A Working Document

A strategic plan is only effective if its ideas are put into motion. The keys are to get all staff members involved and have a structure for reviewing progress.

By Dr. Elizabeth Alden and Jennifer Hughes

Elizabeth "Betsy" Alden, PhD, is President of Alden & Associates, Inc., a consulting and executive search firm for intercollegiate athletics located in Amherst, Mass. Jennifer Hughes is an Associate with the firm. They can be reached at jen@aldenandassoc.com.

Athletic Management, 17.3, April/May 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1703/document.htm

You have just finished your strategic plan. It has been approved by the powers that be, and you and your staff are eager to start working on the goals and objectives set forth in it. But then again, you’ve got your daily to-do list in front of you—schedules to set up, budgets to review, meetings to attend.

Some people say that the creation of a strategic plan is the easy part. It is the implementation that’s hard. Clearly, many athletic directors spend a lot of time putting a strategic plan in place. But they are not always sure how to keep it alive.

A strategic plan should be a living, breathing document that includes short- and long-term goals, adapts to changing situations, and builds a sense of teamwork. To make this happen, there needs to be a structure for its presence in your already busy athletic department. In this article, we’ll explain how to turn your strategic plan’s objectives into stepwise, measurable goals—and how to ensure progress is actually being made.

Accomplishing the goals in a strategic plan often means a little more work for staff, as well as thinking and communicating in a very different way. Rather than seeing each day and each task as its own entity, everyone needs to become accustomed to thinking of each task in terms of how it relates to the overall plan—and to reporting regularly on how they are moving the plan forward. Therefore, the first step to ensuring that your strategic plan progresses is getting your staff to understand its significance and embrace it themselves.

One idea for highlighting your plan’s importance is to create a party-like reception to launch it, similar to the celebratory launch of a ship to sea. Like the vessel that will set out to conquer new territories, your strategic plan was created to take your program to new places. Why not give it the proper send-off?

Along with inviting the entire athletic department staff to the reception, invite the president, chancellor, and senior administration. Ask them to say a few words. Make sure everyone leaves with a copy of the document.

In addition to the celebratory launch, introduce the plan formally at a department staff meeting. Consider making a PowerPoint presentation, highlighting the key goals and objectives of the plan. Be sure to inform all the members of your staff that this is a living document and that it will be referred to on a regular basis—it is not to be shelved.

To get each staff member to embrace the plan, build in teamwork for all of its phases. It’s best if you’ve involved your staff in the development of the strategic plan, but even if you haven’t, it’s not too late for them to feel ownership of it. Explain that you will be asking for their feedback on the plan’s progress and that they’ll need to communicate with others they may not have before. Show your enthusiasm in sharing the plan and they will most likely be ready to get on board.

To keep the teamwork strong, think carefully about who on your staff will tackle the different components of the strategic plan. First, make sure that everyone has a role. Even the part-time administrative assistant should be given some duties that relate to accomplishing the initiatives. If every staff member has a role, there will be a much greater sense of ownership among all of the members in the department. This will increase the likelihood of a successful implementation.

Second, assign responsibilities jointly, among individuals who don’t typically interact. It can work especially well to link up individuals who are gung-ho with those who are still skeptical about the plan. Asking people from different areas to work together can also enhance creative thinking, which is critical in conquering big tasks.

Finally, make sure that the people overseeing implementation provide positive feedback to everyone working on the plan. This is an important time to help staff members feel needed, productive, and appreciated.

Along with getting everyone involved, try to stimulate conversation about the strategic plan throughout the department. Encourage staff members to share information and ideas. Start casual conversations that relate to the strategic plan, and include it as part of your regular discussions. Ask everyone to have open lines of communication. All of these ideas will create transparency and trust, which will cultivate a sense of community and teamwork toward a common purpose.

With staff members working as a team, it’s critical that they are given direction on how goals should be accomplished. Most formal strategic plans are great for presentation, but few are well-suited for implementation. The reason is that overarching departmental objectives, while important, often provide little in the way of concrete steps or direction on how to reach the goal. Therefore, whatever format your plan is in now, it is worthwhile to also structure it in a format that makes it easy: 1) for employees to see what actual steps they need to take, and 2) to measure whether progress has been made.

We have found it works well when a strategic plan is rewritten for implementation purposes with this general format:

1. Introduction
2. Mission of the Institution
3. Mission of the Department of Athletics
4. Goals & Objectives
5. Timeline
6. Assessment Chart

Each of these sections is a part of the puzzle, and when pieced together they become the final strategic plan. But the heart of the document is the Goals & Objectives section. Measuring progress on the strategic plan should therefore focus on the Goals & Objectives, examined in the context of the Timeline and Assessment Chart.

Goals & Objectives: These should be broken down into major categories and then again into subcategories. For example, if a major goal is to make your basketball arena more fan-friendly, there should also be more specific goals, such as: fundraise for a video board, purchase a video board, change the student seating section, and so forth.

Timeline: The purpose of the Timeline is to present the goals that are to be reached during each academic year. It should be a simple document that provides a visual framework for expectations. It also allows the audience to see what the points of emphasis will be for the year and prioritize accordingly.

The Assessment Chart: This is what we would call the "feel good" part of the planning document. It’s a table that you create listing the goals, the date for completion, and how much progress has been made so far.

The Assessment Chart should also include an area to indicate the discontinuation of a goal. Remember, this is a living document, and it is perfectly acceptable if, during the course of the plan, you and your staff decide not to pursue a few of the original goals to completion.

An example there might be a facility-related goal, such as "move the fitness center from point A to point B." With good fortune you may be handed a large check which allows you to keep the current fitness center where it is and build a whole new fitness center for your campus! In this case you would discontinue the goal of moving the fitness center and write new goals related to the addition of a fitness center. These goals might be: construct a new fitness center, paint the facility, purchase equipment, and hire staff to supervise the new facility.

Circumstances change, and you must be ready to adapt your plan to any changes that occur. Adaptability is easier when your written strategic plan, as well as its tables and charts, are set up with contingencies in mind.

You’ve got all the systems in place to work on and review goals, but the big question remains: How do you actually keep tabs on progress in an effective and efficient way? We suggest doing this through three types of meetings.

The first type of meeting should be a somewhat informal communication with appropriate staff members to ascertain whether they are accomplishing the goals and objectives for which they are specifically responsible. Be direct. Where are they on Phase C of Project No. 2? Will they meet the next deadline? What stumbling blocks have come up?

Keep them mindful that you, as the primary mover of the plan, are aware of the deadlines and that you want this plan to be successful. Remind them that they have a hand in its success. Be sure to ask if they need any assistance with the objectives.
It will also help greatly to have open lines of communication, which will encourage informal dialogue. We recommend that you create an open-door policy among senior staff members regarding issues related to the strategic plan. Encourage staff members to come to you and other senior staff members with questions, issues, or ideas. Be careful not to criticize or berate in these open-door sessions, and be ready to answer questions as they arise.

From a more formal perspective, we recommend that progress on the strategic plan be presented at staff meetings. Ask each staff member to bring their plan with them to every staff meeting. They might grumble a bit early on. But they will eventually understand why this is important, especially when their coworkers start reporting on their accomplished goals.

At these staff meetings, let everyone contribute to the discussions on strategic goals. This will keep the teamwork behind the overall plan strong. Of course, be sure to actively listen to the suggestions made and not just hear them.

It is also important to appreciate diversity. It is likely that your staff members have a variety of backgrounds and experiences. This is incredibly beneficial to the review process. We recommend that you facilitate an interactive and lively discussion when warranted.

The third type of meeting for tracking the progress of the strategic plan takes place with your direct supervisor. Every few months, bring your plan to your one-on-one meeting with whomever you report to. Ultimately, you are going to be judged and evaluated based on this plan, so be proactive in reporting the status of goals and objectives as they are completed, or in some cases, discontinued.

If certain issues have emerged which are preventing the successful completion of a goal, then you need to seek the support of your supervisor to work through them. Ideally, you can include your supervisor in much of the planning process. In fact, if you have very good relations with central administration, we recommend creating a strategic plan that gives the institutional CEO or a vice president responsibility for completing certain goals and objectives.

Accomplishing one of the strategic plan’s goals is the best proof that your plan is very much alive. Therefore, make sure to acknowledge in a positive way when goals have been reached.

The best approach is to have the appropriate staff members report on the successful completion of goals at a staff meeting and describe how the goals will benefit the athletics program. There is nothing like getting recognition in front of your peers for work well done. It’s also a great feeling to be able to vocalize why your work is helping the greater good. This reporting process will encourage a feeling of camaraderie and teamwork.

After progress is reported internally to the staff, encourage staff members to share the success with external constituencies, particularly student-athletes, parents, and boosters. This will give the staff members a sense of ownership of the work. For significant goals accomplished, consider additional accolades. Acknowledgement from the president or a vice president, or a small thank you gift is always appreciated.

Finally, providing a visual roadmap of progress is another way to give your team a sense of accomplishment. Consider, for example, hanging a large poster of the Assessment Chart in your staff meeting room and having staff members check off progress in front of their peers.

More than any other ingredient, successful completion of a strategic plan requires leadership. Getting staff buy-in, making the plan easy to review, setting up progress meetings, and acknowledging a job well done are all tasks you’ve tackled successfully somewhere along the way in becoming an athletic director.

Therefore, along with the suggestions we’ve provided in this article, be sure to use your own leadership style to implement the plan. Whether it’s your enthusiasm, your communication style, or your critical thinking skills that got you to where you are today, use those strengths to guide your strategic plan on its path of progress toward completion.

The Plan in Action
One year ago, Slippery Rock University Athletic Director Paul Lueken was faced with a big decision. The school had determined there was enough money in the coffers to take on a facilities project, and it was up to Lueken to determine which sports would benefit.

In order to make the choice, Lueken turned to his strategic plan. "One of our goals—Goal 21—is to improve gender equity," Lueken says. "So we made the decision to improve the facilities for softball and women’s soccer. We used the facilities project to help us meet that goal."

One of the best ways to make a strategic plan a "living, breathing document" is to use it in your decision making. In other words, instead of starting with a blank slate—or relying on your gut feelings—when making choices, use your strategic plan for guidance.

At the University of New Hampshire, Athletic Director Marty Scarano is consciously using the department’s strategic plan in a current hiring process. "Right now, we’re searching for a director of corporate marketing," Scarano says. "When I evaluate candidates, I’ll refer directly to the strategic plan’s goals to determine whether a candidate is right for the job. Our goals make it clear that the candidate we hire needs the ability to think independently and as an entrepreneur, but also to understand how his or her decisions affect the department as a whole. We will evaluate candidates based on these goals.

"If you’re using your strategic plan well, it relates to just about every decision you make," Scarano adds. "It allows you to make day-to-day decisions that add up to progress on your bigger goals."