Athletic Department Strategic Planning: The Power of Defining Objectives, Not Just Tactics

Athletic Department Strategic Planning: Photo of a college track field

At Winthrop, we had never undertaken true, multi-year athletic department strategic planning. Here's what we learned when we transitioned from annual work plans to defining annual objectives.


by Ken Halpin and L. Jeffrey Perez, Winthrop University

Those of us in higher education are sick and tired of hearing we face an unprecedented set of challenges: fiscal restraints, demography, technology, and heightened competition, to name a few.  Constantly confronted by these daunting circumstances we may be tempted to just get by – to manage for the next department review or board meeting. But institutions that don’t plan strategically over a number of years and instead adopt a hand-to-mouth approach to planning will face failure in its harshest terms.

This is true not only for institutions as a whole but for divisions within the college or university -- not the least of which are athletics departments, which face the same set of imperatives as the instiution itself. Athletic departments must maintain academic standards and provide life preparation to the student athletes, who are recruited as aggressively as any other prospects.  They must provide for efficient and cost-effective operations, which are often dependent on fundraising and other sources of revenue. Athletic departments must maintain good relations with the community (and campus). And, oh yes, add to those challenges: winning!

From Work Plans to Strategic Plans

At Winthrop University, the Athletic Department had never undertaken true, multi-year strategic planning. Instead, we employed annual work plans which created the impression of planning, but in reality were exercises in “checking the boxes.” These work plans never connected to broader institutional goals. We knew this ingrained culture of checking the boxes would be a significant impediment to our strategic planning efforts, and as we embarked, we often heard employees ask, “Why are we bothering with this? Let me do my job.”

While our staff did come to appreciate the value of this process for both the future of the division and their job success, to get there we had to navigate a problem that is typical in all strategic planning: defining the differences between goals, objectives, and tactics. Our natural inclination is to just list tactics--but that is not what will set us up for success.

Step 1: Set the Goals

Let's talk a moment about goals, tactics, and objectives.

Goals are the easiest. These are broad and aspirational – where you’re trying to get to. At Winthrop, we arrived at six goals for the Athletic Department:

  1. Winthrop student-athletes fully develop as persons with a focus on academic achievement, personal wellness and professional success and are prepared to be active citizens after graduation.
  2. Winthrop Athletics is competitive in all inter-collegiate sports.
  3. Winthrop Athletics is fully integrated into university culture.
  4. Winthrop Athletics is recognized as essential to the well-being/vitality of the community and region
  5. Winthrop Athletics is a national model for innovative operations of an athletic department.
  6. Winthrop Athletics creates an environment that promotes inclusive excellence.

Our Athletic Department staff quickly embraced these goals.

Step 2: Keep Tactics Out of the Plan

On the other end, the staff understood tactics. These are easy, too. Tactics are the day-to-day duties undertaken by the employees. We made the intentional decision to keep tactics out of our strategic plan, because once you start listing tactics in the strategic plan, this makes it very easy to install daily tasks as "strategic" priorities. Additionally, staff can engage in protecting their turf by trying to insert their own needs and daily efforts into the plan.

The leaders of a strategic planning process have to understand that the staff want to live in the world of tactics because these are the behaviors most under their control. It is essential that staff be encouraged to move out of their comfort zones. Keeping tactics out of the strategic plan allows you to focus on what will get you to your goals while empowering staff members and their supervisors to develop the appropriate tactics on their own while executing the plan.

Step 3: Define Measurable Objectives

Hands down, the greatest challenge for Winthrop’s Athletic Department staff was understanding the middle – objectives. These are the measurable targets by which progress toward achieving the goals is tracked and success is highlighted. Effective objectives demonstrate relevance, and this is what keeps a strategic plan from just sitting on a shelf; objectives create accountability and “keep the pressure on.”  Objectives also make fiscal priorities easier to understand – what actions will drive the metrics? Those are the actions in which we invest. Objectives make reporting transparent and effective, in that everyone knows the measures that will be the focus of the department leadership. If the goals are the soul of a strategic plan, and its tactics are the hands and feet, the objectives are surely the heart.

Initially, staff confused objectives with tactics. During the meetings convened to flesh out the strategic plan, staff members would try to mix their desires to improve their professional circumstances in with the measurable objectives. Even though it can be measured, “Increasing the travel budgets of coaching staffs” is not an objective but a potential tactic. It may be one tactic that can help achieve the strategic objective of winning seasons, but it is not itself an objective.

The Winthrop Athletic Department strategic plan contains 20 objectives. Examples of objectives we developed include targets for:

  • Number of teams with winning seasons
  • Post-graduation job or grad/professional school placement rate
  • Number of student-athlete community service hours
  • Annual athletic fundraising
  • Annual revenue from external customers
  • Ethnic diversity of staff
  • Gender diversity of coaches

Importantly, each of these objectives have specific numerical targets for both the first year and last year (2025) of the plan. For example, the target for “Number of teams with winning seasons” was seven in 2018, and it will be 15 teams in 2025.

Helping Staff Understand the Power of Defined Objectives

We offer the following pointers to help staff understand the meaning and purpose of strategic objectives:

  • Make sure objectives are specific. Don’t use the word “increasing” without assigning a specific target. (Otherwise, +1 meets the objective!)
  • Use an external facilitator who can keep the group focused. The facilitator can ask repeatedly, “Can this objective be measured?” and can provide an emotional detachment that helps staff to distinguish between what’s important to them and what’s important to the division.
  • Do include tactics in early drafts of the strategic plan. You don’t want anyone to feel excluded by omitting their ideas early in the process. Also, tactics improperly proposed as objectives can provide “learning moments” at which the facilitator can further define the difference between tactics and objectives with concrete examples.
  • Break up the team into manageable groups so that everyone has the opportunity to provide input. Each group needs a leader to facilitate discussion and ensure full participation.
  • Make the groups heterogeneous. Don’t let teams or offices sit together, as the resulting “groupthink” will stifle productive conversation.
  • Employ the “small-large-small” planning process. First, the leadership team of the division develops concepts that are brought to the entire group for consideration. The feedback from the entire group then goes back to the leadership team for further refinement. Repeat this process as needed.
  • Cross-walk the divisional plan to the university’s strategic plan to underscore relevance and demonstrate that the efforts of the division will support the institution’s strategic priorities.

The Impact of this Approach

Since adopting the Athletic Department’s strategic plan, we have received positive feedback from faculty and staff as well as from members of the surrounding community.  The plan also has been well received by the media, public officials, and Winthrop’s Board of Trustees, all of whom now possess a better appreciation for the challenges faced by the Athletic Department, as well as its central role in driving Winthrop’s institutional success.

And, while members of the Athletic department initially were dubious, they quickly came around and were invigorated by the planning process.  Ultimately, they were very appreciative to have been invited to play a role in shaping the Athletic Department’s future.  We’re confident you will have a similar experience.

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Photo above by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash.