Thursday, July 9

Setting the Stage for Strategic Planning Success During COVID-19

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Laurie Weidner

by Laurie Weidner

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. 

Within a matter of a few weeks, our campuses migrated to fully online formats, initiated new recruitment practices leveraging today’s technology, launched fundraising initiatives and crowdsourced 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. 

Barriers to success

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 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:  Despite the efforts of many leaders, it’s not uncommon for internal campus communities to be siloed.  This is the time to abandon preconceived notions about 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

During the SWOT analysis or initial assessment, focus on asking the right questions to obtain the right answers so your campus can take the correct actions.  The right questions will emerge from the assessment process, your current organizational goals and metrics, mission, and priorities.  In addition, here are some broad questions that all institutions should be considering this month:

Retention

Our immediate priority is to our current students.  The two stakeholder groups that have the greatest impact on their academic success and persistence to a large degree are their faculty and their parents/families.

Faculty

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?  

Parents/family

  1. How are you engaging them now that students are working fully online?  What information or tools will assist them in helping their student progress and earn passing grades for the spring term?
  2. What tools or resources are you or will you provide to them to enlist their help to minimize summer melt to support fall enrollments?
  3. How can your campus better leverage the influence of parents/families to improve retention and completion?  

Admissions

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 prospective parents/families of incoming freshmen.  

Parents/families

  1. Given the economic uncertainty brought about by COVID-19, the 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 prospective parents/families?  What strategies and resources are you using to address these new issues and concerns?  
  2. What strategies will you employ now to differentiate your campus community with prospective parents/family, who will be even more instrumental in this admissions cycle in directing/guiding their student’s decision-making?

Academic colleagues

  1. How are you equipping your front-line communicators with the information and tools they need to address the new and emerging issues of prospective parents/families?
  2. What training have you provided or can you provide at this juncture in the recruitment cycle to strengthen their ability to recruit students?
  3. 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. 

External partners

  1. Who are your main external constituents, and how can you better engage them in your campus  community to fulfill your mission?
  2. How can you more effectively tap the expertise of parents/family and alumni to support the success of students?  
  3. Where can you expand departmental partnerships to address larger institutional goals?

Strategic communications

  1. How can we effectively frame and control the narrative around the new strategic planning process to strengthen public confidence in our institution?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.


About the author

Laurie Weidner, APR, MA – CEO of Parent Education Partners, is a 30-year higher education veteran with Cabinet-level campus and statewide leadership experience. Her areas of expertise include education policy, strategic planning, strategic communications, governmental affairs and crisis communications planning and response. In her current role, Laurie teams with colleges and universities to proactively engage parents/families to boost admissions, reduce summer melt, close achievement gaps and increase retention and completion rates. All strategic plans and solutions are research-based, culturally relevant and are crafted to align and advance institutional goals relating to admissions, recruitment, philanthropy, financial aid, marketing communications, campus culture and the expansion of partnerships to enrich student learning and success.

 *ABC Insights & rpk GROUP Survey of AAC&U, President’s Trust, April 1, 2020

Printed by permission of Parent Education Partners, LLC.  

© Parent Education Partners, LLC 2020

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