lens of brand, having everybody pulling in that direction simultaneously helps people understand that there are revenue-generating aspects to their work that maybe are more indirect, but also helps them think about, what are ways in which we can create new partnerships or look for new sources of revenue, for instance, credentialing programs or things like that.


And to go with that, Aimee, a holistic approach to that, attendees may have noticed when Aimee outlined some of those items that the 92 plans lack, that we did not consider to be the most strategic, and you saw the early involvement of marketing and communications leadership as part of that, and I think that partially gets into this revenue discussion too, where we saw marketing more in a promotional sense of, “Let’s get the word out about the plans,” or more broadly, “Let’s get the word out about our brand,” or, “Let’s announce a new brand,” or those types of things versus a more holistic and strategic way that that marketing can help and be a part of those discussions and initiatives and planning and strategy around revenue diversification.

We saw, in some of those plans that were not as strategic, we saw more transactional approaches to that perspective about financial sustainability. So, philanthropy, for instance, was often mentioned across these plans, but many times in a narrow transactional way of, “Well, we’re going to launch a campaign,” or, “We’re going to raise more money,” versus engaging the audiences that are most important to the institution, ensuring that we are providing value to them across their lifetime and their engagement with the institution, those sorts of more holistic ways that still can serve the purpose of the goal around revenue diversification or financial sustainability, but bringing in the expertise of different parts of the institution. And this may even open up the discussion around silos, which Sam would have perspective on that too, but want to see if you had anything to add on the revenue topic.


Yeah, I think it’s absolutely critical. Obviously we see it most in sort of program development or in net tuition revenue goals, mostly with tuition-dependent institutions, of which there are many, but we could go on and on about that, and particularly about silos.

I think the critical notion is that we bring more people, more constituents into the discussion about revenue and be more transparent, to be quite frank, about how revenue passes through an organization. It’s not a widely held model or widely understood model, particularly when we talk to our boards, who come from different backgrounds outside of higher ed. Rob’s right, of course we would say so, that marketing’s ability to help with product development would be welcome in most discussions or should be welcome in most discussions.

Thank you. We’ve met our time. I want to be sensitive to your days. Thanks for sharing your lunch with us, for those on the east coast. Thanks to Dr. Aimee and Dr. Rob for their work and presentations today.

If we didn’t get to your question, Curtis, I saw your hand was up while we were engaged in a few others, fire us an email and we’ll do our best to help you out, particularly with alignment from content from the research in the study, but it’s been wonderful to be with you. Thanks again for your great, great questions. Thanks, Dr. Rob, Dr. Aimee, for your work today. We’ll be distributing the webinar to attendees shortly after, in the next week or so, and we look forward to your response. Thanks to everyone. Have a remarkable week.

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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.