Leading Strategic Planning at Colleges and Universities: The President's Job

Recently, a faculty colleague from another university asked if I thought it appropriate for the chief information officer to chair the university's strategic planning committee and would it not be more appropriate for a faculty member to be the chair. The question took me aback for two reasons. First, this person teaches business strategy courses and, I know, works very hard and does that well. Second, and what I gave as my answer: "Would Steve Jobs have delegated strategic planning to one of his executives? Would Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz? Would Jeff Immelt at GE or his predecessor Jack Welch? Did Bill Gates? No. Never." So why would any university president delegate leadership (and perhaps even abdicate, if not participating in all the meetings) for the strategic planning process? The CEO's most important responsibility is to craft the institution's strategic vision, priorities and plans. To do so effectively, they must lead the process.

Now by "lead," I do not mean that the CEO should run the meetings from the front of the conference room. I always used a qualified person to help plan the format and facilitate the actual sessions. This allowed me to observe, listen, and participate in the meetings and avoid the trap of dominating the discussion. But no one doubted my role in overall leadership of the process.

I learned quite a lot when I taught strategic planning and management to college and university executives at the Snowmass Institute for 16 summers. When schools sent a vice president, dean, or faculty member to learn how to lead an effective strategic planning process many asked: "What can we do to get our president on board and engaged in the process? How can we get the president to make the hard decisions we identify as necessary to the process?" There were no really good answers to those questions. As Yogi Berra said: "If they don't want to come to the game, you can't stop 'em!"

Presidents do know they are expected to create and possess a strategic plan to guide their institutions. But my observation is that either they do not know how to lead an effective strategic planning process, or they steadfastly avoid one that will demand clear decisions about which institutional initiatives will be pursued, which ideas or initiatives will not be supported, and perhaps what programs, services, or activities already underway will be deemphasized or abandoned. Furthermore, too many presidents are reluctant to make difficult and possibly controversial decisions that will upset some faculty or other constituents. Yet this is the real essence of planning, and a CIO, faculty member, dean, or even a vice president cannot make those decisions. The president must.

Consider the agonizingly slow adoption of online education by many institutions or departments within them while their tuition revenues were eroded by online competitors' offerings. Ask yourself about Sweet Briar's truly viable strategic options in today's world as an exclusively female, rural, residential liberal arts college. The Sweet Briar alumni, faculty, and others who so strenuously objected to the board's decision to close would probably have resisted strategic options (which admittedly are probably too late to be effective today) such as coeducation, online degree programs, or off-campus programs to reach non-traditional students to generate more tuition revenue and attract the critical mass of students and resources required to remain viable educationally and economically.

In my years of teaching strategy and planning at Snowmass, I asked institute registrants to send me copies of their institutions' existing strategic plans prior to the sessions. After a year or two, it was clear to me that the reality of most university and college strategic plans I read was that there was no strategy, and there was no plan clarifying priorities, responsibilities and expectations for executing the list of goals. Generally, the "plan" consisted of every constituency's wish lists. More of everything was included on the lists: more programs, more faculty, more facilities, more, more, and still more. Rarely, were priorities identified, never mind clear strategic choices. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. These plans were unrealistic.

Strategic planning creates institutional focus on initiatives that advance the university toward its vison. And as Steve Jobs put it:

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.

As I wrote recently on the subject of strategic budgeting, deciding what not to do is as or more important as deciding what to do. Forbes contributor Carmine Gallo, in writing about Jobs, appropriately noted: "Innovation takes courage, and few people have it. It takes courage to reduce the number of products a company offers from 350 to 10, as Jobs did in 1998."

The consequence of these university wish lists advanced as institutional plans is that nearly everyone will eventually be disappointed and then probably disillusioned by a "failed plan" because favored initiatives or enhancements never came to fruition. Most of us know of schools that engaged consultants, involved constituents extensively, developed a "plan" over a year or two, discussed and debated it, finally published a slick document with an impressive title (but likely without real strategic direction), and subsequently ignored its contents for the most part from then on. Indeed, if the "wish list plan" of wishes is published and/or announced with fanfare and then not referenced constantly, executed in some reasonable measure, and evaluated periodically, disillusion in planning and distrust in leadership increase and future planning activities will likely be met with considerable cynicism.

Recently, I reviewed the websites and public "strategic plans" of six similar schools in the Mid-Atlantic states. Several admitted to enrollment, revenue, and financial issues. Others identified these issues as challenges. Most of the institutions reported that their strategies identified to address the problems were:

  1. to extend the domestic geographic area from which they recruit students; and
  2. to recruit more full pay students domestically and internationally (to ameliorate their excessive discount rates).

Without being conscious of it, they are all engaged in a zero sum game. There likely are not enough new full-paying students who will consider them from markets that have been, at best, tertiary until now and are most likely new markets where they are not known. Consequently it will take several years to produce consequential payoff. High discounts may be necessary to lure even the most affluent students who know little of the institution. Even under the best circumstances, it is unlikely many of these regional schools will attract more than a few students from the Sunbelt states to cold Rustbelt cities or northern rural communities. It is also doubtful that these institutions will commit the resources and stay the course if their efforts do not yield rapid results. As Peter Drucker noted: "Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes...but no plans." And those commitments have to be long-term.

In closing, let me draw from something early in Apple's history. Lead investor Mike Markkula sent a memo to Apple's employees that outlined his marketing strategy for the young firm. In that memo he talked about the importance of focus that Steve Jobs fully embraced. Markkula wrote:

To do a good job of those things that we decide to do, we must eliminate all the unimportant opportunities, select from the remainder only those that we have the resources to do well, and concentrate our efforts on them.

Those decisions are the essence of strategic planning and only the president can -- and should -- make them. The courage to do so is needed today more than ever.