A time for strategy

When you take on a leadership position, others will look to you for direction. This can be a paralyzing moment.  How should a leader determine what direction an organization should take?

When I got elected to the co-chair position, I had made a exciting election pitch. I had big ideas, about starting an internship program for postdocs to get industry experience, and throwing social events for all 2,000 postdocs. In reality, I was naive to the workings of the association, or for that matter the complexity of the University administration, and did not realize how unrealistic that pitch had been. Nevertheless, a full council awaited directions from me and my co-chair. What to do? We decided to write a strategic plan.

What is a strategic plan, why do you need one, and how do you write one? A strategic plan helps you to focus your activities. The way we wrote it, it had three components: Mission, Vision, Timeline.

The mission details the goals of the organization. What is it that you aim to achieve? What is the point at which you’ll say: our work is done, the association is no longer needed? We felt that the most pressing need was at the level of empowering postdocs. When postdocs would feel in control of their careers, we reasoned, the association would have succeeded. Therefore, we set our organization's mission to enrich the Postdoctoral experience at Stanford, to enable Postdoctoral Scholars to explore career opportunities, and to empower Postdoctoral Scholars to become leaders in areas of their choice.

The mission is complemented by the Vision. Whereas the mission offers a general goal, it is unlikely that mission will be accomplished anytime soon, let alone during your term. We therefore formulated a vision to set more specific directions of the association.  We whittled it down to three primary aspects: improving social networks, improving training, and improving benefits. Accordingly, our Vision created a focus for the association’s work. With this in hand we could list challenges and make it our goal to press for a solution.

Finally, you need to set a timeline. How long do you estimate things will take, and more importantly, how do you prioritize? Here you can choose what you think is important, what you think is manageable, and above all, what you would like to spend your time on. Setting those priorities then helps you create a timeline for the council for the rest of your term. To help with manageability,  you can install committees and outsource tasks to volunteers. Even so, many goals were cut from our strategic plan due to lower priority and manageability. For other goals, we asked ourselves if we knew whether this particular goal actually reflected a true need. Housing was ( and is) a priority for postdocs, but would be a long term goal, on the order of years. In the shorter term, one suggested goal was improving transportation benefits to postdocs in the crowded and expensive Bay Area. But we had no idea how many people would actually benefit from improved transportation options to campus, and what challenges they currently faced without it. We therefore focused on finding out this information, with a timeframe of months. This timeline and prioritization put perspective to our plans and enabled us to turn large goals into manageable tasks.

With mission, vision, and timeline in hand we could approach administrators and council members and show what we planned to do short term and long term and how it all fit together. It made our work manageable. And it helped with the handoff to the next leadership group. When you start a leadership role, take a moment and write a strategic plan.

Antoine de Morree