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Three Critical Strategy Questions Every President Should Answer

Strategic planning is essential to any institution’s success, but higher education has often geared its planning towards self-interested developments rather than student success. Placing the student at the center of your plan will ensure that you’re addressing their needs.

The scariest words a college president can hear today are: “What is your strategy?”

These words are scary because they cut to the chase. Do you know where you’re going or not? Do you have a plan for how to get there or not? Can you articulate it or not? 

Presidents are under extreme pressure; their role is changing, campus dynamics are changing and competition is changing. Not long ago, a president could hire a consulting firm, assemble a committee and spend twelve to 15 months creating and socializing a five-year or even a ten-year strategic plan that would likely have four or five generic pillars referencing academic excellence, student success, diversity and inclusion and financial sustainability. Goals and objectives would be hastily created to fit each pillar. Boards would applaud the effort, accreditors would check it off their lists and the plan would land on a shelf or find its final resting place somewhere on the college’s website.

In those days, the goal of the strategic planning process wasn’t to create a strategy. It was to create a document that made faculty, staff and board members feel like there was a strategy, one they helped create. But those days are over.

Today, presidents need more than a plan—they need a strategy. But to create a successful strategy, they need to answer three critical questions first.

1. Are You Running a Business or a Political Campaign?

There are generally two types of strategic plans: one that’s looking for votes of approval and one that’s looking for business results. The former is what I refer to as the “consensus document.” The goal of the consensus document is inclusion leading to mass approval. These plans are either super generic, so they can fit everyone in, or highly detailed, so as not to leave anyone out. In either case, the point is that everyone feels represented in the plan. The challenge with this approach is that these plans tend to be highly operational rather than strategic and therefore fail to address the real strategic challenges the institution faces. Worse, the emphasis on operational initiatives often de-emphasizes strategic initiatives or eliminates them altogether. Many presidents opt for this kind of plan because it offers the path of least resistance and wins them favor, at least in the short term. 

The second type of strategic plan is one that focuses on transforming the university. This strategic plan is separate from the operations plan. It has a clearly defined vision for the future and what the university is going to do to achieve it. It is simple, clear and compelling. The strategy behind it can be easily articulated as it is based on a handful of important, transformative initiatives with clear business cases and intended results. These results are ones that will thrill and attract more students and create raving fans for the institution. 

If your strategic plan is more about running a political campaign than a business, not only will you eventually lose, so will your students. Which brings us to the second question.

2. Are You Obsessed with Your Projects or Your Customers?

Strategy is about progress, not projects. Progress is determined by the jobs to be done by your key stakeholders, most notably your students. Knowing what progress they need to make and where you’re falling short in helping them is critical to your strategy. Student-obsessed schools like Southern New Hampshire University understand this concept well. SNHU’s strategic plan focuses on helping students make progress on achieving their educational, career and life goals, which includes addressing the challenges their learners face and whether they’re due to the university’s systems or affordability. Their mission clearly states: “Our success is defined by our learners’ success.” 

In most strategic plans, learner success plays second fiddle to passion projects. This is where strategic plans run afoul, focusing more on campus improvements, new buildings and new programs than learner progress. Although these types of initiatives can be strategic, they often do not originate from mission-critical learner needs and end up as solutions looking for problems to solve.

Student-obsessed schools start with learner needs, define their strategy around those needs and spend their time developing initiatives that will transform their institutions into places that can address them. Another characteristic of student-obsessed schools is that they take strategy seriously, which leads us to the final question.

3. Are You Winging It?

There’s a saying that if you want something important to fail, make it someone’s part-time job. Many presidents don’t see strategy as a full-time endeavor. Therefore, they either delegate the job to someone who already has a full-time role, or they make it someone’s part-time job. But strategy is too important to be a side hustle.

Strategies often fail because they are led by well-intentioned, hard-working novices—but keep in mind that your strategy is being developed and deployed in a competitive context. So, it’s your team versus their team, your plan versus their plan, and your execution versus their execution. But if your strategy is not being led by a professional strategist, then you’re really just winging it, and you should expect to get crushed by the competition.

To avoid this result, here are three takeaways. First, make sure you treat strategy like you would admissions, marketing and advancement, and have a full-time professional lead this important function. Second, be obsessed with your students and design your strategy around helping them make meaningful progress toward their most important goals. Third, be the kind of leader that doesn’t let politics get in the way of progress. Students will be paying interest on the debt of your decisions, so make sure your strategy produces a return on their investment.

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