Successful Strategies to Engender Board Ownership of Strategic Planning

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Dr. Jack P. Calasero
President
Ohio Dominican University

Ohio Dominican University (Columbus, OH) is a four-year liberal arts institution, founded in 1911 in the Catholic and Dominican tradition. The university has over 2,500 students and offers undergraduate degrees in more than 35 majors as well as several Master’s level, graduate degree programs. 

Ohio Dominican has been engaged in a number of significant activities in the past several years. These have included a major commitment to technology for the campus, a change in enrolment foci, the decision to expand at both the graduate level and in non-traditional programs (on and off campus), a renewed emphasis on pre-eminence and academic quality, the expansion of athletic and co curricular programs, and the first new facilities projects in over 20 years. 

Under the leadership of the current Chairperson, the Board took a significant step towards moving the from an oversight role of the institution’s Strategic Plan to a deeper level of engagement and ownership of the Plan and its implementation.

The Board engaged in a two-day retreat and has engaged in similar retreats every two years. 

The results of these intense experiences have been a deeper and wider level of understanding and ownership by all Trustees in the key issues of the university; a clear and more complete delineation of critical issues for subsequent Board and committee activity and discussion; and, defined measures for assessment and accountability related to plan implementation. 

The following are the underlying premises for this article: 

1. Strategic Planning is a critical element to the growth and development of a university; 

2. Strategic Planning needs to involve all constituencies, especially the Board of Trustees; and, 

3. The success of the implementation of the university’s Strategic Plan will correlate with the degree of ownership of and engagement in the Plan by the Board of Trustees. 

Higher education is in the midst of extraordinary change. The academy faces evolving student demographics, the impact of the information age, decreasing resources and increasing demands, and greater visibility within an environment of significant accountability. While colleges and universities have always engaged in some form of planning, the current environment calls for the movement from “traditional planning” to “strategic planning” (Rowley, Lujan, Dolence, 1997). 

Strategic Planning is, “a formal process designed to help an organization identify and maintain an optimal alignment with the most important elements of its environment.” (Rowley, Lujac, Dolence, 1997) 

Strategic Planning is always mission-driven (Thompson and Strickland, 1996). In this understanding, Strategic Planning (vs. traditional planning) focuses on the nature of issues and an appropriate response rather than looking at problems on current understanding (“outside-in” vs. “inside-out” mindset). Strategic Planning is less specific, focusing on directions and state of being rather than specific items (Quinn, 1980). Strategic Planning also provides a different area of focus, “aligning the organization with the environment in order to help assure long-term stability and survival” (Gilbert, 1993). Finally, Strategic Planning is “an ongoing process rather than a time specific, single event.” (Rowley, Lujac, Dolence, 1997) 

According to Bryson (1995), the key to successful Strategic Planning is “the satisfaction of key stakeholders.” Effective planning must take into account the institution’s mission, history, values, traditions, culture and circumstances as they relate to students, faculty, staff, alumni/ae, the Board and its various external communities. “Participative planning is absolutely critical not only for developing the plan but also for implementing it.” (Rowley, Lujac, Dolence, 1997) 

According to the Association of Governing Boards (AGB), “insisting on strategic planning” is one of the central responsibilities of the Board of Trustees (1997). AGB defines this as ensuring that planning takes place and insisting that plans are used regularly for decision making. The role of the Board involves the recognition, promotion and support of planning; the review and approval of the planning process; and, participation in some steps of the process (AGB, 1997). 

What is left unclear in the guidance provided by the AGB, however, is the level and depth of the Board’s involvement in planning. It raises the questions about how and to what degree involvement should take place identifying the realistic issues of Trustee time, knowledge, commitment and expertise. This leads to the third and most important premise of this session: 

There are natural and political impediments to deeply engaging Boards in Strategic Planning. It takes a good deal of time and energy. Meetings are difficult to schedule as well as a challenge for attendance and active participation. They require additional preparation and a commitment to reading/ reviewing materials, study, dialogue, engagement, etc. These are the natural impediments. 

Such processes bring the Board more deeply into the operations of the university. While Strategic Planning calls for a level of understanding and discussion that focuses on mission, values, issues, direction and the environment, it is impossible to avoid the application of the Plan to specific activities, personnel and the administration of the institution. Inviting the Board to function more closely to the line between policy-making and administration may be a political issue. 

However, if one accepts the essential value and critical importance of Strategic Planning, engendering a high degree of ownership and engagement by all constituencies and stakeholders will be a necessary pre-requisite to successful implementation. Furthermore, because of the governance responsibility of the Board, its level of engagement and ownership will contribute to effective leadership, more pervasive external representation of the institution throughout the community , greater support for the President, more active recruitment of new Trustees and resources for the institution, and increased involvement in fund raising. 

The Board began to engage in “retreats” in 1997. These retreats are planned well in advance, scheduled in the Fall and preceded by a good deal of work by the senior administration and the Executive Committee of the Board. The retreats are scheduled over a two-day period and begin with a social event to engender community building between and among Trustees and administrators. Participants include all Trustees and the senior administrative team of the university. The Board has engaged in four retreats with one scheduled every two years. 

There are several key components to a successful Board retreat: 

Trustees receive significant documentation prior to the retreat. The documentation typically takes the form of “briefing papers.” These papers are prepared by the various senior administrators under the supervision and guidance of the President and the final review of the Chairperson of the Board. 

Briefing Papers contain background information about a topic, issue and/or area of the university. This background information provides a summary drawn from the literature and provides the Trustees with a cogent and succinct update on the issue as it applies to higher education, institutions like Ohio Dominican, central Ohio, etc. It provides both a summary of the issue and the implications for the future. 

The papers also include an assessment of the issue as it applies directly to Ohio Dominican. This assessment relates the issue to the institution’s Strategic Plan, its performance since the last retreat, the issues confronting the institution in the near future, and the environmental issues and changes. Finally, the Briefing Papers provide data rather than opinions. These data provide the context for any proposals and recommendations for changes in the Plan. 

Each retreat centers on key issues related to the institution and its ability to move forward with its Strategic Plan. The delineation of these issues is determined by the Executive Committee of the Board and the President, and form the basis for the retreat’s agenda. 

In addition to the relevant briefing papers, key issues are defined by a series of questions and statements that will be discussed, debated and analyzed by the Trustees during the retreat. 

Assuming that the Trustees have read the materials, an attempt is made to limit the didactic nature of the retreat. The primary format is small group discussion that occurs in a series of sessions, each focusing on a key issue. Trustees are assigned to small groups for each session to ensure that all Trustees interact with the entire membership and that stronger “voices” are spread throughout the groups over the course of the retreat.

Each small group is facilitated by a member of the Executive Committee. Because s/he was involved in the planning of the retreat, s/he is able to help the group remain focused on the issue and to engage all Trustees in the discussion. A member of the senior administration serves as a recorder. A series of discussion questions are provided to encourage discussion. The President and the Chairperson of the Board move from group to group and serve as resource persons. 

At the end of the small group session, a debriefing session provides for a report of major questions, areas of concern, areas of agreement and/or proposed action steps. These individual group reports ultimately become the basis for a holistic summary of the retreat. 

By the end of the retreat, a summary is generated delineating the key issues raised by the Trustees. Because of this more in depth understanding of issues and the necessary actions related to implementing the university’s Plan, the summary provides a clear roadmap for both the administration and the Board. This summary provides the basis for future agendas and a benchmark for assessing progress towards implementation.


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