Transcript: Strategic Planning That’s Truly Strategic

On October 12, RHB’s Aimee Hosemann and Rob Zinkan hosted a webinar, Strategic Planning That’s Truly Strategic, to share findings and critical lessons from RHB’s yearlong study of 108 current strategic plans across higher education. 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. 

Aimee Hosemann

Thanks, you all, so much for joining us today. We’re so excited to get to talk to you about the results of our year-long study of 108 strategic plans. This was a really interesting project for us at points, which surprised and uplifted us. One of the things that we’re really excited about today is that what we’re going to present will hopefully be useful to you as you think about strategic planning at your own institution, no matter what your role is at your institution. And besides this webinar, our results are also available in an executive summary and in a book-length form that goes into a lot more detail. 

So why bother? 

It’s a real question when it comes to strategic planning and from you, we’d like to know if we were to say the words “strategic planning,” what is the first word or set of words that comes to your mind? Feel free to drop that in the chat. And how many of you are in the throes of getting ready to plan or planning or executing a strategic plan? 

We know it’s an expected activity, we certainly know that. And it’s possibly even a signature piece by which your president might be evaluated by your board. 

So beginning in 2020, we started to think through these questions that you see here on the screen before you, about who these plans are actually for, why the process is so complex and even what it means to have strategy. And I’m seeing some things coming in, change, community, prioritization—beautiful—because these are exactly the things that we’re going to be speaking to today. 

And one of the things that actually got us thinking about doing the study is that we read a lot of strategic plans as we’re thinking about how to guide clients. And one of the things that we noticed is that some of the [strategic plans] aren’t that distinctive. We really weren’t sure who was supposed to read them, or what they were supposed to do once they did that. And so that is sort of the catapult that moved us into this. And also, as you can guess, thinking about starting this work in the spring of 2020, it’s also the pandemic. One of the things that we were really curious about is what are institutions doing in response to the pandemic? Do the changes that they have to make at this particular moment change anything about their relationship to their strategic plan? 

And so this afternoon we’re going to walk you through this deep dive and we’re going to talk about some of the contents of those plans and leadership qualities that were really successful in some strategic planning processes. And then we’re going to tell you some things that both could inspire you but also perhaps give you some pause. 

And we’re really excited to be able, especially at the end, to be walking through some words of wisdom and inspiration. 

So this study was led by Dr. Rob Zinkan, RHB’s vice president for marketing leadership, and me, the director of qualitative research, with help from a graduate research assistant named Connor LaGrange, who is now a graduate of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and his insights as a current student at that time and his just absolutely insatiable energy. [That was] really essential in helping us during this study. 

So I have been with RHB for about two and a half years after coming over from a faculty position at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. I’m trained as an anthropologist and a documentary linguist. I specialize in qualitative methods like ethnography and interviewing. And I’m really interested in how language, culture and identities like institutional identities inform each other. In my previous academic life, I was especially interested from the research side in how bilingual students experience college attainment and how their languages shaped how their college careers went.

Rob Zinkan

Yeah, thanks Aimee. And for a little bit of background and my perspective, I’m in my fourth year at RHB and came to the firm after more than 20 years in marketing and external affairs on university campuses. And in those portfolios of marketing and communications, external affairs, advancement, a common theme was trying to organize our work around the constituent and their entire relationship to the institution. And in higher ed, as you know, we tend to organize ourselves into functional silos when our audiences view the institution more holistically. So with marketing, a fundamental role or responsibility is representing the voice of the stakeholder, bringing an intimate understanding of the constituent to the table to inform our strategies. So we tried to bring that audience-centric or constituent-centric focus to this research.

I’ve been involved in strategic planning. I’m sure many of you have been as well or you currently are, that’s why you’re here. And at RHB we encounter a lot of strategic plans across our work, and we started to ask these questions that Aimee showed earlier and thinking about it from a user perspective or an audience perspective in terms of who are these ultimately for? How are the voices of those stakeholders represented? How do those audiences interact with the plans? And again, if plans, as some of you have noted in the chat, tend to all look the same, are they really strategic? 

A little bit about RHB very briefly, if you’re not familiar, we’re a higher education firm, now in our 32nd year. We’ve had the privilege of helping hundreds of colleges and universities of all different types on their path toward greater relevance. And leaders of those institutions come to RHB for everything from securing a desirable market position to empowering them to build affinity for their institution at each step of the student life cycle to strengthening organizational capability. And we work across four practices, enrollment management, executive counsel, which includes our work in assisting institutions in strategic planning, institutional marketing, which I have the pleasure of leading that practice. And then Slate and related technology to manage constituent relationships and data.

The principle of coherence. So this guides our work at RHB and it also helped guide this research: discovering and telling the truth about the one place that your institution occupies in the higher education universe. And again, as Aimee mentioned in our analysis of more than a hundred plans, an institution’s market position, it was rarely evident in its strategic plan. To be coherent is choosing a singular position, who an institution intends to be relative to competitors. And then supporting that choice of market position with coherent institutional behaviors and experiences and communications. And with the repetition of those coherent experiences and expressions, the audiences that you wish to reach and influence and move to action, they will come to identify the brand you intend for your institution. And we’ll talk much more about the presence of brand or branding in these plans.

The ideal state when coherence actually exists is when the answers to these three questions are in alignment. What is true about your institution, what your institution says is true about itself, and what others believe to be true about your institution.

Aimee Hosemann

Thank you. So during our year-long study, we used a variety of methods including discourse analysis, which is a technique of analyzing language or content relationships in relation to larger sorts of questions. So for instance, that could be other discourses of interest on a campus or at the state or national level. And once we had a sense of what content was pretty similar across plans, then we were actually able to get a grip on what are those points of distinction that mark something that might be more strategic. 

So we wanted to capture a wide range of institutional types because American higher education is so diverse and our dataset of 108 private and public four year universities spanned all 50 states. And it contained plans that were easily locatable on institutional websites. So we had religiously affiliated institutions in addition to large publics. We also had HBCUs. And as a side note, it was interesting to us to encounter so many institutions that have their plans behind credentials. There’s an interesting thing to consider there in terms of why you might be keeping that private. So as we compared the plans, we identified 16 that seemed to contain the most strategic tendencies. And to answer an essential question—what does it mean to be strategic?—we read and learned quite clearly that strategy means not just doing the same thing that you’ve done before, but enhanced. Hal Williams and David P. Haney have written a lot about this in their work. These are plans that have a lot of the tendencies that we describe in the findings to you. So what we’re looking for is plans that indicate change. A new direction. Strategy means doing something new and it also means asking what the opposite of a change might be. So Peter Eckel has written about this. Let’s say you’re interested in improving academic quality. The opposite of that is reducing academic quality. And presumably that’s not something that you would be interested in. So certainly you should be improving academic quality if that is a thing that you need to do. But that’s not necessarily strategic. It can become a tactic. But remember, strategy comes from changing direction. We also were really, really lucky in that when we reached out to the presidents and chancellors of those 16 institutions, we were lucky enough that seven of them, so presidents, chancellors and some of their staff and teams were able to speak with us. We also spoke with the president of a small liberal arts college and a president emerita of historically women’s university to get their perspectives. And then we were really grateful to be able to get time with David Haney, Hal Williams, and Peter Eckel as well, because they’ve spent so much of their career studying strategic planning and they had some really valuable insights to share as well.

So, profile of these plans, they really ran the gamut in terms of really basic features like the length of the plan, how many goals, committee composition in terms of their content. And so we’re going to walk you through some of the tendencies across the 108 so that you can understand why the 16 that we most identified as strategic are so. And then also talk about some wisdom from our interviewee. So here you can see the most common overarching priorities, and it was sort of difficult to actually count how many of each because they kind of fell into categories or buckets. So financial sustainability for instance, could range across a number of goals. But one of the things that we did notice vary by such a huge margin is that goals around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging seem to be by far the most common. For instance, as standalone goals, but also built into elements of other goals. So thinking about student success measures here as an example.

Now, to a point that Rob is going to discuss in a few minutes, one of the things that we really started to internalize even at the early stages of this research is that if you don’t have your marketing and communications folks working with you as people who are going to be communicating the things that are in the plan and communicating about the process, that’s a real missed opportunity.

All right, so how many? This was actually a really interesting theoretical question in our interviews and in reading the plans, and you can see here that there’s a pretty [big] range from two to 22 goals and priorities. And you can see by the mean and the median in that five to six is kind of the sweet spot. Those that we saw generally range between three and six, and that’s a good number, five is a good number, five overarching goals with some sub goals is great, helps you monitor progress toward that overarching goal. Now, one of the things that happens if you start to get into these higher numbers is that you have competing priorities. And we really had to ask if your institution has 22 equally important priorities, what is really going on?

And because these are so important, it would make sense to us to have a public and inclusive process. So the earlier that you can get co-collaboration and co-authoring from your community, the better. However, as you can see here, 58% or 63 of the 108 did not list any information about who was on steering committees. Not even a general statement about whether they were faculty, staff, administrators or students. And ideally, your plan should not be coming out of nowhere with no author. Giving audiences information about who’s involved in those planning processes, perhaps through a nice letter from the president at the beginning of the plan, talking about the process is a really necessary act of transparency.

So one thing to note as well, that for those that did share the composition of those committees, a hundred percent of them did have faculty and staff representation. And that is so critical because work life is emerging as a really important area in strategic planning. Note though, however, that 64.4% of the 45 listed students as members and we really appreciated Connor’s participation and perception here as a student. He said, you know, I don’t see students in these plans, or it doesn’t necessarily seem like the institution is recognizing what student needs are. By contrast, the 16 most strategic plans all gave committee composition information, 13 of them actually named all of the folks who participated often in association with a specific work group or committee to which they contributed.

Rob Zinkan

Another item of note: We expected every single plan to clearly articulate a vision for their institution, but more than a third of the plans did not, 35%. And a statement or expression of vision helps to paint a picture of the future for stakeholders to inspire them. Just as, Jon, you mentioned in the chat, vision was one of the words that came to mind. So that vision gives your stakeholders, your campus community an image of the ideal state that the institution wishes to achieve or create. And it helps to imagine how the mission and values of your institution can be lived in the future in new ways. So it should be foundational to a strategic plan, giving a sense of institutional purpose and possibility. So if a strategic plan is indeed a roadmap to achieving a vision, how could a plan not be clear about what that vision is? So make it easy for your audiences and stakeholders. Don’t put the burden on them to try to figure that out. 

Another fascinating pattern that we saw emerge was in how strategic plans were introduced early in documents with an overview of the landscape of higher education, all those headwinds and market forces that you all know so well and are experiencing to varying degrees, from changing demographics to declining public confidence and higher education. That overview of the landscape helps to set up a rationale for change. Absolutely. However, the majority of plans in our study that we reviewed, they did not go beyond that general overview of broad, external, cultural, social and economic factors that will affect the road ahead. We did not see the use of environmental scans or surveys to really understand and describe the specific and nuanced ways that these factors can affect a particular institution. And whether that’s specific data about the regions that they served in their particular markets or data about current perceptions of their stakeholders. So data and insights from market research can be so helpful in showing you patterns that are specific to your institution. And then certainly you can follow up on those with other methods, like interviews, to draw out why did people respond as they did across our survey.

And you may say, well, we did some town halls and open forums and those are indeed important for your campus community. And we would ask, are those about getting buy in or are they truly about co-creation? And at the same time, an important point that drawing on multiple sources of data to triangulate your current position, where you’re starting is critical when you’re undertaking something as consequential and direction-setting as a strategic plan. And one quick example, Bradley University was not among the strategic plans that we reviewed its plan and in 2021 it came after we had started our research. But it’s one of the more robust examples we’ve seen in terms of environmental scanning and surveying. It had an environmental and industry analysis, market analysis, competitive analysis, and extensive research with prospective students. 

At RHB, we often say that brand lies in the specific. Only when you begin to describe yourself in very specific terms, do you have any chance of finding a place in the mind of those you’re trying to reach, your audiences, your constituents. And in a similar way, strategic plan progress lies in the specific in terms of specific key performance indicators. How will your community know if they’re making progress or even what success looks like? And we encourage clarity here. Clarity is essential, not just for following the course you’ve mapped out toward your goals and priorities and your plan, but also for assigning responsibility and accountability along the way.

Remarkably, only 29 of 108 plans provided clear success metrics or any key performance indicators. So what about the other plans for the nearly three quarters of plans that did not include specific measures, what do we see? Well, we saw language that is as grand, or as vague as it is grand. So words like enhance, the most common, broaden, strengthen, build, increase. Are those the words that are littered throughout your strategic plan? And they do speak to growth and improvement, but unless they’re specific markers associated with them, it can be really difficult to track progress. Enhanced by whom? By how much, for what? So look at your current strategic plan. When you see those types of words such as enhance, ask the tough questions, what does it mean? How do we know if we’ve actually enhanced something? If there is a goal to enhance something at your institution, are there then corresponding objectives that are specific and are quantifiable? The 16 strategic plans that we deem the most strategic, on the other hand, they had multiple methods by which to assess progress. They had reliable checkpoints and reporting and accountability structures. 

Rankings. It was just ranking season not too long ago with all those announcements. And as we looked at various items throughout plans, we also noted whether plans mentioned rankings of any sort, whether that be current ranking or desired ranking, perhaps out of our own curiosity to see whether those were mentioned. And likely not a surprise here that it was split fairly evenly with just under half of the plans mentioning rankings. And this may be more interesting, or particularly interesting down the road if we repeat this study and see if there’s perhaps a decrease or any movement in this figure. So this split could reflect what we all know about the limitations of rankings. But yet if your institution is ranked well, we tout that news releases, LinkedIn posts, all the things that we saw about a month ago. The former president of my previous institution would always clarify in a news release about a ranking when quoted or in a speech about a ranking that rankings are only one measure, not the full measure of success, but rankings such as this provide important evidence or reflect that our university is doing outstanding work in X, Y, Z. 

Well, you heard about my background in marketing and institutional marketing is one of RHB’s four practices. So this was an area where we had a lot of interest. What would a review of strategic plans tell us about the state of higher education marketing? What would that reveal? And overall, approximately half of the strategic plans, as you see here, explicitly mention marketing or marketing and communication. For comparison with other external or constituent focus functions, 68% of the plans referenced advancement or fundraising. While 73% of plans included mentions of alumni, alumni relations, or alumni engagement. And marketing was most often mentioned in the context of enrollment marketing and institutional branding, as you see. However, marketing research, marketing metrics were least frequently mentioned.

I wrote an Inside Higher Ed piece about the implications for marketing from this study and mentioned this point. And someone, a colleague on Twitter said something to the effect of, well, some of this stuff is behind the scenes and it’s more tactical, so you wouldn’t necessarily see it show up in a strategic plan, which is a really good point, particularly related to these things like marketing research or marketing metrics, references that we didn’t see. But we saw in these plans that they were largely operational, they were largely tactical in nature. So we would expect to see some of these things. And in regard to marketing research and marketing metrics, there’s also a parallel here to the earlier point about the lack of environmental scanning to inform strategy and the lack of KPIs to measure success. 

As we did the content analysis of these mentions of marketing, it became really clear that mentions of marketing were predominantly in the realm of promotion. So if you’re familiar with or think of the traditional four Ps of marketing, product, price, place, and promotion. Promotion is the getting the word out part. And we saw a lot of phrases like vigorously promote or boldly promote, promote our image, all those promotion oriented references. So, the review of plans revealed a much more limited, less strategic view of the marketing function in higher education. So, not reflected across these current plans were more strategic capabilities that a marketing function can have. We didn’t see mentions of marketing, for example, that were connected to shaping the constituent experience to build lifetime value or aligning institutional behaviors with a selected market position or informing program development through research and market orientation. That’s the kind of value that a marketing function can bring to an institution, and does bring to organizations in other sectors.

And once again, the market position, it should be evident, that should be clear in your strategic plan, and it was not the case in our review. So the few exceptions that existed among the 16 most strategic plans, we did see some of those mentions of marketing’s role in helping an institution identify and develop alternative revenue streams as one example. There was also a mention among those 16 about market intelligence-based program development through a collaboration among academic affairs, finance, and marketing.

Aimee Hosemann

Great. And now that you have a sense of what some of the most basic tendencies were across plans and really why many strategic plans are not necessarily strategic, here are some examples of the right things to do. So as we share some of the great insights that our interviewee shared with us, one quick thing to notice, when we invited one president to participate, she asked whether it would be possible for us to use a pseudonym for her institution. We were happy to do that and extended that courtesy to all of our interviewees because we’re aware that even in the process of interviewing with two researchers, it gets a lot into institutional identity. We saw the reference to community and the chat responses. Yes, this is a very community-oriented exercise and there can be elements of that that, you know, you don’t necessarily want to have out there for everyone.

Rob Zinkan

The presidents who oversaw the best written plans were those who were able to not just look at all the possibilities, all the beautiful gems within reach, but also some of the ugly truths here about their institution. So we make this point about an inclusive transparent process and brutal honesty. Those plans that most clearly articulated or stated the challenges that they faced. And again, at the same time, recognizing the many wonderful things and possibilities and people that make the institution distinctive. They were best equipped if they were brutally honest, they were best equipped to make a persuasive case that the goals and outcomes they set were the correct ones. So, well crafted discussions of where the institution had fallen short or even is falling short now, that gave credibility to goals within the plan. It was clear that those plans were intended and developed to bring about positive change. They were not just exercises in PR. And that gets back to the original question from the outset, what is a strategic plan for? 

So one of our questions to the presidents and chancellors of the 16 institutions that had the most strategic plans, how do you navigate this balance, or sometimes perhaps even attention between having an inclusive participatory process and getting to a point where you have a plan that is truly strategic, meaning, as Aimee said, that you’ve made hard choices along the way and that not everyone’s idea would be included.

And this gets to a core issue and leadership challenge that the most successful plans were able to address that yes, there was an inclusive process and we meaningfully and appropriately engage those constituents who matter most to the university. Strategy though is an exercise in making choices, choosing where are you going to compete, where are you going to invest? So your plan should reflect a set of choices that you’ve made institutionally. If everything is a priority, nothing’s a priority, right? How do you then prioritize? Aimee mentioned the one plan we saw that had 22 overarching goals. So that’s why the transparency point is so valuable. We saw one example in our study among the 16 most strategic, where a university leader was sharing the updated strategic planning document with changes tracked, track changes all the way through with each iteration. And that might be more than you have in mind, but it’s an example of doing as much as possible to be transparent. It would certainly be easier not to do that. But for this specific institution, in their case, it was helpful. That level of transparency served the planning process well. 

So number two, among the most strategic plans, we get back to this point about marketing. And over the last decade plus we’ve seen the chief marketing officer, the CMO, the rise of that position in higher ed bringing the importance of the marketing function, to a leadership role. And so we’ve seen an increased level in cabinet-level positions for marketing, who are responsible for marketing. Yet our studies showed that marketing is still seen primarily as a promotional function. So, Aimee mentioned the point about steering committees. So of the 108 strategic plans, about 45 of them, 40% identified the constituencies that core steering committee members represented. Far fewer actually listed the actual committee member names. So again, back to transparency, we would recommend more transparency, but among those 45 plans that did include that, only 17 had a marketing and communications leader as part of the core steering committee.

So if the role of marketing is to be promotional, make the strategic plan look pretty, turn it into a nice glossy piece, get the word out about the plan, well then I suppose that’s fine. But if marketing should serve a more strategic role beyond promotion, truly understanding stakeholder perceptions, helping an institution create market orientation to inform program development, or helping to shape the constituent experience, then not including that senior leader, that senior marketing leader on the strategic planning core team, as was the case at so many of these institutions, that represents a missed opportunity for institutional leaders.

And while communications about the plan are vitally important, we encourage you not to limit your perspective to only that as the role of marketing. Strategic plans touch all facets of an institution and marketing can bring an institution wide perspective that layers in this understanding of audiences that we keep talking about and that constituent-centric perspective, that takes into account all of institutions, various stakeholder groups, its core audiences, those who will be affected by the plan and ultimately those who need to take action based on the plan. 

This quote here, we included, it highlights and captures some of those observations. We saw brand or branding in more than 40% of the plans that referred to marketing, but definitions and meanings of those words, they were vastly inconsistent. So this example, the university will announce an even more powerful brand, but it doesn’t quite work that way. Brand exists in the minds of our audiences. So, despite this observation that most colleges and universities are pursuing similar aspirations, they’re taking similar actions or proposing similar actions in their strategic plans, they take a posture of distinctiveness in their plans and they tend to assume that they are distinctive or that their student experience or academic offerings are distinctive in plans. So branding then, the role of branding or more branding or better branding, will then generate, so they hope, the desired awareness or recognition. Nearly all colleges and universities want to be better known. They want more awareness, but less certain and less certain in the plans is exactly what they want to be known for and why.

Aimee Hosemann

Thank you. And one of the things to [note], as we noted earlier, is the prevalence of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging as important themes in these plans. And what was interesting is how holistically those concepts were envisioned. So, certainly thinking about recruiting students of diverse backgrounds, but also really thinking about how we shore up student success measures? Also thinking about how do we make the physical plant more accessible for people of different abilities? How do we offer better-fit career services? And also really even thinking about how do we incorporate alumni into that lifelong relationship with us in new and innovative ways that keep them close? And also really importantly, we saw that a lot of plans were being very clear about how important work-life balance is to the totality of life for faculty, staff and administrators. And that was becoming a really important effort there in terms of hiring, mentorship and retention at all points along the employment ladder.

And we love this quote from the president of Volente University, a public comprehensive in the Midwest. And he really talked about DEIB issues as an ethical responsibility. And we heard that a lot in our conversations, whether the institution was public or private, it was so inspiring to hear leaders talking about this as a moral and ethical commitment and really putting that into action. And we also heard that in keeping with strategic leadership principles, as one chancellor described it, this is the work of, quote, “A cast of thousands.” So, everyone on a campus is responsible for playing a role here. And we have a whole chapter in the book about this precisely because it is so important and people were so effusive in talking about it. And here is a visual example that we really love from Hardy Valley University’s plan. So on one side you see themes that were important to the community there on the left and the goals on the right. And what we really appreciate here is that leadership, diversity and inclusion, recognition and relevance, those are important to everyone who has a constituent relationship to an institution. And so they are not necessarily inseparable, they all play a part in everything: engage and educate, excel and lead. This really indicated to us that this plan was meant to be relevant to everyone who read it and also by virtue of that actually distributing leadership responsibilities to the people who have read this so that they understand that they are responsible for carrying that out.

So, another important element in planning, we heard about drills down into the mindset that leadership has, as they’re going into this process. And we were really fascinated to hear that one technique a leader pointed us to was the idea of using what they called abundance thinking or presuming that there would be enough there to do the things that mattered. So Volente’s president walked us through sort of an imaginary conversation where a dean might come to him and say, we only have $44 million, we don’t have any money. And his response to that would be, well, you have money but you have to make choices. So one of the things that is really interesting there is that, so they start with this mindset that there would be enough to do what needed to be done. But then part B of that is it also entails making smart choices and it also means thinking really broadly about how you categorize “resource”—so, understanding that you will have the money, you also will have the enthusiasm, the intelligence, the creativity to be able to accomplish what you need to.

And here’s a really important point for presidents and chancellors. You don’t have to be present for everything in the strategic planning process. You don’t have to go to every meeting. Leaders should know their leadership styles and understand when it is personally and contextually most important for them to be visible in the process. And what then becomes important is choosing colleagues who can be your proxy for going to meetings or for elevating concerns to you because you have so many other things to do as well. But they really serve as your trusted voice and ear.

So the chancellor of the University of the West who was new in his position and had embarked on that strategic planning process, which is often a marker of a new administration, he really understood that he needed to understand the community well and he needed the help of someone who understood it well. So, he selected a really well regarded administrator who had been on campus to serve as his co-chair and he really relied on that person to share the institutional knowledge that he needed to make good choices. And what we heard from them was that because they focused on getting the process right, even more so than the results of the process, they heard very little backlash. And so they had a general sense that they had, quote, “more or less got it right.” And the presidents that we spoke to really relied again on that self-knowledge to know when to make themselves visible or even how to give instructions to their community about the process that would be really useful.

So for instance, in an example, we loved that president emerita of the historically women’s college got people together in a retreat and said, just dream big. Like if you could do anything, don’t worry about the material conditions of it. What’s required? What would you really want to do if you could do anything that you imagined? And that gave them the ability to really surface the most interesting ideas but without any pressure attached to them.

And then again, going back to the example that Rob gave of the leader who was sharing drafts with those edits, one of the things that is really important about these points is that they are encouraging that community co-collaboration in the production. And then this quote is one of our favorites in the entirety of our research, “College presidents have to be visionary but not hallucinatory,” and understanding that boundary is going to be so critical. Presidents need to have big ideas, they also have to be ones that can be accomplished. That means that presidents have to understand their own interests, the places where they are most able to apply their support, but that they also need to be astute judges of campus and culture and politics and willing to listen to those other campus constituents who can help them find where that line is between being visionary and hallucinatory.

Rob Zinkan

One of my dissertation committee members had this saying that institutions are great at talking about themselves to themselves. And our parallel for strategic planning here is that strategic plans are developed for the institution by the institution, and there can be a disconnect between the outward expression of institutional missions to transform lives and transform society and the more inward facing process of strategic planning.

One example from our research, community outreach, as you saw earlier in one of the slides that Aimee went through, community outreach broadly defined was among the top five most common strategic priorities or overarching themes across plans. Yet only 11% of strategic planning steering committees included any community representation.

So one of the joys of this research for us was discovering strategic plans that were engaging to read. We read nearly 2,500 pages of them. And so encountering ones that were designed not just to be read but to be put into action, it was exciting. Audiences in those plans, they were clearly identified and meaningfully included in the process, and they were considered when crafting that document, the document itself, the final product if you will.

So in the words of interviewees at the University of Vermilion Valley here, they wanted the plan to be actively used and referenced and updated, not to sit on that proverbial shelf. And we saw plans were even adjusted along the way too. That’s okay, they don’t have to be set in stone. But the strategic plans that were more poorly designed and they had dense language or unspecific language about opportunities and their intentions of their plans or they had vague measures or no measures for tracking success, those clearly are less audience-centric, are not focused on audiences. And even thinking about plans containing explicit calls to action, that’s okay too. Helping readers internal to the institution and also external to the institution, helping them know once they read the plan, you know, what do they do next? What is their call to action from the strategic plan as a stakeholder in the institution?

And we’ve hinted at this, this fundamental takeaway that we had that our then graduate student, now master’s graduate, Connor LaGrange, in our review of 108 active plans that he, it just struck him immediately in that 2,500 pages of reading in that we found a lack of student centeredness across many of the strategic plans. So the plans with the most strategic tendencies, they discuss students and student wellbeing and student success more frequently than others. Undergraduate and graduate students were also members of working groups and task forces, giving them the ability to contribute to the process and to see how the process worked so they could explain it to others if they needed to or were asked. And in those cases too, it wasn’t just about having one student on a committee, having this single representative on a working group, it was having multiple students on a group. And if you’re leading this process or leading a task force or work group, yeah, it would be easier not to do this. But this gets back to the point about the hard work or the messy work of strategic planning and the process that it requires. 

So the Vermilion Valley example, and this was so apparent in the plan that the experiences and participation of current students, they were valued, they were included and considered throughout. It was refreshing and energizing to see this. We left every conversation with a president or chancellor who we interviewed at one of these 16 institutions that had a more strategic plan and we were inspired by those. We wanted to take action on behalf of those institutions in part because of this. And then one last point about the presence of students and student wellbeing, the plans that exhibited the most strategic tendencies, they often conceptualized success after graduation as a life well lived, a more holistic approach to outcomes beyond only short term placement rates.

Aimee Hosemann

Thank you. And as we’re getting ready to close, we want to thank you again for joining us today and we were really invigorated by this study and the results and we believe in the potential for institutions to embody their missions, visions and values and to even go even further on their journeys. And one thing that we want to leave you with is, as we’ve presented this information, we don’t necessarily intend to be prescriptive. We hope to present you information that will resonate with you that you can apply to your specific context.

And just a couple more takeaways. So, some of the most important tendencies that we saw were: One, student centeredness, meaning by being student centered, they were really detail oriented about the lives of students, taking those things very seriously, and also showing as much attention to current students as to prospective students. And again, we thank Connor again for really focusing in on that as well. [Second], we think about human centeredness, which refers to being really specific about what are the human needs that a plan is meant to address. They’re typically very institution-centric. What about the humans that are part of that institution? So thinking about their needs, what questions are you trying to answer? And then being really quick to pilot efforts even during the planning process to try new things. And then to also be quick to stop doing things that don’t seem like they’re going to be useful to you. It’s really thinking about how you’ve designed your process to be productive.

And then finally with COVID and, Suzanne, such a great question about what is strategic planning even going to be in this particular environment now that we’ve experienced this disruption. One of the things that we saw is that plans that were really- that got down to that brutal honesty that Rob mentioned earlier and that were really honest and really thought deeply and creatively about how to solve problems. What we heard from their leaders is that COVID didn’t actually knock them off of their progress very much and they were able to make quick and smart pivots when they needed to. Volente’s president gave us this great analogy about flying from New York City to San Francisco. So you get in the plane in New York City. As you’re flying, there are going to be checkpoints where you have to look at the conditions ahead of you. Sometimes you have to adjust course a little bit, but you still have to land in San Francisco. And a good strategic plan is like that. And Suzanne, to come back to your question, one of the things that we’re going to be doing is thinking about that.

We have some next steps in research precisely to think about what is this question, what are strategic plans going to be like in this era? Are they going to talk about fulfilling a new function or taking a new shape given what we’ve learned, one hesitates to say that we’re out of COVID, but going forward will there be a different kind of document? As well, we’re also going to be following up with those 16 most strategic, some of which have completed their plans, to see how they’re going.

Rob Zinkan

So, a few additional resources for you. Yes, slides and recording will be available for you. A couple of other things on the RHB website, the executive summary. So we’ll make sure in the follow up too that you’ve got a link to that in case you, someone mentioned, Maya mentioned having trouble downloading that via the form. So we’ll make sure that you have easy access to that. If you want to delve in more deeply, you can also purchase the full-report book. We’re also going to give away some books today. I think we’re going to pull 10 or so names from the registration list. So you may get a surprise book in the mail.

We also plan to host some additional webinars where we draw out the themes, some of these that we’ve mentioned, that we go into more detail in the book, that full report, whether that be strategic leadership during planning, engaging marketing leaders in all planning phases and planning for DEIB. So we’ll be sure you have invitations for those opportunities. And certainly if we can lend an ear or a hand to help you in any way and ensure that your institution’s strategic planning efforts are focused on strategy and outcomes, let us know. We would enjoy the conversation.

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is a Writer at RHB.

Rob Zinkan

Rob is the Vice President for Marketing Leadership at RHB.