Framing the strategic planning process as a Community Conversation was an intentional choice, as the President of Champlain College, Don Laackman explains in this episode. He and his executive team, trustees and cabinet were committed to using the participatory planning methodology, Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as their strategic planning process. In this way, the college was honoring a number of important criteria which he dives into in this show.
Exciting Times in Higher Education
Don's background encompasses higher education, business and nonprofit sectors and he brings a lot of experience to his role. For example, he's worked on large scale transformational work. He's worked in economic development, in information technology, strategy development, human capital development and operations.
I invited Don to speak to how Champlain College is using elements of Appreciative Inquiry and strengths-based approaches to move Champlain forward. Specifically, Don speaks to how the Appreciative Inquiry design has framed the community conversation that will shape the College's current strategic planning process.
The Favorite Part of the President's Role
I was curious about what it's like to be president of a college and asked him what he enjoys most about his work.
Don: The favorite part of my work is when I get to work with students. That's where I get my energy. Whenever I need a boost, I go down to our cafeteria. I sit down with a random group of three or four students who had no idea they were going to have a lunch with the President of the College. I just engage them in discussions about what's going on in their lives, what their dreams are, why they came to Champlain, and what we're doing to help them achieve those dreams. And it is the favorite part of my job and really why all of us are here.
People who work in higher education are committed to the transformational experience that the college experience gives them. And I feel that very deeply in my interactions with students. So that's the favorite part of what I do here.
A Community Conversation to Reimagine Champlain College
Towards the end of 2018, Don, at a town hall meeting, invited the entire community to begin a conversation to reimagine Champlain College and to set a vision for 2025.
Don: For a community conversation, we invited employers, parents of students. We invited our online students. We have a fairly large online presence. They were invited to participate in the conversation as well as many of our community partners. And when I say employers, I mean employers who employ our students in internships or for employment after graduation. So we really tried to bring the whole to this conversation. We included those who interact with us, or work here, or benefit from that work. We created a meeting of the whole as we had this conversation about the college's future.
Welcoming the Whole into the Strategic Planning Process
I invited Don to share some of the influences that led him to chose this Appreciative Inquiry community conversation approach.
Don: Champlain College is the Center for Appreciative Inquiry. We host the David Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry. We are very fortunate to have Professor Lindsey Godwin on our faculty. Lindsey is the Academic Director of the Cooperrider Center. Lindsay had actually influenced me since before I even arrived at Champlain. She educated me as to the power of Appreciative Inquiry as well as helped me understand the methodologies and tools we can use from AI to inform our college leadership and our strategy development.
Don: I've wanted to have a conversation of the whole so that we could tap into the energy, passion, excitement and good ideas across our community. We wanted to understand how we are going to navigate these very interesting times in higher education. I would say Lindsey, the Center, and my discussions with David Cooperrider over the years have had a major influence on my vision of how I want to move the College forward.
Tapping into Energy and Passion Across the Community
Don: We determined that there’s a lot of energy around our mission, vision and values. We have an opportunity to visit our conception of what our values are that drive us as an institution and how we conceive of our mission to serve students. Over the course of the Community Conversation days, there was a fair amount of energy around reimagining our mission, vision and values.
Immediately after the two Community Conversation days, a group convened to make sense of all the stories, the collective strengths, exciting dreams and opportunities shared by the stakeholders. Four distinct areas emerged to support the future vision.
- Flourishing Community (Well-Being, Social, Thriving)
- Academic and Professional Purpose (Curriculum, Global Integration, Career-Focus)
- Adaptive Infrastructure (Policies, Procedures, Systems, Structures)
- Thriving Students (On Campus and Online)
Sustaining the Momentum
Don: I am very conscious of the fact that previous efforts at the College when we had a summit or a similar type of conversation did not lead to sustained energy and outcomes that people could point to it. And so I wanted to ensure that we were not only gearing up for the Community Conversation in October, but that we had already mapped out a plan. We needed a plan for how we are going to carry forward what we learned in the Community Conversation into our strategic plan that we would then bring to life.
Don: We have now launched five teams. We had 80 people who stepped up and said they wanted to be on one of these teams. Each team has a process leader and a team leader who is responsible for organizing the conversations of each of the foundation teams. As well, we have executive sponsors who are members of my Cabinet. I should also mention to round out the picture, we are very conscious that each of these teams is going to come up with great ideas and recommendations. We want to ensure that each of these teams is considering issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in the formulation of their recommendations. We also have a separate effort that we call “leading through financial realities.”
My intention in this Season 3 of Positivity Strategist Podcast is to speak with those who are leading in an appreciative way. This means speaking to those who actively lead through the lens of valuing the whole in a collaborative, relational way, and who are innovators in their field. Don Laackman has a team who is helping him achieve his vision and is leading an innovative process to help create and bring their strategic plan to life.
Listen in to the podcast to learn what “appreciative leading” means to Don Laackman. He's very conscious of leading with strengths – his own – and those of his colleagues and community.
Don: People are in higher education because they believe in the transformative power of what we do for students. And so in the most challenging conversations, if you anchor it back to why we are here, what is our purpose, and how do we connect that institutional purpose with each individual's individual purpose, my hope is that we can help everyone at the college. We help them by bringing meaning and purpose in their lives, at least in their professional lives so that we can work towards common goals.
Full Disclosure: I am a member of the Champlain College and the Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry faculties, teaching online Appreciative Inquiry programs.