The academic year is no longer young. 

Yes, the orientation calendar is still fresh in the minds of campus marcomms leaders. Colleges that operate on the quarter system are still giving their new students swag. But we’re only weeks, or days, away from someone saying, “this fall is filling up. Let’s revisit that in the spring.”

The laundry list of goals developed in July, when the students were gone and the faculty on vacation, can quickly feel unrealistic. Or even hopeless.  

Last week, we met with the leadership team of a graduate school that was determined to stop this from happening. They set a simple mantra for the retreat we helped facilitate: If everything is a priority, then nothing is. 

Rather than attempting to accomplish everything in their strategic plan this year, the dean narrowed the team’s focus to a single topic. We spent the day helping team leaders consider how they could make measurable progress between now and May, and then commit to action. 

The competing priorities of the academic year gave the exercise a sense of urgency because the calendar encouraged the team to mix ambition and realism. 

Whether you are leading a university, a college, or a marcomms team, investing a little time now could pay off for the rest of the year. Here are a few ideas for a productive session:

Pick your priority area

Before the leadership retreat, we talked with the dean and a few others about the school’s most pressing needs and the areas where they could make the most progress with a concerted push. The dean then opened the day delivering a clear charge. 

Even if you don’t have time for pre-planning, some key questions can help your team choose a lane to focus on for the year. 

  • What is our primary mission, and what tasks do the most to advance that mission?
  • What do our students most need now? How has that changed? How is it likely to change within the next five years?
  • Where have we historically invested a lot of time or energy without seeing significant results? Do we have to keep doing that?
  • What message does our key audience need to hear this year? What are the best channels to convey that? 
  • If everyone on the team chose a related goal, where could we make an outsized impact? 

Be realistic

Don’t let brainstorming turn into wishcasting. Budgets matter. Timelines matter. Partners (or the lack of them) matter. 

Completely changing how you communicate with alumni, for example, might not happen in a year. But you can stand up smaller projects, like launching a new vehicle to reach recent grads. Pile up small and medium size wins.  

Name your goals

We asked everyone to write SMART goals, which are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

SMART goals are perfect for this type of planning, because they ask you to focus on the steps needed to move an organization forward rather than a far-off end point. We did add another layer not captured in the acronym: Whose help do you need to accomplish your goal?

Whether you use SMART goals or not, don’t leave the meeting without documenting your intentions. 

Set a schedule

By the end of the day, our leadership team had heard a lot of ideas. We asked them to think ahead to May. With the dean’s focus area in mind, what would a successful year look like? Charting back, what will each member of the team need to do to achieve success? 

They will use their SMART goals to check in on their progress every month, and modify them as needed. 

You can find success by May too, but only if you pick your priorities soon. 

Jeff Frantz is a Vice President at the RW Jones Agency.