Leading a strategic plan for an uncertain future during a time of disruption and upheaval

The dean of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication makes the case for the lessons leaders should take from a changing sector that is rethinking its future.

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[Editor’s Note: PR Daily has partnered with The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations to develop our newest column, Lessons in Leadership. This column will rotate among Plank Center Board of Advisor members, their emerging leaders network and board alumni, concentrating on moments of personal leadership and the lessons they impart.]

All sectors of the U.S. economy have faced compounding crises over the past two years that are still shaping their stability and future. Higher education has seen dramatic changes in the demographics of prospective students and the ways students learn, faculty teach and research, staff maintain campus operations, and administrators work to protect the viability and relevance of colleges and universities.

In the middle of the pandemic and social upheavals of 2020, I began the last stretch of a five-year contract as dean. Faculty and administrative staff (hereafter referred to as “staff”) were expecting a strategic plan with a vision for the next five years of my deanship. During a lockdown summer, and after a traumatic spring term when staff had to flip their classrooms from in-person to remote over one week between quarters, I took time to reflect on my role as leader of the school. I initiated one-on-one conversations by phone, virtual meetings and in physically distanced encounters to talk with colleagues about the new contexts we were facing and how they would apply to our dreams of a transformational future. The aim of this listening tour was to craft a five-year strategic plan that, after considering all that changed so quickly, ultimately became a more realistic three-year plan. After nine months of development and consultation with staff, they adopted the plan in March 2021.

I want to share three essential lessons I learned as the leader of a school with around 100 staff and more than 2,400 undergraduate and graduate students.

1. Take charge. When everyone on staff is overworked or overwhelmed, it’s the leader’s role to communicate a clear approach and timeline for a strategic plan and provide institutional and industry contexts, gleaned from academic and trade publications, to frame the plan’s development. I worked with my leadership team and other senior colleagues to articulate a draft vision, update our existing mission, and write guiding principles and a rationale for each section of the plan.

2. Empower and listen. You can’t develop a good strategic plan in a vacuum. I consulted staff from each of the areas and programs in the school to develop specific and relevant goals, objectives, strategies, tactics and metrics while following the contextual and visionary framework facilitated by the leadership team.

Discuss each section of your plan with group sponsors and their leaders, then consolidate these plans into an overarching school plan. A leader, with input from their team, should serve as a final editor to ensure multiple ideas are summarized in a coherent and consistent fashion. Sponsors of each area’s plan should be involved in providing constant feedback on the evolving overall plan. I established a virtual open-door policy with assurance of confidentiality to increase individual participation.

3. Assess level of agreement. To achieve active participation and staff buy-in and support for a strategic plan, it’s essential to collect background information from a wide variety of sources, thank contributors for their feedback, and always point to the benefits of the end results. An internal online survey is an easy way to gather quantitative and qualitative evaluation of the main components of the draft plan from all members of your staff.

Do not underestimate anyone’s input and insight, even if their views run contrary to the majority opinion. Use numeric ratings and open-ended comments to refine the plan. Communicate the findings of the survey and the changes of the plan accordingly. Finally, discuss the proposed plan in an open meeting and allow for a vote for the plan’s adoption.

I learned that developing a strategic plan during stressful times for an uncertain future is possible if you tap into the wisdom of your team and staff who are in the trenches and in contact with industry professionals. It’s possible to translate the challenges of the past year—and the reflections they have spurred—into new opportunities and hopes for a brighter future.

 

Juan-Carlos Molleda, Ph.D., is the Edwin L. Artzt Dean and professor of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication and a member of The Plank Center’s board of advisors.

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