Planning and Budgeting: Critical Advice for the President and Cabinet

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This week, we interviewed Pat Sanaghan, president of The Sanaghan Group, who has worked with dozens of institutions to coach them through a collaborative and effective strategic planning and budgeting process. We wanted to ask what advice he would most want college and university presidents and members of their cabinets to hear. This is what Sanaghan shared with us.

Academic Impressions (AI): What is the one perspective you would most want to share with college and university leaders, related to strategic planning and budgeting?

Pat Sanaghan: After 30 years, what I’ve found is that the level of trust in the system is the single most critical factor in the success of a planning and budgeting process. If the level of trust in the process is low, then the president and other leaders of the institution need to work intentionally to build a higher level of trust, or the plan won’t be implemented. You need other things — you need transparency, you need effective leadership, good data, an external, environmental scan — but the most critical thing is trust.

If you have high trust, people across the institution are more willing to share both their aspirations and their fears. They will be more willing to address the tough issues.

If you have low trust, they hunker down. They become antagonistic.

“Trust is a strategic asset. Your first step has to be evaluating the level of trust. Do people have faith in the senior leadership of the institution? How comfortable do people within institution feel communicating fears? If I know that, I know from the beginning how hard the journey is going to be.”
Pat Sanaghan, The Sanaghan Group

If you build a transparent, collaborative, and intentional planning process — and if the president believes in that process — you can actually build trust in the system as you go. Share out the stakeholder input you solicit, let people see the multiple perspectives and the questions that are on the table. Let them see the shared values and aspirations across the institution, let them see how people are thinking about the institution’s future. You can build trust with the right kind of planning process.


In this Academic Impressions monograph, Pat Sanaghan offers a series of innovative planning and input-gathering exercises, and gives practical advice for addressing the tough issues that can arise during a strategic planning process, including:

  • Conducting strategic planning in a low-trust environment
  • Conducting strategic planning in a difficult, union environment
  • What to do with a president who has way too many ideas and initiatives that he or she wants to accomplish
  • How to deal with a “hands-on” or “micro-managing” board who wants to be intimately involved in the planning process
  • How to ensure effective implementation of the strategic plan when you don’t have a good track record of executing past plans

AI: What shift in mindset is necessary in order for leaders in higher education to plan and implement effectively?

Pat Sanaghan: The critical shift is to recognize that the president, the cabinet, and the board are not the only people responsible for strategic thinking or planning. Get more  hearts and minds at the table — more people understanding and thinking about the institution’s future and the complexity of the issues the institution faces. Your institution is filled with very smart people, not only the people at the top.

I hear people object that others in the institution don’t see what the top leadership sees. Well, that’s the job of the leaders at the top — to show the rest of the institution what they see. The president and the cabinet are responsible for supporting and facilitating a strategic planning process and strategic thinking across the institution — not for doing all the strategic thinking.

“The leader’s role in the process is to present the challenges and the complexities facing the institution. Then bring people into a room and facilitate discussion to collectively and collaboratively analyze how the institution should face those challenges.”
Pat Sanaghan, The Sanaghan Group

If all the strategic thinking is done at the top, then the process eventually becomes all about the leaders “selling” their ideas back to the institution. This is fraught with difficulty.

The president and the cabinet have to trust the talent in the system. Most people in higher education have a high degree of affection for their institution. They are intelligent, they love the mission and the place — for the most part — and they will work hard to make the institution successful. That’s an incredible asset, and you need to find ways to make the most of it during the planning process. That inclusion and that listening both builds trust and makes you smarter — because your vision of the future is then informed by multiple internal and external perspectives.

AI: Pat, do these points hold true for a program prioritization process, as well?

Pat Sanaghan: Program prioritization is scary for people; by its nature, the process indicates that some departments will be winners, some will be losers. That’s scary. What’s essential in that type of decision-making process is that you have to have clear criteria and you have to have relational capital. Build trust by ensuring that the decision-making criteria are transparent; they can’t be developed in a back room, they need to be open and talked about. Someone asked me how to make the process less personal. The answer is that you can’t. You can’t depersonalize the process. If you’re going to make tough decisions around which programs to prioritize and which programs not to, that will impact people.

You have to be willing to make the tough decisions, but you also have to be willing to make the criteria for those decisions and the decision making process transparent, and you have to support dialogue around them. People have to understood the rationale, and how the criteria will be weighted. “Serves the mission” and “saves money” is not enough; you will need to develop specific and rigorous criteria. Transparently.

AI: Pat, can you speak to the urgency of making this shift toward collaborative planning?

Pat Sanaghan: These last three to four years, after the financial crisis, we’ve done a good job of “cutting around the edges,” trimming a lot of the fat within our institutions. What we have to do now to move into the future is more than just strategic cuts. We need to reimagine the institution. What’s out competitive advantage, what is the specific value we bring, how do we respond more effectively to student needs and learning styles, to changing student demographics? We can’t just cut around the edges; we have to manage the core of the enterprise. This takes courage, it takes disciplines, it takes trust, and it takes leadership.

The pace of change is only going to increase. The complexity and ambiguity of the issues we need to address are only going to increase. Because we aren’t going to find easy answers — because the problems are too complex — we will need to seek broader input and involve more stakeholders. We will need to look at the environment and identify the 10 biggest challenges we will face five years from now. You need to be asking that question now, proactively, and you need to be building a think tank that draws diversely from a wide constituency to look at the implications of those five-year challenges. Bring in “stargazers” from outside the institution, external experts who can educate you on the changing trends.

And don’t do this in a silo. Don’t just give the assignment of environmental scanning and strategic thinking to one office on campus. Suppose one of your strategic questions to address is: “How do we give students a rich co-curricular experience across campus?” That’s not just a student affairs challenge. That involves the curriculum. It has implications for recruitment. It can involve questions of how to foster interaction between students and alumni. You need more people providing input on that question than just one office.

AI. Pat, what three questions should college and university presidents be asking about their institution’s agility in response to upcoming challenges, their institution’s culture, and their ability to plan for the future?

Pat Sanaghan. These:

  • What’s the level of trust in our system? Leaders need to know this. This requires more than just a survey. You need to have conversations. For example, meet with executive assistants from different departments for lunch.
  • What is our ability to communicate across boundaries? This is a prerequisite for success.
  • What is our ability to execute? In other words, are we planning for implementation from the beginning of the process? Most strategic plans don’t actually get implemented. Ask at the front end how prepared you are to develop departmental action plans based on the strategic priorities the plan will identify? And how will you check on implemention? How will you assess progress?


This member exclusive report will walk you through a credible and rigorous process for priority-setting and action planning at the division level, with input from past institutional presidents, provosts, chief financial officers, and division heads. We hope their advice will be useful to you.