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  • Writer's pictureSarah Ancel

In Turbulent Times, Values Keep Us Firmly Rooted in What Matters Most

If you are a higher education professional, your organization is almost certainly guided by a strategic plan, and there is a good chance you have actively participated in the planning process at some point in your career. These planning processes are conducted with a sense of optimism, envisioning a future full of promise and opportunity. The goals, strategies, and tactics that result reflect the future we expect. But, what guides organizations when the unexpected occurs and these carefully constructed plans are disrupted?

If there is a clear takeaway from the last six months, it’s that ripple effects from a global pandemic and civil unrest are far-reaching. In the face of an uncertain future, the objectives your organization set five years ago, or even six months ago, may feel less relevant. The stated goals and the tactics may seem less achievable as, for example, resources that were intended to support a new initiative or service are diverted to emergency needs. Organizations may even find that they need to pivot from or realign their mission, recognizing their most significant potential for impact now lies elsewhere.

So, what actually sustains an organization when plans have to change? Organizational values.

Organizational values almost never lose relevance and, in fact, become even more vital in these times of turmoil. If a mission and goals are what give your organization direction, values ensure you don’t lose your way. They serve as a guiding North Star, remaining fixed and true, even in times when it’s necessary to navigate a fork in the road or reinvent the roadmap altogether. A strong set of values won’t make these difficult decisions easier, but they will serve as a litmus test for whether or not a particular choice is right for your organization, ultimately providing the ability to make consistent decisions with peace of mind.

Consider an example from the corporate sector. It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know “just do it” is not listed among Nike’s values; however, “do the right thing” is a Nike value, one that feels particularly relevant in light of Nike’s recent $40 million investment in social justice and racial equity and ads focused on confronting racism. Nike’s stance on these issues may have cost them customers and profits, but it is clearly in line with who they want to be as a company.

For Nike, these are major, multi-million dollar decisions. Most decisions made in an organization, however, happen on a much smaller scale. Should I write that email? Should we work with this client? Where should we advertise our open positions? These day-to-day choices may not feel significant, but little by little, they can create bigger shifts. Without regular “gut checks” against its values, an organization can easily and unknowingly evolve into something very different than what it sought to be.

Understanding the foundational importance of values, Student-Ready Strategies works closely with clients during the strategic planning process to craft value statements that will serve as enduring core principles for their organizations – through whatever may come. We help organizations think deeply about who they want to be; this exploration then leads to a subset of other, defining questions:

· How do we want to approach our work?

· How do we choose which partners or clients to work with?

· What are our “deal breakers” or the things we are unwilling to accept?

· What are the organizational norms or daily activities that reinforce each value?

Organizations need to answer these questions honestly and set values that are aspirational, but also, realistic and actionable. Values that are too abstract or lofty won’t stand up when applied in any practical sense. “Striving for perfection”sounds impressive, but isn’t that something all organizations do?

Never an organization to ask others to do what we ourselves will not, the SRS team recently evaluated and updated our own values statements:

Mission over profit: Our portfolio reflects our unwavering commitment to improving the academic and career outcomes of every student.

Flexible on methods, inflexible on outcomes: There is more than one way to approach this work. We can and will meet all clients’ needs to achieve results for students.

Start to finish, top to bottom: True partnership requires a sustained effort and is marked by a willingness to do whatever is necessary. There is no task too small if it will impact students’ lives.

Worry-free client experience: We assume the mental load for a project the moment a contract is signed. Clients have confidence in our ability to meet deadlines, produce what was promised, and protect their interests.

Authentic relationships: We recognize and appreciate our clients as people and seek to build authentic connections with them.

Better together: We strive to leverage our network to enhance capacity for all who pursue a student-ready world.

What can you learn about SRS from these values? Everything that’s most important to us as an organization: how we choose our partners, how we approach our work, and why it matters to us. We use them to decide what actions to take, and most importantly, what actions not to take. We refer to them often, ensuring that we stay true to ourselves and to the student-focused organization we were founded to be.

With all of the chaos in our lives and in our world right now, it may not feel like the right juncture to assess your organizational values, but that’s exactly what we encourage you to do. Take a few hours, or a day if you can spare it, to sit with them. Really think about them and determine if they ring true. Do they reflect who you want to be as an organization? Can you articulate how your staff and your work exhibit those values daily? If not, revise them now. It will serve you well for whatever lies ahead.

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