Higher Learning Commission

Beyond the Horizon Through a Robust Strategic Plan in 190 Days

Adenuga Atewologun, Suzette Overby and Gary Schindler


Unlike a traditional academic discipline, strategic planning does not have its own course outlines, learning outcomes and conferred degrees. Experts and consultants abound, and they usually come with hefty price tags. Many academic institutions spend the equivalent of the annual salary of a senior level administrator or a tenured senior faculty member to engage the services of a strategic planning consultant. Results vary extensively, and you do not often get what you pay for. There is a pragmatic alternative at a very reasonable cost. Riverland Community College’s journey provides indisputable proof. 

The college’s experience and reliable literature confirm the following fundamental truths about strategic planning:

  1. Strategy and planning are distinct entities. Strategy is the proposition of an overall direction.
  2. You need a compelling need. Create one through an analysis of internal and external forces. Identify critical issues facing your institution.
  3. Implementation/execution of the plan must be embedded within the strategic plan.
  4. You should be able to summarize the strategy in one page with simple words and concepts (Martin 2014).
  5. The president and her or his leadership team must own and execute the plan. Although the leader should own the strategy development (Bossidy and Charan 2009), that leader must build a small strategic leadership group and communicate relentlessly.
  6. Use a consultant that is active in the world of strategic planning, primarily to facilitate retreat(s) and provide the shell of the strategic plan document.
  7. Establish and publish a firm and realistic timeline.
  8. Incorporate accreditation language into the plan.

The Process

On joining Riverland Community College in July 2013, the college’s president recognized the need for a transformational strategic direction for the college. He also recognized the need for a planning process that included broad input and developed support and the engagement of all of the key stakeholders required to succeed in executing the resulting plan. Four documents—the Systems Appraisal from Riverland’s participation in the Higher Learning Commission’s AQIP Pathway, a Noel-Levitz report, an Institutional Climate Survey and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU, a statewide higher education system) Strategic Framework—provided much of the analysis necessary for launching the institution’s strategic process. The process was designed using the following objectives:

  1. Engage a broad cross section of Riverland stakeholders.
  2. Establish buy-in and commitment to common goals and objectives.
  3. Produce a planning document that will guide the ongoing process of planning and execution.
  4. Align Riverland’s strategic initiatives to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities’.Strategic Framework that is part of the Charting the Future for a Prosperous Minnesota report.

In August 2013, the president addressed faculty members and staff members and introduced the need to create a strategic plan during the academic year. Despite initial skepticism, a robust stakeholder-driven strategic plan, titled Strategic Vision: A Blueprint for Excellence 2015–2020 (hereafter called the Strategic Blueprint), was released to college employees on April 15, 2014.  

The Strategic Leadership Team began its work in October 2013. The process included six phases designed to achieve key objectives, with priority placed on continued broad engagement and input.

Phase I:    Develop the process and conduct individual interviews with Riverland cabinet.

Phase II:    Kickoff phase with Riverland stakeholders and selection of Strategic LeadershipTeam

Phase III:    SWOT analysis, environmental scan and planning (Retreat I)

Phase IV:    Follow-up and review findings and drafts through campus meetings and discussions

Phase V:    Finalize vision, mission, and develop action plans (Retreat II)

Phase VI:    Synthesize information into a strategic framework for dissemination and action.

During the planning process, the president encouraged team members to have the audacity to break some rules: “Straying from the pack requires breaking some conventional rules. The success formula hinges on breaking the right rules at the right time. Intentionally straying from the pack is not easy. It could even be dangerous. It requires gumption. Few try it, and distinguish themselves. They become exceptional, extraordinary and excellent.”

Patrick Costello Consulting was retained to lay out the broad strokes of the process. The cabinet and faculty leaders provided input in the selection of the Strategic Leadership Team. The president and cabinet planned two retreats and assembled the team, choosing from every employee bargaining unit, inviting two foundation board members to both retreats. The chief academic officer served as liaison to the faculty, and the dean of students conducted focus groups with students. The strategic leadership team used the StrengthFinders (Rath and Cronchie 2008) survey as a team assessment tool. Patrick Lencioni (2002) suggested using a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or similar nonjudgmental tools to build trust among team members. Trust is defined in this context as “the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. In essence, teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another” (Lencioni 2002, 199). It is important to allow sufficient “warm-up” time for the relational aspect of team functioning, so the early part of the first strategic planning retreat may seem unproductive. However, research shows that “stellar teams allocate their time in an unexpected way. They spend two-thirds of their time on the task at hand . . . and a full one-third on the ‘process’ or relational aspect of the team’s functioning” (Sanaghan and Lohndorf 2015).

To help participants envision the future, the Strategic Leadership Team used histories of the future exercises. Here is an example:

Education Village: Histories of the Future   

Riverland has created a diverse education village comprising early childhood education centers, area school districts and public and private universities. Students can access courses offered by any member of the village concurrently and seamlessly to customize their educational experience. Together we provide stimulating and inspiring learning opportunities and faculty provide curricula that surpass state and national standards.

Your mission is to provide vivid descriptions of where the college was 10 years ago, specific actions taken to turn things around, challenges you faced, how the collaborative connections were formed and how it supports your “best-in-class” status in programming. You would do this by educating a group of external visitors who are interested in creating a village of their own.

Practical Tools

A successful strategic plan relies on a strong master academic plan (MAP) that is closely aligned. Faculty leadership and engagement in the MAP development is critical, as is targeting doable/achievable actions for improvement. Riverland’s Master Academic Plan (MAP) was created by a MAP committee consisting of faculty members, staff members and administrators. The MAP identifies specific academic goals that align with the Strategic Blueprint. Five tracks emerged from the MAP committee: First Year Experience, Individualized Student Pathway, Online Education, Student Engagement and Course Redesign/Teaching and Learning. To expedite overall implementation of the strategic plan and maintain momentum, the administration and faculty leaders have institutionalized the use of practical tools:

  • StrengthsFinder survey to normalize relations and establish equality among team members
  • SharePoint, for tracking progress on Strategic Blueprint, posting related articles, research, work product development and so on
  • Dotmacracy, college-wide dot voting to prioritize Master Academic Plan priorities for implementation
  • Operationalizing Goals for Action—A Planning Workbook: This workbook was modeled after the Higher Learning Commission’s (HLC) Strategy Forum and AQIP Action Project planning tools. It was piloted with various teams at the college: Strategic Enrollment Management, Academic Affairs (Master Academic Plan), Capital Bonding Initiative planning, Supervisors Training Session concerning staff engagement and Riverland Training and Development.

The next phase is to require all departments of the college to have an action plan in place by the end of March 2015.


Four strategic category groups—People, Finance, Program and Market—drive the implementation process. Each group has a champion and in some cases a co-champion. Each category has one objective, three to five goals, performance indicators for each goal, strategies to accomplish the goals and implementation tactics to deliver on a strategy. The chart is available at http://www.riverland.edu/strategy.

Following are lists of quantitative and qualitative indicators of the college’s success so far

Quantitative Indicators

  1. Number of participants in implementation groups
  2. Development of action plans
  3. Number of participants at monthly employee conversations
  4. Frequency of references to the Strategic Blueprint by employees
  5. Development of MAP, Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) and other supporting plans
  6. Development of a companion handbook, Operationalizing Goals for Action–A Planning Workbook
  7. Increased number of prospects and positive impact on enrollment
  8. Quarterly reports by implementation category group champions
  9. Submission of a highly ranked Capital Request for $7.4 million
  10. Increased number of successful grant applications ($5.3 million)

Qualitative Indicators

  1. Improved morale
  2. Alignment of subsidiary plans to the Strategic Blueprint
  3. Use of performance indicators by supervisors for annual performance reviews
  4. Familiarity with vision, mission and heart statements  
  5. Narrative for capital bonding project
  6. Faculty leadership and engagement in the MAP development


Strategy and planning are important. A robust strategic planning and sustained implementation can be reached at an affordable cost using the model presented here. Riverland Community College has been encouraged by the results of the process that emerged and is happy to share lessons learned.


Bossidy, L., and R. Charam. 2009. Execution: The discipline of getting things done. New York: Crown Business.

Lencioni, P. 2002. The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Martin, R. L. 2014. The big lie of strategic planning. Harvard Business Review 92 (1/2).

Rath, T., and B. Conchie. 2008. Strengths based leadership: Great leaders, teams, and why people follow. New York: Gallup Press.

Sanaghan, P., and J. Lohndorf. 2015, December 9. 6 destructive myths about teams in higher education. Higher Ed Impact. Academic Impressions, https://www.academicimpressions.com/news/6-destructive-myths-about-teams-higher-education.


About the Authors

Adenuga Atewologun is President, Suzette Overby is Professor of Human Services, and Gary Schindler is Dean of Student Affairs at Riverland Community College in Austin, Minnesota.

Copyright © 2019 - Higher Learning Commission

NOTE: The papers included in this collection offer the viewpoints of their authors. HLC recommends them for study and for the advice they contain, but they do not represent official HLC directions, rules or policies.

Higher Learning Commission • 230 South LaSalle Street, Suite 7-500 • Chicago, IL 60604 • info@hlcommission.org • 800.621.7440

Home | About HLC | Contact Us | Privacy Policy

YouTube graybkgrdLinkedIn graybkgdTwitter graybkgd