22 Apr Key factors impacting strategic planning success during Covid-19
This blog summaries recommendations by Laurie Weidner, CEO of Parent Education Partners, for campus leadership teams. The blog highlights her remarks as a panelist on a webinar about the importance of strategic planning, which was hosted by Center for Higher Education Leadership.
As unprecedented change impacts every part of the higher education enterprise, this is the ideal time to prioritize strategic planning to position your campus for current and future success. Through the COVID-19 crisis, higher education has demonstrated that our campus communities are resourceful, innovative, responsive and adaptable. After all within a matter of a few weeks, our campuses migrated to fully online formats, initiated new recruitment practices leveraging today’s technology, launched fund-raising initiatives and crowd-source funding campaigns to raise money for more scholarships and emergency funds for needy students, and launched pop-up mobile food banks to ensure students’ basic needs were met so that they would stay on course to complete the spring term.
Even as our institutions have demonstrated our ability to be nimble when confronted with challenges, embracing change and engaging in long-term planning is not a typical response for many higher education leaders.
According to a recent nationwide survey* of college presidents regarding the handling of the COVID-19 crisis, 75.2 percent of the respondents indicated that if a recession was on the horizon that they would “hunker down.” Another 72.1 percent reportedly would layoff staff, while 54.7 percent of the respondents said they would initiate “across the board” cuts.
Clearly, many are not seeing the current crisis for what it is –an opportunity to re-imagine our organizations to better serve our students and to increase the involvement and support of the broader campus community in our mission.
Lay a foundation for success
SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats)
Many strategic planning models begin with a process like SWOT. SWOT and other similar assessments will help to ensure your strategic plan is targeted and actionable. By starting with these analyses, your leadership team will gain insight into potential new goals, solutions and initiatives.
Identify potential barriers
COVID-19 has caused anxiety and concern within our campus communities. To ensure your strategic planning process is successful, begin by identifying some of the obstacles that leaders must navigate in order to be successful.
Fear: Fear stymies progress. Fear creates unnecessary obstacles. Fear hinders teaming, which is foundational to the strategic planning process. As a leader, ascertain the fears that may thwart your progress.
In recent weeks, more than 22 million people have filed for unemployment. Every industry sector has been impacted by this crisis. And, unfortunately, some of the talented professionals on our campuses are among those who have already lost their jobs. Job stability is on the minds of all employees. Regardless of their role or title, employees need to feel safe before they will embrace strategic planning. Fear of the unknown and fear that the planning process will expose inefficiencies may transform campus colleagues, who are generally cooperative, into obstructionists. If your campus envisions trimming expenditures and positions, the more you can communicate about the evaluation process, the better. Employee communications must be prioritized with a focus on empathy and transparency before, during and after the strategic planning process.
Be aware that your leadership team, including deans and department chairs, may also be fearful of the criticism that may come from internal and external constituents who may perceive that the campus is moving too quickly on a new or refreshed strategic plan. Identify how to frame your work to demonstrate responsiveness to new market conditions and circumstances.
Urgencies vs. priorities: Many campus communities are literally “building the plane while flying it.” The urgencies require our best collective thinking and energy. However, nothing is more important than planning for your campus’ future.
If we do not invest the time now, while we have it to prepare for the changes that may occur in the fall and beyond, we will fail to identify, create and seize opportunities to provide the best possible educational programs for students while supporting the vitality of our campuses.
Interdisciplinary solutions: Regretfully, despite the efforts of many leaders, it’s not uncommon for internal campus communities to be siloed. This is the time to abandon pre-conceived notions about our organizational structures. This is also an ideal time to reassess the talents that exist both internally and externally to enable the campus to leverage and scale new and emerging opportunities. Given how COVID-19 has impacted every area of our enterprise, consider how you will cull the best thinking and creative ideas from the best strategists on your campus, regardless of their title, function or department. To implement a strategic planning process immediately, also consider leveraging the knowledge and talents of the professionals in your extended campus community — from the skilled professionals in the alumni and parent/family associations to seasoned contracted consultants including those affiliated with Parent Education Partners and the Center for Higher Education Leadership.
Ask the right questions
Our immediate priority is our current students. The two stakeholder groups who have the greatest impact on their academic success and persistence to degree are their faculty and their parents/families.
- How are you engaging them now that students are working fully online? What information or tools will help them to help their student progress and earn passing grades for the spring term?
- What tools or resources are you or will you provide to them to enlist their help to minimize summer melt to support fall enrollments?
- How can your campus better leverage the influence of parents/families to improve retention and completion?
- Thinking about the support you provided your faculty in March as courses were migrating to online formats, what supports were most valuable and prepared them to successfully support their students’ success?
- Now that instruction has been underway for about a month, what new or emerging needs have surfaced that should be addressed, so that adjuncts, lecturers and faculty are equipped to provide quality instruction through the spring term?
- As your campus begins to plan to potentially provide instruction in the fall either fully or partially online, how will your professional development offerings change to support the success of adjuncts, lecturers and full-time faculty?
During the SWOT analysis or initial assessment, focus on asking the right questions to obtain the right answers so your campus can take right action. The right questions will emerge from: the assessment process, your current organizational goals and metrics, mission and priorities. In addition, below are some of the broad questions that all institutions should be considering now.
Given the importance of fall admissions to our economic bottom line, many campuses are engaging more deans, department chairs and faculty in the recruitment process. These frontline communicators need ongoing support to promote your campus to prospective students, parents and families. Moreover, COVID-19 may also have exposed the need to refine outreach and relationship-building strategies targeting perspective parents/families of incoming freshmen.
- Given the economic uncertainty brought about by COVID-19, the parents/families of today’s high school juniors and graduating seniors have heightened concerns about higher education. What are the new and emerging information needs of perspective parents/families? What strategies and resources are you using to address these new issues and concerns?
- What strategies will you employ now to differentiate your campus community with perspective parents/family, who will be even more instrumental in this admissions cycle in directing/guiding their student’s decision-making?
- How are you equipping your front-line communicators with the information and tools they need to address the new and emerging issues of perspective parents/families?
- What training have your provided or can you provide at this juncture in the recruitment cycle to strengthen their ability to recruit students?
- What professional development solutions should be implemented moving forward to ensure these new frontline communicators are prepared to help the Admissions team with recruitment through the fall term?
Community Relations & Strategic Communications
The SWOT analysis and strategic planning process provide the opportunity to expand the role of parents/families, alumni and external partners in helping our institutions to reach organizational goals.
- Who are your main external constituents and how can you better engage them in your campus community to fulfill your mission?
- How can you more effectively tap the expertise of parents/family and alumni to support the success students?
- Where can you expand departmental partnerships to address larger institutional goals?
- How can we effectively frame and control the narrative around the new strategic planning process to strengthen public confidence in our institution?
- How can we maximize all communications channels – interpersonal, social media, digital and traditional media – to tell a consistently positive story about our institution and its new direction?
- Which constituency groups need differentiated messages to fully support our new direction, and how can we enlist their help in ensuring the success of our plans?
In conclusion, anticipating failure often causes that which we most fear. Planning for success, even in times of recession and retrenchment, will bear much better results.
*ABC Insights & rpk GROUP Survey of AAC&U, President’s Trust, April 1, 2020
This article is also available through the Center Higher Education Leadership.
© Parent Education Partners, LLC 2020