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What Strategic Leadership Looks Like in Practice

The EvoLLLution | What Strategic Leadership Looks Like in Practice
Strategic leadership is a complex concept discussed at length in articles and higher education conferences. But incorporating it into every level of an institution takes more than talk—it takes concrete, intentional action from college leaders.

Strategic leadership in education is critical to success in an ever-changing market. This message is increasingly popular in articles and at conferences geared toward education professionals. Earlier this year, I had the privilege of attending the ASU GSV Summit, which brings together educators, entrepreneurs, funders and corporations to discuss innovative approaches to improving educational opportunities for all. After three days of listening to insightful keynote speakers, attending engaging sessions and discussing the changing market of higher education, one big question lingered in my mind. What does strategic leadership in higher education look like in practice?

If upcoming conference themes—such as the Higher Learning Commission’s Leading the Evolution, the Online Learning Consortium’s Education Reimagined, and the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ Shaping the Future of Higher Education: An Invitation to Lead—are any indicator, I’m not alone in asking this question.

Complex higher education institutions need action-oriented recommendations to keep up with the changing times. As a scholar of change management and organizational learning, I believe three practical opportunities exist for embedding strategic leadership.

1. Inclusive Decision-Making to Shape Strategic Goals

While the strategic direction of a college may ultimately be shaped by executive leaders and approved by the board, input from all employees can be integrated to benefit the institution. First, people in different seats have different perspectives. Gathering input from faculty and staff can bring light to important areas and business opportunities that executive leaders may not consider. Second, having a voice in major college decisions builds loyalty and a sense of community. When employees feel their perspective is valued, they feel a part of something bigger and become more invested in their institution’s success. Gathering input, through focus groups and brief surveys, is an efficient way to bolster a strategic plan with diverse perspectives and employee support.

During our last strategic planning period, executive leaders proposed their strategic goals to senior leaders and gathered feedback during a retreat as well as afterwards through a survey. After integrating feedback, the president held a virtual town hall to share the proposed strategic plan with all employees. Employees gave their feedback through polling at the town hall, which allowed attendees to see their input considered in real time. After the town hall, a recording of the presentation was sent to all employees along with a brief survey seeking anonymous feedback on the goals.

2. Transparent Communication about Strategic Direction

After integrating employee feedback into a strategic plan, college leaders must share the final plan and ongoing progress on goals with those most invested in it—faculty and staff. Through virtual coffee chats and regular college updates, college leaders can reach a broad range of employees and keep everyone informed about the strategic direction and how it connects to student success.  Clear communication about the direction the college is heading reminds employees that it takes a village to be successful and reinforces the value of each employee.

At my institution, progress on strategic goals is documented annually by department heads and executive leaders. The president then shares a recorded video presentation with all employees through a routine update. In practice, this includes sending an email to all employees with a link to a video on our employee portal. After watching the video, employees can share their feedback through a comment section.

3. Training Strategic Leaders in Every Seat

While college leaders may be held responsible for ultimately meeting strategic goals, no goal is accomplished by any one individual or department. It requires empowered, knowledgeable employees in every seat.

Training employees to think and act strategically can take on many shapes and forms. First, strategic thinking can be integrated into existing processes by discussing strategic alignment during committee meetings and budgeting. By connecting discussions about desired changes and resource allocations to strategic goals, employees begin to think more strategically about their own activities. Another approach is to include questions in performance reviews about how employees contribute to college goals. With time to reflect on this topic prior to their review and the opportunity to discuss it with their supervisor, employees are encouraged to critically examine their own contributions. Colleges may also choose to take more intentional steps to train strategic leaders at all levels by developing strategic improvement teams. Strategic improvement teams bring together faculty and staff to develop innovative ideas to meet college goals. While these teams require some structure and guidance, they foster continuous improvement and strengthen employee relationships. Through one or more of these practical steps to training, colleges can build on the collective strategic capacity of all employees.

We intentionally incorporated strategic goals into our new program approval process. Our evaluation rubric now awards value to potential programs aligned with multiple strategic goals. Additionally, senior leaders are asked to align their annual performance goals to strategic goals, and individual progress on these goals is evaluated quarterly. Most recently, we implemented cross-departmental strategic improvement teams through which employees complete an internally created training, which integrates strategic goals. Employee teams then work together for one quarter to develop an innovative proposal for strategic improvement. Teams must align their final proposal to strategic goals before presenting their idea to executive leaders.

Through these approaches to leadership, activities initiated across the college can be strategically aligned to achieve college goals. Our college exemplifies these approaches through an inclusive and transparent strategic planning process and by investing in all employees as drivers of strategic innovation. Through these intentional actions, college leaders enable strategic adaptation in a continually evolving market. Aligning college goals to individual action isn’t always easy. Thinking about one’s role within the bigger picture may be uncomfortable for some but encouraging team members to be part of something bigger can be a powerful way to accomplishing our goals together.

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