The holiday break is not merely a pause in the academic calendar; it is a strategic pause--and strategic plan--for higher education leaders.

Holiday break: The importance of a strategic pause 

The holiday break is not merely a pause in the academic calendar; it is a strategic interlude for higher education leaders

Key points:

As the holiday season unfolds, students take off for winter break, and college campuses settle into a peaceful lull. It’s that time when higher education leaders get to press pause and catch up on their never-ending to do list. But what if this period of repose posed an opportunity for focused reflection and strategic planning?

In this piece, I’ll share my perspective on how higher ed leaders can embrace the true gift of the season – time – to maximize their impact. 

Before we get too deep, let’s acknowledge that the holiday break is more than just a breather from the enrollment frenzy—it’s our strategic pit stop. It’s about easing off the accelerator, gaining some clarity, and recharging the batteries. Before the weeks get away from you, take a moment to pause. What is it that you hope to accomplish while the campus is quiet? What is it that you never have time to do? Where would the organization benefit most from your focus?

Perhaps this time is a sign that you — and your team — are deserving of a more purposeful approach to addressing the challenges that lie ahead. 

Reflect on the previous year 

Grab a cup of hot chocolate and find a cozy spot; it’s time to reflect on the past year (don’t forget the mini marshmallows). Take a moment to review what worked, what didn’t, and what deserves a nod of appreciation.

Think critically about the following:  

  • Financial YTD results vs. expectations: What are the root causes and drivers? 
  • Team performance: What went right? What went wrong? Why? 
  • Personal performance: What are you most proud of? Where could you have been more effective? 

By reflecting on these core aspects, leaders start to lay the groundwork for informed decision-making in the upcoming year. 

Reevaluate goals for the new year 

The dynamics of higher education are ever-changing, and leaders must be nimble in response. This section explores how leaders can adapt to challenges, emerging trends, and shifting internal dynamics, prompting a reevaluation of goals and priorities. The ability to shift focus based on a changing landscape is a hallmark of effective leadership in higher education.

Ask yourself:  

  • What is our North Star? Is our vision well-defined? 
  • What are my team’s top 3 objectives?  
  • What are the key measures that will determine whether we’ve hit our target? 
  • Who is responsible and accountable for each of these key measures? 
  • Is my team crystal clear on how they directly contribute to these objectives and KPIs? 

Although it sounds simple, refining your objectives to only 3 is anything but easy. Once these are well-defined with clear KPIs and corresponding targets, they serve as the bedrock for all strategic planning efforts. 

Strategic planning in higher education: Setting goals and intentions 

A strategic plan is not just a fancy PowerPoint deck or lengthy Word doc. It is a vital tool for institutions to navigate the complexities of their environment, set clear objectives, allocate resources wisely, and ultimately achieve sustained success. And while a sea of strategic planning frameworks exists, you must choose one that feels authentic to your leadership style and your organization. But let me emphasize the most important part: choose one. The framework should be methodical, connected, and deeply inspiring to all levels who read and interpret its direction. Your strategic plan, when done right, will rally your team while showing them howto achieve the goals you’ve set forth. 

Regardless of the structure that feels right to you, every strategic plan should include:  

  • Vision, North Star, and aspirations 
  • Primary business impact commitments (value levers that shape your focus) 
  • Themes inclusive of the following for each:  
  • What is it that you’re trying to achieve? 
  • What does the objective entail? 
  • Why are we dedicating time and resources to this objective? 
  • Who plays a role in achieving this objective? 
  • How will we strategically and tactically achieve this objective? 
  • How do we measure the success of this objective? 
  • Resources needed 

The importance of adaptive leadership in education 

Now picture you’re at a holiday dinner gathering, the power suddenly goes out, and everyone is left in the dark. Unlike some guests who might get stressed or frustrated, one person sees a chance to create a special moment and keep the holiday spirit alive. They quickly grab some candles, suggest a spontaneous holiday edition karaoke session, and turn the unexpected situation into a memorable and cozy family night. They are the adaptive leader in the room, where the unexpected does not disrupt their ability to effectively lead. 

In the context of higher education, where change and disruption are constant, adaptive leadership is indispensable.  

During this downtime, create a persona for your leadership style. Describe who you are, how you react, how you show up for your team, and your overall personality as a leader. For added benefit, ask some trusted peers for their honest feedback on your effectiveness. The ability to self-reflect and embrace your blind spots will build your self-awareness and ultimately, your impact.  

Recharging and self-care 

Leadership, especially in higher education, can be demanding. Your team craves your best self, which is fueled by more than just the fleeting feeling of hitting inbox zero (I promise this to be true).

Amidst the prior recommendations, it’s equally important to prioritize self-care, such as:  

  1. Read a book.  
  2. Practice mindfulness or meditation.  
  3. Move your body.  
  4. Take an electronics break.  
  5. Engage in hobbies.  
  6. Get some sleep. 
  7. Connect with others.  
  8. Take an online course. 
  9. Organize your workspace.  
  10. Book a spa treatment. 

Partake in 1-2 of these activities and you’re sure to return with renewed energy and focus (and perhaps a post-facial glow). 

Clear intentions for success for the year ahead 

Before the hustle and bustle begins again, leaders should set clear personal and professional intentions for success in the year ahead. Intentions not only inspire and motivate leaders to persevere, but they also enable enhanced decision-making. When faced with complex choices, you can assess which options align with your intentions and make decisions that are consistent with your long-term goals. Display them in a place where they’ll be top-of-mind for an even greater purposeful approach.  

In conclusion, the holiday break is not merely a pause in the academic calendar; it is a strategic interlude for higher education leaders. By leveraging this time for reflection, goal-setting, and intentional leadership, leaders can position their institutions for a successful and impactful year ahead. Here’s to a holiday pause that’s both relaxed and purposeful. 

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