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The art of looking ahead

Whether it’s big business, the World Cup or higher education, success comes from strategic planning

July 10, 2019

By Matt Watson

Success isn’t achieved by accident. Whether the goal is growing a company, hosting a World Cup match or expanding educational opportunities, strategic planning is required.

The concept might be most associated with business, where strategic planning allows a company to identify where it is and where it wants to go while aligning everyone on the path forward, said Rob Cohen, chairman and CEO of IMA Financial Group Inc.

Strategic planning is an important part of his job: Cohen is ultimately responsible for the direction of a company that has close to $200 million in annual revenue and has been named a top workplace by the Denver Post.

To understand the importance of a good strategic plan, start with examining a bad one, he said.

“An example of poor strategic planning is saying, ‘We’re going to meet on a sunny beach.’ When you go around the room asking people where that is, one person visualizes California, another person is in Mexico, another says Florida,” Cohen said.

A good strategic plan says: We’re going to be in San Diego at 3 p.m. on Monday, he explained.

“It’s clear, and there are still a hundred ways to get there, but everyone knows where you’re going,” Cohen said.

Know your nonnegotiables

Beyond the boardroom, Cohen’s work in the community has hammered home the importance of aligning stakeholders and looking out for their interests.

He’s a former member of the Board of Trustees at Metropolitan State University of Denver, founder of the Denver Sports Commission and was appointed by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to chair the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Exploratory Committee in 2017.

Rob Cohen speaks at the Cohen Center for Athletics, named in 2017 for his family. Cohen served as the chair of the Board of Trustees at MSU Denver for five years. Photo by Carl Glenn Payne.
Rob Cohen speaks at the Cohen Center for Athletics, named in 2017 for his family. Cohen served as the chair of the Board of Trustees at MSU Denver for five years. Photo by Carl Glenn Payne.

An important aspect of successful strategic planning is deciding what you’re not going to do, Cohen said.

“In the case of the Olympics, it was deciding not only how we would do the Olympics but also what our nonnegotiables were,” he said. “One of those for our city was, we’re not going to do an event that puts the city in financial crisis. We’re going to do it in a financially responsible way, and if we can’t, that’s a deal-killer.”

The U.S. Olympic Committee ultimately chose Salt Lake City as its nomination for the 2030 host city, but Denver presented an innovative bid that reduced projected costs with strategic use of existing infrastructure in the city and beyond.

Now, Cohen and the Denver Sports Commission have their sights set on the 2026 World Cup, which was awarded to the joint bid by Canada, Mexico and the U.S.

It’s expected that World Cup matches will be played in 10 American cities, culled from a list of 17 candidate cities that includes Denver, Cohen said. The next steps in the strategic process are organizing a committee and starting community outreach to rally behind the possibility of hosting World Cup matches in Colorado. Host cities will be named in 2020.

“I feel really good about Denver’s chances to host World Cup matches,” he said. “There are a number of competitive cities we have to compete against, but based on the assets we have in this community and our geographic location, I feel like we have as good a chance as anyone to host matches.”

Money matters

MSU Denver Trustee Russell Noles can appreciate Denver’s frugal Olympic bid. The 1981 accounting graduate, who oversaw nearly $1 trillion in assets in his post as chief operating officer of Nuveen and previously served as the chief strategy officer for parent company TIAA, said financial consideration is integral to strategic planning.

“You have to connect the financials to the process. Finance folks need to be very involved because at end of the day, you have to turn strategic plans into numbers. What is this going to look like in terms of revenues and expenses?” Noles said. “It all has to be put to the music of numbers.”

Russell Noles, who recently retired as chief operation officer at Nuveen, was confirmed as MSU Denver trustee in April 2019. Photo by Michael Paras.
Russell Noles, who recently retired as chief operation officer at Nuveen, was confirmed as MSU Denver trustee in April 2019. Photo by Michael Paras.

Another imperative is getting executives and others involved to dedicate the time and energy to focus on planning, such as off-site workshops, he said.

“The heavy lift was getting our executives to step back from their day-to-day and embrace an external environmental assessment of competitors, the regulatory environment, changes in customer preferences, substitute products, structural changes in the industry – all those things that are happening outside the four walls of the organization,” Noles said. “Once our team starts to digest it, then we talk about the implications to our business.”

Collaboration between campus and community

MSU Denver is in the midst of its own strategic-planning process, a six-phase effort to craft the University’s Strategic Plan 2025, which will launch July 1, 2020. The goal for the current phase of data-gathering and engagement is soliciting input from upward of 5,000 people by August.

A Strategic Planning Team is engaging stakeholders through facilitated conversations and surveys, while the Strategic Plan 2025 website includes a place for anyone to submit ideas.

The University is seeking input from faculty, staff, students, alumni, community leaders, legislators and elected officials, said Cathy Lucas, vice president of strategy, who is co-chairing the strategic-planning efforts with history Professor Matt Makley.

“We’re hoping to hear from everyone,” she said. “We need to ensure we’re engaging industry, such as health care, hospitality, banking – all the areas we’re plugged into – to ensure we’ve heard from industry leaders. We also want to talk to members of the Hispanic community since we’re now a Hispanic-Serving Institution.”

A member of MSU Denver
A member of MSU Denver's Strategic Planning Team, Tony Nunez, assistant professor of Human Performance and Sport, speaks during a kickoff meeting in April. Photo by Alyson McClaran

The University is in a good position to develop a successful strategic plan in part because of the successes of its past efforts, Lucas said.

Created in 2012 and refreshed in 2015, that plan engaged 2,000 people in the process and led to the University earning the federal designation of Hispanic-Serving Institution, accreditation for the College of Business by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International, an employee-engagement initiative based on the University’s core values, and a 14-percentage-point increase in external brand recognition.

But there are lessons from that effort the University will take forward, Lucas said.

“I think where we could do a better job this time around is making sure every employee knows the strategic plan and can provide five quick facts based on, ‘What’s in it for me?’” she said.

It’s also important that the strategic plan translate into action and results, Lucas said.

“For me, it’s critical that we don’t develop a plan that’s going to go on somebody’s shelf and three or four years later they dust it off and say, ‘Where are we on this plan?’” she said.


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