Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Swarthmore's Strategic Plan

I’ve just finished reading Rebecca Chopp’s new strategic plan for Swarthmore College. To most this will seem like snooze material. Yet leading large, complex organizations with highly intelligent people, most of whom have competing agendas, is no small task.

In the Strategic Plan, Chopp writes in lucid prose and begins with the challenges facing the liberal arts. She addresses issues like rising costs, student diversity, and global engagement in the 21st century. From here she clarifies the school’s most important values that guide their activity as an institution. She then calls the key points of the plan “recommendations” instead of “objectives”, the term most universities use. Each recommendation has several parts (read: goals) that will guide Swarthmore in the upcoming decade. Pretty straightforward.

But this is what I love about what Chopp has done. First, she engaged in a lengthy but defined process of listening. She formed councils on the strategic planning process, on mission, vision & values, and on admissions, access and affordability. All the key stakeholders were in these committees. Thus, when she would eventually present the institutions key values and “recommendations,” there was widespread buy-in. After all, it was all their ideas.

Second, she re-enforced her listening with collaboration. After she had written the plan, she presented a “draft for comment.” Banish the idea of a headstrong leader charging in and saying “Here we go. Follow me!” Instead, she spent several more months receiving additional ideas before it was set in stone. People we given a chance to voice their objections before the plan was finalized.

Chopp must have read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. Senge argues that shared vision is the most powerful organizational force, and that the role of the CEO is to understand and then articulate the vision that is already within the company. No more “my way or the highway.” Instead, it becomes, “Let’s create a new company and a new world together.”

What a good way to lead.

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