Strategy ultimately depends on execution, and one does not necessarily come before the other. Sometimes—when, for example, new leadership is at the helm—a board of trustees might want to see a demonstrated proficiency in execution to gain trust in leadership’s ability to manage core operations before pursuing opportunities for growth. Even in the best of circumstances, a balance of strategy and execution is required—these are functions that are performed simultaneously, not sequentially.

Earlier this summer, an article in the Harvard Business Review by Millán Alvarez-Miranda and Michael D. Watkins—professors at the IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland—gave advice on balancing strategy and execution to new CEOs “who must rapidly diagnose and address current business challenges while also laying a foundation for the future.” The article lays out a three-phase framework for change—defend the core, extend the core, and transcend the core—to be implemented rapidly over a 12-month time period.

Given the complexity of their institutions, college and university leaders might balk at the prospect of implementing major change over the course of just one year. But the position of a new CEO—facing a new governance board and an unfamiliar organizational culture—will be a familiar one to many higher ed leaders. Moreover, the pace of change over the past 18 months has brought both a new urgency to the need to balance strategy and execution and a new appreciation of how quickly change can occur. But even if higher ed institutions require a longer time period to plan and execute on new strategies, the basic framework of “defend, extend, and transcend” can offer a useful guide for balancing strategy and execution within higher ed.

Last month, we wrote about the “Four A’s of Execution”: alignment, ability, architecture, and agility. The “defend, extend, and transcend” framework is helpful as well in thinking about how and when these capabilities are developed and deployed to build the strength in execution needed to support strategic growth.

Defending the Core

Strategic growth depends on an institution’s core strengths, both as a foundation for growth and as a generator of resources to support that growth. Defending the core depends first upon understanding what those core strengths are: what, in other words, an institution does particularly well and what differentiates it from peer institutions. Before embarking on a strategic growth initiative, institutional leaders must ensure that the departments and programs that comprise this core are functioning at their full potential.

Defending the core might require moving resources from “non-core” areas—units that are underperforming or are tangential to the core—to enhance the resources available to defend and strengthen the core. These decisions, difficult though they may be, begin to build alignment by demonstrating where the institution is putting its focus.

This is also the time to begin identifying and cultivating ability. Who are the individuals within the institution’s core units who are most effective at driving change (note that these individuals might not be in current leadership positions)? What challenges do they currently encounter, and what new resources or processes might help them move beyond existing obstacles to change? Will it be necessary to bring additional talent on board? Demonstrating an understanding of these issues will build trust that leadership will support the individuals identified or recruited to drive change and help define the architectural changes that might be required to drive change forward.

Extending the Core

The institution’s strategic vision comes into clear focus during this phase. The institution’s vision, mission statement, strategies, and goals for growth should be formally articulated, deepening the sense of alignment around a shared understanding of the institution’s future direction. Individuals who were identified in the first phase as key drivers of change should be promoted or put into new positions that better enable their ability to lead.

This is also when the necessary architecture is put into place to guide execution of the institution’s strategic plan. This architecture includes key metrics (e.g., enrollment goals in new programs, targets for diversification of the student population, student satisfaction metrics, etc.), data and information sources, and support systems in areas such as student services or data analytics that help facilitate achievement of goals. Depending on an institution’s strategic goals, now is also the time to formalize partnerships with, for example, other institutional partners or third-party vendors (such as an online program management provider).

As execution of the strategic vision begins, so should a focus on building the institution’s agility in responding to unexpected issues or making course corrections when initiatives do not go as planned.

Transcending the Core

In this final phase, the institution moves toward realization of its strategic vision. Agility remains the focus as the institution builds on initial successes, adjusts to market trends, and pilots new initiatives within targeted growth areas.

In addition to modeling agility themselves, institutional leaders should focus in this phase on spreading ability deeper within the talent pool of the institution. Departures of talent will inevitably occur, and the deeper ability extends and is cultivated throughout the institution, the less disruptive these departures will be to sustained pursuit of the institution’s strategic vision.

While execution comes to the fore in this final phase, strategy remains in the balance. Not all initiatives will be successful; others might surpass expectations and open new opportunities for growth. Institutional leaders should continue to work closely with governance in monitoring and updating the strategic plan regularly in response to these changes.

As higher education institutions begin a third academic year still dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to find the right balance between strategy and execution amid rapid change is more important than ever. We encourage you to think deeply about the core you need to defend and what strategies will be required to move your institution forward in this difficult environment.

Meet the Authors
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Larenda Mielke

Larenda Mielke

Vice President
Larenda Mielke is a Vice President in the Higher Education division of Kaufman Hall’s Strategic and Financial Planning practice. She has extensive leadership experience in higher education in the areas of strategy, curriculum and program development, and more.
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Julia Wysocki

Julia Wysocki

Vice President
Julia Wysocki has 15 years of experience and is focused exclusively on serving higher education clients. Her expertise includes cross-functional leadership, budget management, change management, operational model design, student lifecycle management, and the development of actionable, timely strategic plans.
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