How to Lead Successful Strategic Initiatives
In late 2015 I sent my provost a short email (one evening after a couple glasses of wine, to be honest) expressing frustration with our byzantine general education program and asking why we couldn’t have a radically simpler, more streamlined, comprehensible design. A few short months later I found myself appointed interim associate dean in Undergraduate Studies, spearheading a general education review and enhancement. No good deed, indeed!
My emotions were mixed, and I suspect that yours will be too when you are invited, tasked, or recruited to lead a university-wide strategic initiative. Pride, excitement, and challenge may joust with trepidation, inadequacy, and the general feeling that you have been thrown headfirst into the deep end of a pool. Over time, and with success, the first set of feelings will trump the latter. As I have led several other broad strategic initiatives at the University of South Florida, here are some hard-earned recommendations for those taking on this kind of assignment.
Before you leave that first meeting with your president, provost, chancellor, or dean, take advantage of this opportunity to get clarity about purpose and outcomes. You are not likely to have as much face time once the initiative is launched and their attention turns to other pressing priorities. What exactly is the challenge? What would success look like? What is the timeline? Who are the stakeholders? In addition to these broad questions, you need clarity around your role and what it will take for you to be successful. Will this become a defined job duty in your annual assignment? What resources will leadership make available to you? Will the initiative require travel, consultants, speakers, small grants, course releases for key players? Who will be tasked with providing staff support? Will you need a website, communications and marketing support, or other logistics?
You may not be able to get all these questions answered up front. Your role should be crystal clear, however, even if many of the details to support a successful strategic initiative only become evident over time as the initiative unfolds. But you can ask for clarity about the process (and point person) by which questions and requests can be addressed in the coming months. This will help immensely as I guarantee that as soon as you leave their office, questions will pop into your head that you wished you had asked.
Now that you have an idea of where you are going, the next question is, Who will go with you? There is likely to be a variety of stakeholders directly involved, and an even broader array of partners, constituents, and units will be indirectly affected by any new initiative. In most cases, though, I believe you cannot go wrong by engaging and targeting faculty as your key partners. This is certainly the case in an academic initiative like general education reform, but the same holds for strategic planning (a cousin of strategic initiatives), student success campaigns focused on retention and graduation outcomes, equity initiatives, and many other university-wide challenges.
Faculty, of course, are notorious skeptics of administrative initiatives. They can be resistant to change, conspiratorial about motives, demanding of ever more data, and have a predilection for diving so far into the weeds that progress stalls—to say nothing of the tendency to banish initiatives into the sclerotic confines of standing committees. And I say this as a faculty member who typified this myself. Nevertheless, you need them. Faculty will be your champions.
I have had the most success in converting faculty skepticism into enthusiasm by asking faculty—including those who seem the most resistant or outspoken—to take ownership of the outcomes. If faculty believe that (a) their input will be decisive, (b) the outcomes are not already predetermined, and (c) the initiative could embody the values they hold dear, they more often than not will be willing to roll up their sleeves and give it a go. Over time, you will see excitement build, ideas get generated, and solutions be posited as a “committee of the willing” becomes invested in the process.
So do not despair! Engaging faculty can be frustrating and may lead your initiative down paths you did not envision. But there is great value in putting a group of highly intelligent folks with strong values together in a room and challenging them to dream with you about what their university could and should look like.
Leadership without authority
As an interim appointment, special assistant, or committee chair, you are likely to have no supervisory authority. You are the facilitator in chief, primus inter pares, main driver, and lead cajoler. While you may feel like a deputized marshal in the Wild West, a hired gun will travel, your true role is as a diplomat. Developing and honoring relationships with others is your core practice. For faculty, this often involves a transition from the chosen role of gadfly, conscience, and critic that so many of us embody. If you are to be effective, in some way your idealism needs to cede ground to pragmatism. To lead a meaningful strategic initiative that improves your institution for the better, you may need to hone your skills at conciliation, consensus-building, and (in my case, at least) patience. Make a commitment to regular, clear, and transparent communication in speaking and writing your North Star.
But you are not alone! A critical early decision is what institutional vehicle should be charged with the responsibility of your initiative. There are many options and many factors in play here. For example, research suggests that a small team of five or seven people may be the ideal number, and a strategic initiative with a defined focus can leverage this fact. But in the case of initiatives that will require input from a wide range of stakeholders and affect a broad swath of the institution, you may need a larger group represented. In any event, I advise against the sort of hundred-person task forces that sometimes get formed. Twenty is a nice round maximum number.
Another critical early decision is whether this group should be a new, ad hoc committee or an existing body charged with a new responsibility. The former is created for this purpose, and its scope and life span are therefore limited. The advantage is that membership can be hand-selected and invited by leadership to serve. The latter option, however, brings legitimacy and avoids the potential charge of cherry-picking members who could be seen as simply rubber-stamping whatever the administration wants. Much depends on the culture around faculty governance at your institution, but I have found that co-opting an existing body is ultimately more effective. Messy, perhaps, but also more acceptable to many.
Process is everything
You may think and may have been led to believe that getting the “right” outcomes is your primary job. Not so fast. I advocate putting process above outcomes. In fact, part of leading a successful strategic initiative involves what in good Buddhist fashion I call releasing attachment to outcomes. Your primary responsibility, especially at the outset, is to design and communicate a transparent and clear process.
Begin with a wide-ranging and open discussion about guiding principles. What do we value at our college or university? What principles can we gain consensus around that can serve as a lodestones and to which we can return for guidance to adjudicate differences? Do we believe, for example, that all students will succeed if given the opportunity? That faculty needs outweigh student needs or the reverse? That equity of outcomes or equity of opportunity is paramount? What data points are the most important? Acknowledge that these are difficult conversations that get at our core values as individuals and as an institution. An early win resulting in a bulleted list of guiding principles goes a long way toward launching a successful initiative.
Three other aspects of process have proved important in my experiences. First, be clear about outcomes. Share the conversation leadership had with you when you were approached about this role; everyone should know the scope and expectations of the group’s work. Second, as a team, develop, document, and make available a clear timeline with benchmarks. Knowing where you are in the process and having specific deadlines for steps along the way will drive progress and ensure that you don’t keep slipping back and repeating the same conversations. Third, commit to creating as many occasions for feedback as possible. It is not a good idea to work cloistered as a team and then spring a fully developed concept on a campus without repeated opportunities for input from stakeholders. A website, emails, surveys, town hall meetings, and other tools exist to make this possible.
Creativity, not solutions
I end this column with a firm conviction that your own success in leading depends on what for me, at least, was a significant mental shift. I began our general education review and enhancement with the mistaken and unreflected-upon assumption that I was responsible for coming up with the solutions. Not so! I have come to realize that my task is to foster creativity in my colleagues around the table. This thunderbolt hit me one day with a sense of enormous relief (it’s not all on my shoulders) and palpable excitement (I can play off the suggestions of others and generate even better ideas).
Fortunately, not only is fostering creativity fun, but there are many tools available to assist. Perhaps a SWOT analysis will get the mental juices flowing? Or a dashboard or other data visualization tool? Are there models from other industries, such as health care, that might be good to think with? Most valuable to me has been learning to ask framing questions that are perhaps a tad provocative, highlight core assumptions, are open-ended, and ultimately lead to actionable steps. In The Book of Beautiful Questions, Warren Berger calls this being a questionologist. This is the aspect of spearheading a university-wide strategic initiative that I have found the most rewarding and that actually gets me excited about coming to meetings. Imagine that!
In the wake of being asked to direct general education reform at the University of South Florida, I have been called upon to lead or coordinate other strategic initiatives. These include a Finish in Four graduation initiative, a student success strategic planning process, and most challenging of all, a campaign to better understand and respond to the gender equity achievement gap in which our male students lag far behind our female students. I’d like to think that I get better each time, more adept at facilitating, brainstorming, and communicating with each new iteration of this responsibility. This ongoing experience has changed my entire approach to leadership and, to my surprise, ended up serving as the most impactful professional development and on-the-job leadership training that I could have imagined. So please, if you ever have the opportunity, send that late-night email to your provost . . .
William Cummings, PhD, is the associate dean of strategic initiatives with Student Success, the chair of the Status of Men Presidential Advisory Committee, and a professor of humanities and cultural studies at the University of South Florida.