After being a vice president at McCook Community College for about a year, I had the opportunity to attend a conference for new Vice Presidents of Student Affairs. It was two and a half days, led by veteran leaders in student affairs from different colleges. It was a valuable experience and the biggest takeaway was senior leaders need to spend time thinking about the strategic direction of the organization.
As a training manager for Gallup, I was responsible for daily, weekly, and monthly goals. As director of admissions, my focus shifted to annual goals and plans. This conference made me realize, I now had to spend time and develop plans that would shape where the organization was going to be in 5-10 years.
This is a challenge, because there is always enough happening in our organizations that you can spend all your time on day to day issues. Between e-mails, staff, and the daily fires that need to be put out, it is possible to fill the entire day focusing today. This is important, but if a leader doesn’t think about and share a plan for the future, an organization won’t move forward.
James Kouzes and Barry Posner in the book, The Leadership Challenge, identify that inspiring a shared vision is the second practice of exemplary leaders. They write:
Exemplary leaders are forward-looking. They are able to envision the future, to gaze across the horizon, and realize the greater opportunities to come. They imagine that extraordinary feats are possible and that the ordinary could be transformed into something noble. They are able to develop an ideal and unique image of the future for the common good.
Most organizations attempt to envision the future through a formal strategic planning process. This can be a good exercise that allows an organization to assess the current situation, gather feedback, use SWOT and Gap Analysis to identify opportunities, and then develop a list of activities to move the organization forward.
This can be very effective, but I also see many organizations do this and then put the plan on the shelf for 3-5 years until it is time to do another strategic planning process. It can also be difficult to inspire an organization through a formal process.
At the conference I attended, they introduced the idea of a river story. The river story is a narrative, told in the voice of the customer on what the organization looks like in five years. It requires a leader to assess the current situation from the eyes of a customer and then write about what would make it better. The river story realizes that most change happens slowly, just like a river slowly alters the environment where it flows. Most change in organizations happen slowly and it is important to give your river a direction in what to change.
I wrote a river story for the college from what I wanted a student to experience, then shared it with all of the directors in student affairs. In turn, I had the directors write their own river stories and share it with the group. Based on the river story, I slowly started to see change happen over time.
Over the next 3-5 years, it was exciting to see some of the river story come to life. For example:
· We worked to increase the amount of dual credit offerings available to McCook students.
· We revamped the orientation program and added career exploration.
· We started to provide more travel experience for our students.
· We based the orientation process around Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
None of these were major changes, but some of them did take multiple years to implement. As we made improvements, we saw student success rates go up. Our college went from second to last among our peers in retention and graduation to consistently being in the top 3.
If you are in leadership, you need to be working to develop a vision of the future. This vision has to be developed with your staff and you need to be able to illustrate the vision to your staff. Formal strategic planning has its place, but if it is an activity to just check a box and put it on the shelf, scrap it. The river story is an alternate way to help illustrate the future you want to create. Look under the Day 2 Resources for the Community Leadership Challenge on this page to get river story instructions and my original river story.