CEOs, Consultants, and Strategic Planning: The Case for Pre-Assessment

I’ve facilitated strategic planning processes that happily turn institutions around. I’ve also been party to lukewarm processes that don’t produce anything strategic. Hard-hitting and meaningful plans are always more desirable than plans filled with platitudes and unmeasurable promises. The difference is always in leadership.

The most skilled of facilitators can take a college only so far. A college has to want a meaningful plan and think clearly about its planning challenges. Few colleges can identify those challenges before a strategic planning process begins. The tool linked at the end of this blog post intends to clarify both opportunities and obstacles.

CEOs and their teams make the difference. Nearly all gaps along the path to a truly strategic plan are leadership gaps. It’s certainly tough being a CEO these days with relentless demands placed on that office. Busy or not, there are common sense tasks that a CEO can put in motion to successfully launch a new strategic plan. Foremost is visibility. It is critical that the CEO is seen as leading the plan. Everyone knows that support for what emerges from the process won’t happen without the CEO being on board. If it isn’t happening in the early stages of the process, it won’t happen at the end.

To create a strategic plan is to commit to making hard-headed choices. Unfortunately, fluffy plans are the rule rather than the exception at most community colleges. Consisting mainly of feel-good statements, they have little or no evidence to back up their lofty intentions. Most wind up on the shelf with other glossy public relation pieces.

While the CEO needs to be fully present, shaping a new strategic plan solely on what she or he wants to do is folly. To be effective, and to ensure that something happens afterward, the planning process needs multiple perspectives. Strong CEOs also are not threatened by multiple voices and actively introduce opportunities for those voices to be heard. Engaging in defensive behavior also derails a strategic plan; stakeholders can spot shirking and will readily conclude that the final plan will be watered down to accommodate the CEO.

A strategic plan should be provocative while questioning traditional boundaries and business practices. This is difficult, however, and requires not just an ability to throw open existing practices to scrutiny and debate. A CEO who is oversubscribed to existing practices will trouble this phase of strategic planning. Strong CEOs communicate unequivocally about the college’s recent progress and where gaps remain. Non-productive CEOs blame people for what isn’t happening instead of working to develop a structure and a sense of common understandings that move a college forward. If there is no room for serious institutional criticism, or if it gets glossed over during the process, there’s little hope for a true strategic plan.

Able leadership is embodied in a leader who learns and facilitates learning in others. CEOs are typically hired to address one or more large problems with which she or he is familiar. A hard-headed strategic planning process will surface unfamiliar problems that may take the CEO out of her or his comfort zone. Strong practices in place at other institutions can save time if the CEO is willing to look outside her or his college. A wish to be seen as the smartest person in the room usually conflicts with moving a process forward. While knowledgeable colleagues within and outside the institution may assist her or him to overcome one or more learning gaps, the CEO has to honest with her or his limitations and be willing to tackle new ground. Anyone who can’t have tough conversations is doomed to mediocrity.

It is always hopeful when the college’s culture has included courageous discussions about institutional performance prior to the launch of a new strategic planning process. Good CEOs understand their college’s attitudes and there may already be a history of data-informed conversations about what the future might bring. However, weak CEOs prefer to surf the prevailing culture, placing truly meaningful out of bounds. Visionary leaders know where the institution should go and what cultural shifts would prepare the way. They are shapers, not passive recipients of prevailing winds.

CEOs need not be experts in data. Others on her or his staff hopefully can bring data skills to the planning process. However, CEOs with a cynical view of data can’t lead a meaningful strategic planning process. As an extreme example, during a meeting that was called to review instructional program trend data that had not been seen previous to the strategic planning process, a CEO told me “we don’t like your data.” Actually, it wasn’t my data and I didn’t “like” it either. The data in question did, however, reveal alarming instructional program trends that required a strategic response. A campus executive then piled on, “why would I care that another college in a 25-mile radius also has a program in [xyz, a career and technical program]? They’re not the same as our program!” It is true that competitor programs may not be identical, but the fact they exist elsewhere means that your college’s program does not exist in a vacuum. Colleges with poor data capacity struggle, sometimes heroically, to produce a meaningful plan. Colleges in data denial have little hope of reaching escape velocity. One cannot hope to know what one does not want to know.

Consultants obviously need to incorporate multiple layers of dysfunction and denial within their work with colleges. But, when a CEO encourages a culture of blame and strangles new ideas it the crib, there’s nothing a facilitator can do to turn the tide toward higher-order thinking skills. We also have seen CEOs dismiss data that compares their institution to others by arguing that data are faulty. To be fair, there might be a grain of truth in such arguments worth some consideration since all data need to be tested and put into context throughout a strategic planning process. CEOs are obligated to make that happen. When a blanket disregard for all data based on foibles with some data is present, so is dry rot.

Strong leaders welcome the opportunity to use the strategic planning process to make transformational decisions. Lesser leaders prefer plans framed around familiar activities that are a far cry from strategic choices. For example, “review all programs” isn’t truly a strategic goal except perhaps for colleges that lack systematic program review. However, a program review process isn’t a strategic goal; program review should be a routine business practice that produces data for strategic choice-making and not an end in itself. Operational plans masquerading as strategic plans are littered with small tasks. While such plans and tasks may be somewhat better than no plan, they won’t help an institution grow in new and necessary ways.

If hard-hitting strategic plans were easy to produce, we’d see more of them. The work is intense and is always daunting. Effective leaders communicate well what a strategic plan can and can’t do. CEOs that push forward an outsized vision of the future and imply that a new strategic plan will automatically make that vision happen do their colleges a disservice. A fair-minded explanation of what a strategic plan can do and how it will be implemented other hand, is critical to buy-in and support across the college.

All colleges have one or more pre-existing roadblocks to planning. Where these obstacles arise in the leadership process isn’t as important as helping colleges to see where those roadblocks exist and to find ways to handle them before and especially during the strategic planning process. Candid conversations about a college’s strengths and weaknesses occurring before the strategic planning process starts can help colleges and consultants alike from reaching the finish line frustrated and disappointed.

A mechanism to identify barriers to strategic planning before finalizing a plan of attack for a new strategic plan may help institutions and consultants to anticipate challenges before they arise. Voorhees Group LLC has developed a Pre-Strategic Planning Assessment Tool intended to capture the college’s previous strategic planning experiences as well as to spot leadership, cultural, and capability gaps, that, in turn, may generate timesaving conversations about actions the college needs to take to assure a successful process. This tool joins a suite of other free tools we’ve developed as a service to higher education by our consultancy. Use them. Tell us what you like and what was helpful. Tell us what could be better. Plan well.

Glenwood Springs, August 2015

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