A core tenet of the CCCU’s work is to assist institutions in addressing and engaging current issues of the day. At the 2022 International Forum, Aimee Hosemann, RHB’s director of qualitative research, and Rob Zinkan, vice president for marketing leadership at RHB, led a session on developing strategic plans that are truly strategic. This article is adapted from that presentation and from their executive summary, written with graduate student research assistant Connor LaGrange. To access the full executive summary, visit www.rhb.com/strategic-planning.
Strategic planning is a universal experience in higher education, but high-quality plans do not seem to be ubiquitous. At RHB, our work requires us to mine strategic plans for language and imagery we can use to help institutions meet enrollment or organizational goals, often in response to requests for proposals that explicitly mention strategic plans as orienting documents. Our general impression has been that we have had to do a lot of digging to get to the gems in those plans. Specifically, we felt that plans often did not present or reflect the best scenes in institutional stories, nor did plans often map clear directions for where an institution should go and how to tell when it arrived.
We became curious about whether it was really that common for strategic plans to seem insufficient to the purposes they could be serving, and we realized we were not entirely sure what purpose these documents served. Nor were we sure for whom these documents are produced. So we decided to test our general impressions against a corpus of active strategic plans. The instability of 2020 was a further driver for this research. We wanted to know whether these plans lent stability and guidance during the historic and fast-moving challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the spreading movement to create social justice and racial equity.
We undertook a study of more than 100 strategic plans covering institutions of different sizes, with a goal of capturing a plan for one public and one private institution in each state when available online. We included in our dataset strategic plans from public and private institutions that were publicly available on institutional websites. All 50 states were represented in the dataset at least one time.
To sum up our results, we found that the vast majority of strategic plans are low on strategy and high on operational planning; they also tend to not be written with audience clarification, prioritization, and mobilization in mind. By that we mean it can be difficult for people who care deeply about action and accountability in strategic endeavors to know how to contribute just by reading these plans.
However, out of the 108 plans we studied, we identified 16 that contained some of the most strategic tendencies. These 16 plans included much clarity about process, goals, and measuring outcomes including key performance indicators (KPIs). Wanting to understand how these plans came to contain strategic commitments, we invited the presidents and chancellors of these 16 institutions to participate in interviews about their strategic plans. What follows is an overview of the eight characteristics these successful plans had in common.
Before identifying the shared themes of successful strategic plans, we must clarify what it means to be strategic. Broadly speaking, strategy requires change: changing one’s behavior or making choices that others do not.
Many so-called strategic plans are actually heavy on tactical or operational plans. If you are thinking about doing something you’ve been doing but enhancing those efforts, you are probably not thinking strategically. If you are planning to do something you should be doing already, you are not thinking strategically. You may actually be thinking tactically about how to refine a pre-existing process or find new ways to assess success of initiatives, and you may have more or less nailed down how that might work. But that is still not necessarily strategy.
Here’s an “opposite test” from Peter Eckel: consider an action you are thinking about taking and flip it so you are considering doing the opposite. Would you ever do that? If you would not do the opposite of an action, it’s probably not strategic. Ultimately, strategy is an exercise in making choices — where an institution will compete, where it will invest, how it will define success — which a strategic plan should reflect. If everything is a priority (one plan we saw had more than 20 overarching goals), how will your campus community and other stakeholders know what is most important and what the institution’s direction is?
Common Elements of Successful Strategic Plans
- As part of an inclusive, transparent process, successful plans contained a description of a process of brutally honest self-examination and a genuine desire to forthrightly engage challenges. The best-written plans were by those who were able to take an honest look at ugly truths and beautiful gems within their reach. Those who most clearly stated the challenges they faced and who could also catalogue the many wonderful things and people that make an institution distinctive were best equipped to make a persuasive case that the goals and outcomes they set were the correct ones.
- Successful plans included an intent to involve marketing and communications functions early in the process as fundamental agents in creating engagement with the people who matter most to the institution. Over the last decade-plus, the rise of the CMO (chief marketing officer) has brought the importance of the marketing function to a leadership role in higher ed, but our study showed that even so, marketing is still seen primarily as a promotional function. But marketing can serve a more strategic role beyond that, such as informing program development and helping shape the constituent experience. Since strategic plans touch all facets of an institution, marketing can bring an institution-wide perspective that layers in a constituent-centric understanding of market perceptions and opportunities.
- Successful plans envisioned a detailed and holistic perspective toward diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging goals and metrics. The overwhelmingly top priority in all the plans we saw was developing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) initiatives. Successful plans envisioned this in holistic ways. Not only were there demographic goals in terms of recruitment or student success measures, but there were also goals for making the physical plant safer and more accessible for different abilities, updating curricular offerings, or developing new and innovative relationships with alumni from diverse backgrounds who could mentor students. We also saw that initiatives for faculty, staff, and administration were addressed as well, such as thorough plans to improve hiring, mentorship, and retention at all points on the employment ladder. Successful plans also reiterated how DEIB work is everyone’s responsibility, not just that of a few people or teams.
- Institutional leaders who applied a mental framework of abundance thinking, rather than a scarcity model, were better able to inspire their campus communities toward exploration. Even in times of challenge and tremendous uncertainty, these leaders assume a stance in which there are enough resources to meaningfully move an institution forward after a period of thoughtful decision making. We have probably all heard (and maybe used) the phrase “doing more with less” many times since the economic downturn of 2008. This mental shift requires moving from this perspective to one that favors the assumption that you will find what you need. It reveals a different universe of possibilities and provides an opportunity to create a shared sense of drive around new priorities — enabling development of true strategic goals.
- Successful strategic plans assigned accountability and process management roles, often to a cabinet-level staff member who would oversee the plan’s execution. We spoke to presidents who either deputized an administrator or staff member with duties to oversee the process, or who hired a person specifically for a role with a title along the lines of “chief strategy officer.” Another option is to assign oversight duties to specific members of working groups or committees that have scope over portions of the plan.
- In developing and executing a successful strategic plan, presidents led in the way that was most authentic to them, with the discernment to assess when to be visible in the process and when not to. One president put it this way: “College presidents have to be visionary, but not hallucinatory.” Presidents need to have some big ideas that ultimately also need to be doable. That means presidents need to understand what kinds of initiatives they can back, but also that they need to be astute judges of campus, cultural, and political climates. They also need to be willing to listen to others who have advice on where that line between visionary and hallucinatory is.
- Successful plans took an audience-centric perspective: audiences for the plan were defined early in the process, and the plans were written to be both pleasant to read and practically useful. As one university put it, the strategic plan was meant to be used, “not to sit up on a shelf.” Thus, the first step is to determine who the audiences for your strategic plan are. Consider who your various stakeholders or constituents are and what kinds of engagement a new plan can create for them. Plans that are poorly designed, that contain dense or unspecific language about opportunities and pathways, and that provide vague measures for tracking success are not user-friendly. Plans should contain explicit calls to action so that readers — those both internal and external to the institution — know what to do once they have read the plan, which can include (among many possibilities) advocating with legislators, donating, volunteering, or spreading the word through their communities.
- Student success and well-being was as fundamental an aspect of the successful plans as the institutions’ own. It makes a lot of sense from a pragmatic angle to create plans that are tightly focused on institutional success and legacy. After all, the job of a president and cabinet is to steward through the current moment and set up the next people in those roles for success. But the plans with the most strategic tendencies discussed students and student well-being and success more frequently than others. Undergraduate and graduate students were also members of working groups or task forces, giving them the ability to contribute to the process and to see how it worked so they could explain it to others. Moreover, the plans often conceptualized post-graduation success as a life well-lived, with a more holistic approach to outcomes beyond short-term placement rates.
When Circumstances Change, Successful Plans Can Help
It would be the sensible thing to suppose, given how much disruption has occurred since March 2020, that even the best-considered strategic plans would be rearranged or even discarded. But as one of our interviewees noted, crises like the COVID-19 pandemic don’t reveal new problems. They reveal the truth about problems that already exist — the ones that we should have been aware of already.
Remember, well-designed strategic plans excel in pointing toward solutions that have already been identified by an honest, open, and critical self-examination. Thus, we were both surprised and excited to hear from our interviewees how the strategic planning process had actually prepared them to meet the challenges we’ve faced. The pandemic and movement for racial justice did not actually introduce new challenges — they confirmed for how well the plans identified existing challenges.
Every institution is on its own journey, and strategic planning is part of it. Since we identified 16 most-strategic plans, that means 92 of the 108 plans we studied were not as strategic. Consider the time, effort, and emotion that went into producing documents that will not do justice to the important work of the institutions that produced them. That’s too bad — strategic planning can be a positive, unifying experience for your institution.
We hope that this research provided examples of what has worked for other campuses. We are not interested in prescribing how you should do things on your own campus. What we want is to give you grace to know yourself and your institution, and the flexibility to make the right decisions for your context. You do have the power to design an effective strategic plan, one that sets your institution on the trajectory for stability and desired growth over the long term.
Aimee Hosemann, Ph.D., is director of qualitative research for RHB. Rob Zinkan, Ed.D., is RHB’s vice president for marketing leadership. Connor LaGrange served as graduate student research assistant for the survey; in 2021 he earned his master’s degree in philanthropic studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and is now a fellow at The Patterson Foundation.