Transformational Strategic Planning

Financial planners often note the paradox of some individuals' misplaced priorities when it comes to planning. Many will spend months, or even years, preparing for a two-week vacation, yet they give little time or thought to how they will spend 30 or more years of their lives in retirement. Likewise, despite the fact that "strategic planning" has been a "hot" buzzword for several years now, we have often remarked that on too many campuses, it is neither. Not strategic in the sense of meeting long range institutional needs, nor well-planned in the sense of serving as a "road map" to reach desired destinations. All too often, "strategic plans" are woefully inadequate, constituting little more than "wish lists" lacking in focus, specificity and accountability.

The Process

It's axiomatic that a flawed process produces an imperfect product, and nowhere is this more apparent than in strategic planning initiatives. In our experience as consultants to college boards and presidents nationwide, common "process" pitfalls in strategic planning include:

• Being primarily faculty (and sometimes staff-driven). Too many plans are reactive in nature, designed primarily to allay faculty and, sometimes, staff concerns. Conversely, in a sound planning process, all transformational strategic plans are generated from the top down; that is, they are driven by the vision of the president, consistent with the institution's mission and history.

• Being influenced by volunteer leadership too early in the planning process. The transformational president possesses a strong sense of direction from which a tentative five-year planning frame-work is derived. He or she then enlists the support of the campus community in refining and fleshing out that design, using an ad hoc committee including student, faculty and staff representation and chaired by an appropriate administrator at the vice presidential level. Board members should not be directly involved in the plan at this point.

• Being shaped "hands on" by the president. In the early stages of the planning process, the role of the president is primarily inspirational; he or she praises the vision and the good work of the ad hoc committee at each and every opportunity.

As the committee reaches a consensus on the specific objectives needed to achieve the president's vision, appropriate administrators report on the resources (human and financial) necessary to accomplish these goals. Again, at this stage, the president is continuously massaging, modifying, inspiring, challenging and urging the process forward.


In time, the task of the committee becomes less abstract and more "hands-on." Once the agreed-upon goals are established, the "real work" of the planning process begins. These concrete "action plans" necessary to implement goals of the strategic plan are too often either missing altogether, or treated far too casually. Every goal, therefore, must include a specific time frame, costs, funding sources and accountability (the name(s) and title(s) of the institutional officers responsible for their timely completion).


Open-ended goals, without a set start or end date, are amorphous and impossible to evaluate. A successful action plan is precise and measurable at the end of a given time period established by the committee.


The single greatest landmine in most strategic planning processes is the clear lack of accountability; what is everyone's responsibility is no one's responsibility. Action plans work when they are assigned to a single administrator or area, rather than being divided among two or more departments or divisions, where each hand may assume that the other is "taking care" of these responsibilities Returning to our vacation planning analogy, were we undertaking a two-week trip by automobile, we would most certainly have our cars serviced, obtain driving distances and routes, consult maps, book accommodations well in advance and estimate the costs of fuel, food, housing and entertainment. We would, in short, "do our homework," researching the trip thoroughly. Certainly, a five-year journey into a college's future should require no less arduous strategic preparation. Such a process can ensure that an institution continues to prosper in perpetuity.

Dr. James L. Fisher is the most published writer on leadership and organizational behavior in American colleges and universities today. He is president-emeritus of Towson University in Towson, Md. and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). Dr. Scott D. Miller, a college president since 1991, is president of Wesley College, Dover, Del. He is vice chair of the Board of Directors of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), a writer and speaker. Both serve as consultants to college boards and presidents.

About the Authors

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was previously president of Bethany College, Wesley College, and Lincoln Memorial University. He is chair of the Board of Directors of Academic Search, Inc. and serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards.