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Leading Your Institution Through Today’s Changing World

Right now, the focus for most leadership teams in higher education is the safety of students, staff, and faculty, as well as their communities.  Campus closures, shifting to online learning, services, and support – these are all critical decisions that demand multi-step processes to execute flawlessly.

The problem is that it takes your eyes off the long term.  This focus on the “here and now” causes us not to step back and to look at the impact all this change and uncertainty is having on our current and prospective students, faculty, staff, and community.

Right now, all of this change is leading to a brand new world once we come out the other end.

Your competition is going to look and act very differently than they did two weeks ago.

Your student population is going to look and act very differently—same for your prospective student population, and your community.

And your institution is going to be very different due to changes in personnel and financial resources.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize – Near and Long-term

With everything going on, finding the time to focus on the long-term can be challenging. But focusing on the long-term is essential because you need a vision for how to get from where you are now to where you want to be in 12-18-24 months.

Step 1: Check Your Institution’s Health

Make the time to perform an internal audit to determine where you stand right now.  Starting with your institution allows you to look at your faculty and staff, as well as your other critical resources, including financial and technology.

Have you lost key personnel? How are the existing faculty and staff holding up, and what do they need to ensure they remain an effective part of the team?

This is not the time to start cutting and making their professional lives more difficult. You need to find out how to best leverage your resources so you can survive and thrive – so instead of looking to reduce staff and faculty and expenses, look at how to use what you have to succeed.

You might have read that last line and thought to yourself, “That’s what we always do.”  Challenge that reaction – because the reality is most institutions will focus on lowering expenses rather than using what they have in different ways to become more effective in times of significant change.

Step 2: Check The Health of Your Students and Prospective Students

After checking in on your institution’s health and status, time to take a look at your current and prospective students.

What’s going on with your current and prospective students?  Are they remaining enrolled? Are they enrolling in summer or Spring classes? How are they taking to the changes in course delivery -shifting from classroom to online? What’s going on in their lives outside the class? Are they still employed? How is their mental health?

Gather the information and analyze it – don’t try to rush to decisions at this point because we have a few more things that you will want to accomplish before deciding on actions.

Step 3: How About the Competition?

Some of your competitors are going to close.

Others are going to bury their heads and wait for the storm to pass – which means their prospective and current students are vulnerable, and they will be slow to react once the new normal arrives.

And some are going to go after your prospective and current students because they think they see an opportunity.

You need to watch your competitors so you can identify opportunities and threats as they develop – or you run the risk of missing opportunities or being overwhelmed by a threat.

Step 4: Remember to Monitor the Market & Other Key Audiences

You are going to need to monitor the government at the local, state, and federal levels as well as in any markets you serve outside the U.S.  Will there be more restrictions? Will there be more opportunities for funding that can help your institution invest in needed resources? Or maybe there will be financial assistance for students that will help you achieve your enrollment goals?

And you will need to monitor the economy on the local, regional, national, and global levels.  Some areas will rebound faster and sooner than others, so you will want to focus on where you have the best opportunities in the near and long term.

Then there is technology – especially if you are going to be transitioning to online course delivery and service as your primary focus.  Those systems designed to support some students, faculty, and staff won’t stand up to the demands of all students, faculty, and staff.


Step 5: Heightened Communications

I broke this out from Step 6: Go-to-Market Action Plan for one reason – to emphasize the importance of a robust, on-going and consistent communications plan that establishes and maintains an on-going dialogue between your institution and its key constituencies.

Too often, institutions will create a one-way process that pushes out the news they feel needs to be pushed out.  This approach ignores the audiences’ needs and leads to a lack of relevancy in communications.  And a lack of relevancy in the communications means your audience turns you off and walks away from you.

What is needed is a steady, on-going and two-way communications process that exchanges information so that all parties are informed and providing each other with insights into changing wants and needs, potential opportunities and threats, and more.

With this level of communication, you are going to build a much more loyal and vocal following that will help your institution succeed moving forward.

Step 6: Update Your Strategy Go-to-Market Action Plan

Beyond the communications plan, you are going to need to update your strategic plan because we’re going to be entering a whole new world once we get through this current period of unrest.

Remember to start with realistic goals and measurable objectives, then break the plan into sections addressing each audience and what strategies and tactics you can use to achieve the objectives and goals.  And if you complete the earlier steps, you will have a much clearer understanding of what realistic goals will be in the new world – so make sure you base your goals and objectives on the insights from the earlier steps rather than adding a 20% increase to the last set of goals and objectives that you were unable to achieve.

And this is where you start to make your decisions regarding existing resources – what resources do you have that are important to success? What resources exist that can be used in a different way to achieve your goals? What essential resources do you need to acquire?  And what resources do you have that are no longer essential to achieving your goals?

Step 7: Capture, Analyze, Modify and Repeat

Remember that you don’t carve your plan in stone.  Your plan is a living document that you use to remain on course, and you need to modify the plan when you start to see results that aren’t what you need or when you notice changes within your institution or the market that warrant different approaches.

Parting Thoughts

We are living in some extremely challenging times – and we need to be proactive if our institutions are going to survive these times and thrive in the new world that will follow.

Now is not the time to “shelter in place,” hoping that when the sun comes out again, everything will return to the way it was.  That type of approach will cost your institution in the near and long-term.

Start making the time today and implement the above steps – it will pay off.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and don’t forget self-care so you can care for others.

Written by

Strategic turnaround consultant and writer.

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