Fighting the Execution Gap Syndrome: Real Strategies for Student Success
The Success Rates are Worse for Low-Income and Minority Students.
The academic achievement of low income and minority students in community colleges remains in the forefront of ongoing debates about student success and college completion rates. There are alarming disparities between the success of minority students and other learners at community colleges. According to Tom Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center, community colleges have been extremely successful at opening the doors to college for disadvantaged students but they have had less success in helping them graduate. Bailey contends that less than 40 percent of students who start in community colleges complete a credential in six years. The success rates are worse for low-income and minority students.
Community college educators and associations and state policymakers are focused on closing the achievement gaps and improving the completion rates Bailey described. Numerous strategies to improve student success and transform the culture of the institutions have been launched. I contend that we can continue the argument about the achievement gaps into the next decade; however, the facts show that the formulation of strategies to improve student success represent only half the equation. The other half, more complex and challenging, is ensuring that the strategies are properly executed or implemented. In far too many cases, the act of developing student success strategies has been regarded as an end in itself, under the assumption that the strategies were properly administered and the goals were accomplished. In too many cases, many community college educators and researchers overlooked the fact that strategy development is ineffective without successful implementation. Until recently, a large number of community colleges remained primarily focused on the strategy formation aspect of student success and — as impressive as some were — this was not enough to carry the strategies through to goal attainment.
There is a huge gap between the strategies adopted to improve student success and their successful implementation. I call this phenomenon the “execution gap syndrome.” The execution gap syndrome is like a virus and is the difference between the formulated student success/completion strategies (frequently referred to as “agenda”) and how they are implemented or carried out in actual practice. There is little to no research available that describes what occurs between formulating a set of strategies and the “how-to” to execute them. Over the years, I have actively sought to better understand the design of successful execution plans. I have observed that faculty, staff and students are sometimes disappointed by the leader’s vision that failed them in practice because the student success strategies were not properly executed.
Overcoming execution gap syndrome requires institutions to focus on both improving the quality of student success strategies and making sure that they correspond to evidence-based needs and concerns of the affected constituents. People in the trenches will eradicate execution gaps only when a “targeted” strategy is met by a corresponding execution commitment. Effective strategy execution begins with vision and a targeted strategy. A targeted strategy is concisely defined, within the institution’s core values, and achievable based on available resources. The targeted strategy must be translated into specific tasks, resource allocations and plans that all stakeholders in the institution are held accountable for achieving.
The execution gap syndrome can be easily transmitted and can infect programs and services at every level of the college, from the boardroom, classroom, and campus climate to academic and support services. Based on hundreds of on-site visits to college campuses in more than a dozen states, participation in numerous state, regional and national conversations, and document reviews, I have concluded that closing the “Execution Gap” in the community college student success work will require a different set of prescriptions, and must be tailored to individual institutional circumstances and culture in order to be effective. Closing the execution gap is not a quick fix — but it can be done. “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” (Covey, McChesney, & Huling, 2012) identified an approach that is working for practitioners in the field. The authors recommend that institutions concentrate on important strategic priorities. They argue that leaders can produce game-changing results by following four disciplines: focusing on the wildly important goals, acting on lead measures, keeping a compelling scoreboard and creating a cadence of accountability.
Community college student success leaders must transition from strategy formulation to strategy execution. Some leaders apparently have not grasped the message that execution is an essential aspect of practice. If the leader has a clear vision of what needs to be done and the administrators and other stakeholders charged with implementing the strategy lack the understanding, will, or capacity to actually execute it, little or nothing will be accomplished. Basically, the execution gap or disconnect between the college’s intent behind the formulation of a strategy and how that intent is transformed into reality determines the impact of the strategy.
How can institutions ignore the huge cost of not finding a treatment for their strategy execution gaps, yet waste scarce resources tweaking symptoms, using boutique programs or pilots, in hopes of moving the student success needle? Denial of the strategy execution gap is probably the most significant reason for administrators’ oversight. Some leadership team’s belief that their institution does not have time for the leadership burden of implementing a formal strategy execution process is another reason for the gap. Assuming a college has a viable student success strategy that is well thought out and realistic, there can be nothing more important than making sure it is executed in a timely and efficient manner.
Overcoming execution gap syndrome requires a multi-pronged approach that focuses on improving the vision and quality of strategies and making sure that they correspond to authentic needs and concerns of the affected constituents. The three main stakeholders — the governing boards, administration, and employee groups —must work together to address the challenges. If institutions fully realized how much their execution gap was costing them, they would be more proactive in striving to close it.
Essentially, the execution gap syndrome, which is highly contagious, might infect all student success initiatives undertaken by the institution. The lack of appropriate execution is often connected to the interplay of the behavior of trustees, leadership teams and constituent groups. For example, in many community colleges, trustees often impose unclear demands and expectations on the president or CEO. Without clear goals, delineation of responsibilities and accountability, the CEO is left with an inordinate amount of discretion to implement polices the way she pleases, or not execute them at all. This is particularly true when trustees lack clear understanding of their responsibilities as a governing board. In other words, the dysfunction of the board of trustees frequently spreads the virus that leads to the execution gap syndrome on the college campus.
In practice, a well-educated and wellqualified leadership team, committed faculty and trained staff are the backbone of successful execution of the student success work at the college. The CEO’s vision serves as a launch pad for student success strategies. Sometimes, the president or CEO does a poor job communicating their vision and strategy, much less translating them to cabinet members, faculty or lower level staff members. Consequently, these poorly directed strategies rarely produce the intended results. Stakeholders throughout the institution simply do not know what they are expected to do or when they are supposed to do it. Obviously, the strategy execution gap confirms that current plans are not being implemented effectively. However, a compounding problem occurs when the president and leadership team cannot determine whether the root cause of the strategy execution gap is due to “poor planning, poor execution” (Mankins, 2005, p. 2) or a combination of both. Failure to determine the root cause of a strategy execution gap greatly reduces the institution’s chances of closing it.
The senior leadership team must determine whether the college’s student success strategies have sufficient resources and staff to conduct the work. For any strategy to have meaningful college-wide ownership and support, all stakeholders should discuss the execution aspects that affect them. Connecting the leader’s vision to the operational work at each unit of the college is crucial to successful strategy execution. Given the fact that that execution gaps often result from lack of clear directions from the leadership team, a strong communication system is imperative. If student success strategies at the college are not delivered because leadership teams fail to communicate and implement appropriate strategies, then colleges struggle to be effective. The execution gap syndrome may result in organizational instability and create grounds for apathy or benign neglect or other disorders among stakeholders. Multiple initiatives or reforms without proper execution can create collective mistrust in the leadership of the college.
There are clear benefits for the entire institution if the execution gap syndrome is remedied, i.e., narrowed or closed in key high-impact areas. Narrowing or closing the execution gap makes student success reforms possible. If the president and the leadership team deliver on the institution’s promises, the stakeholders are more likely to trust the administration and support the student success efforts. Executing student success initiatives is a challenging process, but if institutions seriously commit to overcoming the execution gap syndrome, stakeholders will also be more inclined to understand and support the student success work at the college. If stakeholders see that the leadership teams does its job and that success interventions are being executed as they should be, they are more likely to buy in and support the strategies. Students in particular stand to benefit from remedying the execution gap syndrome.
Christine Johnson McPhail is a senior professor for the Roueche Graduate Center of National American University, and a member of NAU’s National Community College Advisory Board; director emeritus, Community College Leadership Doctoral Program, Morgan State University; and, president emeritus, Cypress College.
This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in the Roueche Graduate Center, National American University, and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between the Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org or, call 512-813-2300.