Long-Term Business Planning Doesn't Work
Do your plans bring opposite results? How do you lead with your plan? In this episode, Dr. Roger Parrott, the author of Opportunity Leadership, talks about his book and how leaders should capture better results instead of creating them. He navigates into developing traits to focus on leadership outlook to untapped opportunities with expediency, adeptness, and energy. He also delves into practicing future-focused evaluation and how it differs from the present focus. Do you want to learn more from the model Dr. Roger Parrott used to create better results? Tune in to this episode now!
I have Dr. Roger Parrott PhD, the President of Belhaven University from Jackson, Mississippi, who's written the book Opportunity Leadership: Stop Planning And Start Getting Results. Let's go.
I got Dr. Roger Parrott PhD, the President of Belhaven University from Jackson, Mississippi on with me. What's going on, Roger?
I'm glad to be with you. I've heard a lot of great things about this show. What a treat to be on with you. Thank you.
No problem. I’m super excited to interview you and to hear about your wisdom. I want to read over who is Dr. Roger Parrott. He is the President of Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi. It's one of the fastest-growing and most innovative colleges serving about 5,000 students, including an online campus in China, which is pretty awesome. Belhaven was named one of America's best colleges to work for in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He was also named the Ten Most Visionary Educator Leaders of 2021 by Education Magazine. That scratches the surface. You're also a speaker and author. You've written a book that we're going to talk about called Opportunity Leadership: Stop Planning And Start Getting Results. That sounds interesting.
It's a little radical.
Before we dive into that because it is such a counterintuitive book on leadership, let's talk about you, your journey, and your life. Who is Dr. Roger Parrott?
I grew up in a home of a pastor and a college president. God has blessed me to bring me close to fellowship with him from the early days. I don't have any great story of how I rebelled and was horrible and came back to the Lord. It has never been a straight line of success. God has been good to my wife, Mary Lou, and me. We have two great kids and homeschooled them both all the way through until they got to college, and then they went to the college where I was president. It all worked pretty well for us. I’m a university president for 34 years. I love it every day. It's the best job in the world. You get to be with bright, young, energetic, and idealistic young people, and some smart faculty, and get to run a little city of your own, and you own your own football team. It doesn't get any better than that.
It's awesome to have a Christian school owning your own football team. I went to Huntington University in Northern Indiana. At that time, we still don't have a football team. That's pretty cool.
Football has been fun. We celebrate 25 years of football. It's been a good change for us and a good thing. Belhaven is a unique and wonderful place. We do a lot of different creative things. One thing we got going is for all of our students who come, we give them a free Master's. I love doing this because the challenge for students in the future is complex. The broader their education, the better off they're going to be. We give them a double major for free. A lot of unique things, but these are different days for higher ed than when you were at Huntington and when I was in school. Especially for Christian universities, we've got to help equip young people for the future and to be well prepared.
We could probably go down the trail of education today and where it's going. I have kids in school in public education, and we're starting down to that. You're in the university and college. I want to go down and talk about your book Opportunity Leadership. You are a leader. You were born into a leadership home. I think your family has leaders. You're raising up leaders in college. You've written this book.
I wanted to start off with this number one question. You're in a college and one of the things is we're preparing and planning for the future. These bright minds are coming in and they're preparing their life for the future, planning. I was in business and we talked about business planning and creating a plan, but your book subtitle is Stop Planning. I want to talk about this. Give us a little take on that.
It's not a new model of leadership. I will warn you right up front. It's a biblical model of leadership, which we've gotten away from. In the church and Christian leadership, we have gotten so enamored with the models of Harvard Business Review and the consultants of business. We have adopted their view of strategic planning, long-range planning, or whatever you want to call it. I call it destination planning. That's the easiest way to describe it for me.
If you're trying to predict the future, that's what I'm calling Christian leaders to back away from. Let go of that and instead capture God's future. That's very different from operational planning and using the best out of what you've already been given. This whole idea of trying to predict the future just doesn't work. That's the first thing. Anybody who had a plan five years ago doesn't have one now because nobody had COVID in their plan. That's a softball illustration.
More importantly than that, we are missing God's best because we get focused on a plan. We sit around conference tables. We plan, “In the next five years, we're going to do this. We’re going to grow this way. We’re going to add this and do this.” We get so focused on those objectives that we think we're doing for God's best, which we are well-intended but we miss the ministry opportunities that he brings us because we're not even looking for them.
Instead, I'm suggesting and calling in the book and giving some real handles for how you do this, to walk away from that long-range planning and trust God for opportunities. I've been in higher education for a long time. Twenty years on the formal planning side, doing the planning like everybody else, the 5 or 10-year goals, the sub-goals, and all that stuff. I've done all that.
It doesn't work. For the last twenty years, I have gone without a plan. God has done so much more than we ever could have done if we had a plan. If you come to BelhavenUniversity.com, you won't find a long-range plan. It does not exist. There is no Belhaven 2030 plan with five goals that says, “We're going to do this and that.” Instead, we trust God for opportunities. You mentioned we have a campus in China. It's not just a campus. It’s a DBA program. We are the number one ranked school in China. Here's a Christian college teamed up with Tsinghua University, which is the Harvard of China. You can't plan that.
God brings opportunities when you're available, and when you’re watching and looking for them. That's what I'm encouraging leaders to do. It works in the church, in universities, and business leadership settings. One of the endorsers of the book was Jim Morgan, the guy who turned around Krispy Kreme when it was about to go bankrupt. Jim read the book and he said, "This is exactly what we did at Krispy Kreme. We didn't have a plan. We're looking for how we could find opportunities to turn this thing around." Jim is a very godly guy and trusted God for that. This thing does work and it's remarkable how free it is. The single best decision I've ever made in all my years of leadership was to give up long-range planning.
I have a lot of questions about that because you're exactly right. I've been in the business world. I have the one-page plan. We have the 10 or 30-year plan, mixed with the 5, 3, and 1-year, the 90-day rocks, and all that stuff. We go through that. It's freeing when you're talking like, "How freeing that is to go without a plan?" It's counterintuitive. I want to ask this question because you have a part in the book that talks about how you lead without a plan. We're talking to a lot of business leaders out there or people in ministry, pastors, or leaders in their families. How do you lead without a plan? What does that even look like for you, especially one leading faculty, staff, and students?
There are a lot of expectations. That's what leaders do. You bring a plan. You come out of some retreat where God speaks like Moses on the mountain and you come down with 10 goals for the next 10 years. That's how we know you're a leader. That’s part of why leaders are afraid to do this because if you give that up, “What am I going to do as a leader? What's my role? What's my responsibility?”
I'm talking about the difference between long-range planning and operational planning. Operational planning to me is good stewardship. We know we're going to teach English, feed students, and we're going to play football. We're going to get the best out of what we know God has already given to us, but we're not going to put one ounce of energy into projecting where God is going to take us. That's what I'm talking about.
How you lead with that is that your focus changes. You've got to change the culture. First of all, you got to change the expectations. I encourage this in the book. I wrote a fictional account of a leader who changes this overnight and he gets fired. You're going to get fired if you do this overnight. I can guarantee it's not going to work.
People are going to be scared to death because they're expecting. The plan is our security blanket. They've got to have an understanding of what the vision is, what the message is, what replaces it, and how that works. After doing this for twenty years, I mean, I've got a campus that never even asked the question of what the long-range plan is because they're accustomed to the culture we've built to adapt, quickly change, move rapidly, and adjust after we get something in place.
All the characteristics it takes to lead the entrepreneurial way, but that culture change is a process. You've got to bring people on board. You got to change the way they look, what they're rewarded for, what they're encouraged for, and all that. It begins to me with a theology. Either trust God for the future or you don’t. You can't have it both ways.
God doesn't throw us the keys to the car and say, “You drive and I'll point you in the right direction. I'll see you when we get there.” God is sovereign in everything. We all believe it and we teach it. Leadership often acts that way. Sometimes we act like we've got to find that direction. I said freeing and you reiterated it. It is the most freeing thing I've ever done. It is remarkable.
The freedom I feel to come through COVID without a plan, I was not under the tension that my peers were under to come through the threat of recession without a plan. Dramatic changes are on the horizon for higher education. God's got a plan and a way. We'll get there in his way and direction if we'll be sensitive to the opportunities. God's opportunities come like a very gentle breeze. If you're not attuned to them, you're not going to feel it and you're not going to respond to it. You're just going to be focused on your plan to get where you want to go.
You talked about finding God's opportunities. What's that process look like for you? Maybe talk about some of the opportunities that God has brought to you that maybe you didn't plan for, but now you're like, “I see God in this. I see this opportunity,” then you have to embrace the speed. You talk about taking a risk and going after that opportunity even though it wasn't in your plan. A lot of times we hold back like, “We're not going to do that because our plan is over here.” How has God shown you the opportunities? What's that process look like for you and your university?
It's fun to live out, for one thing, because you're in a whole different mindset. Christian leaders tend to be way too slow. We are afraid of death and that we're going to make a mistake. We're afraid we're not going to be able to predict every contingency of every problem that could happen. By the time, we got it all analyzed and all sorted out and all figured out, the opportunity was gone. We missed the moment. We have learned to operate with speed. We've learned to adjust as we get into things and not predict. I always tell the campus, “What we start with is not going to be what we end with. It's going to look different,” and to get that culture built up.
I'll give you an example. We had an opportunity to go to China about six years ago with an MBA. We had been in this culture of opportunity leadership for quite some time, so my campus was comfortable with it. I got a phone call on the 1st of July about this opportunity in China. On the 1st of August, we signed the contract. On the 1st of September, we started writing the curriculum. On the 1st of October, we enrolled the first students. It’s four months from the start to actual enrollment. Most colleges can't figure out what color to paint the hallway in four months. It was very rapid.
We did that. We were doing great in China. We had about 500 MBA students. The thing was rocking along great, then COVID hit. China got locked down and they couldn't recruit. The program went down. The partner we were with in China gave up on that side of the business and that's fine. We were trailing off in China.
I got a phone call on the 1st of November. It coming up in two years It was from a friend in China who had a partnership that they had been trying to do with a major flagship university. It’s a top-ranked state university. If I told you the name, you'd know it. They've been trying for two years to get this Doctorate of Business Administration going. The school couldn't make it happen. They couldn't move the dial to get it done.
They talked to me on the 1st of November and they said, “Would you be open to this?” I said, “Yes. Let me get my team. We'll do a Zoom next week.” We did. That was on a Monday. I said, “We got a few questions.” We got back on Friday and we said, “We'll go.” We were ready to go with a Doctorate of Business Administration in China, teaching in Mandarin. It's all online.
To take that story a little further, we went fast to get it started, but we were about a month into getting ready to roll in over Christmas. We were going to enroll students in mid-January. The Chinese were pushing their students to take two courses at a time. Two courses at a time at a doctoral level are really tough. My team was pushing back. We let them do it at the MBA, but Doctorate is a different thing.
We wanted to pause and figure that out first. I said, “If we pause this, we're not going to get the deal. It's going to go away. Let's start and we'll work it out after we get into it.” We weren't three weeks into offering courses and they were raising their hand saying, “Please take one at a time and not two,” and it worked out.
Often, we try to work all those contingencies out ahead of time and we never get going. I'm encouraging jump in, get going, and then learn to flex as you move along. I've got a whole chapter on flexing with implementation. That's where we miss a lot of it because leaders don't want to stand up and say, “We're going to do X,” and then it doesn't look like that. We feel like somehow it makes us look bad. You got to change the culture so people understand that's okay. In fact, that's a good thing when it changes.
You had this whole chapter on flexing for implementation. You mentioned an example there for leaders. We have this vision, especially for visionaries. We have this vision and we're going down this road. It's hard for us sometimes to shift. That's one example where you've shifted, but a lot of it is you start something. You jump right in just from the feedback of the people you're working with and some of your clients.
I started this ministry, Iron Deep. This show is called Iron Deep. We've had a couple of ministries. I've had some vision here and there, but a lot of times it's starting to look maybe not like what I had planned. I'm trying to get some feedback and see what their needs are, what they want, and what God wants. I'm trying to figure that out. I know what I want, but I'm in this murky water too. I'm trying to go down which direction to go. Talk to us about pivoting and flexing.
You build on your gifts. What are you good at? What's your expertise? What are you strongest at? You hold it lightly then let the feedback come. Let the change come. Let God mold and make that. He's not going to take it out of your gift strike zone. What you're good at is what he going to continue to use you for. That's how he created and gifted you. Of course, he is going to build that into you. What I think is we hold things tightly. Part of it is as leaders, we think that's our value added to come in with the finished product, “Here it is. I'm the leader. I had greater insights than the rest of you. Here's how we're going to do it.” That's where leaders get in trouble.
We can hold things loosely in our hands. It doesn't mean we don't care or we're not worried about the future in the way that we want it to be the best, but we're not worried about how God is going to get us there. There are a lot of different paths to a great future. God will get us there. That's where the joy of this comes in. It can often come through things that are overwhelming that we know only God could do it.
One of the chapters I wrote in the book was called Learning To Love Roadblocks. Especially for entrepreneurs, when they hit a roadblock, they're going to plow in. They're going to go harder and beat their head against a roadblock, “I'm going to go through this thing no matter what.” God uses roadblocks sometimes to speak great wisdom to us.
Sometimes, especially for a lot of us who are pretty well-driven, the only time he can get our attention is when a roadblock comes up. When those roadblocks come up, we need to be asking, “What are you trying to do? What are you trying to teach me? How are you trying to shape this? How are you trying to make a difference?” Rather than just plow through to achieve that predetermined goal. That's one of those ways whether you're doing a podcast, running the university, you work in real estate, or whatever it may be. When those roadblocks come, those are some of our most decisive moments to hear God speaking direct.
I love that because I for one am trying to plow against the roadblock instead of flexing and pivoting. You get a chapter in your book that talks about practicing future-focused evaluation. I want to talk about that because I'm a visionary. I like ideas. I'm not very good at implementing ideas, but I have a lot of ideas. A lot of driven entrepreneurs are always future-focused. They're thinking about the future, “What are we going to do in the future?” Typically, that does come with a plan. For you, maybe letting God work, do you have a future focus or is it more just, “We're going to live in the present, seeing what we're going to be doing right now, and thinking about today or next week.” Talk to us about future-focused versus present versus past.
The chapter is probably a little bit more about how to personally evaluate employees and that kind of thing. Focusing on their future rather than beating them up for the past, that's a little bit different thing. Essentially, how we do it is we say yes until we have to say no. We get lots of opportunities. We get people who bring us stuff all the time and faculty or staff members who come up with stuff. Because we've got a culture of looking for opportunities, people bring things forward. They don't always come from me. That's good.
We say yes until we have to say no. Eventually, we make it to a point where we have to say no, but we're trying to explore a lot of different things. I give you an example. Everything closed down for COVID when things were going gangbusters. Before COVID, we had fourteen or so different projects on a big board in my conference room that we were working with. By the time we got done through one year and a half of the process, three of those were implemented. That's okay.
Sometimes we feel like in the church, “God told me to do this and I got to do this.” We press it through when it doesn't stand up to a good idea. Good ideas do stand up to the light of a day of scrutiny. When we get to those points, we'll tend to keep going. It doesn't always make sense. We say yes until we have to say no. We're expectant about the future rather than cautious. We tend to be focused on our mission and our strengths, not our structures and our history.
The risk of failure is a big one. It's very tolerable for us. For a lot of leaders, it's embarrassing. If you don't deal with that one, you're never going to be able to capture God's opportunities because they're not all going to work out. You're going to have things that come and bubble up, and you've got to be responsive. The model we use on our campus, if you ask people on my campus about opportunity leadership, they probably won't know much about it, but if you ask them about powerboats and sailboats, they all know that model.
The idea is we want to be a sailboat prepared to catch the wind of God and go wherever God's wind takes us. A powerboat goes where we think God wants us to go and ignores the wind. In the church and Christian business leaders, we have gotten pretty good at building some impressive powerboats that can go where we think God wants us to go and completely ignore the wind. In doing so, we're ignoring God's opportunities.
That's the model we use. That sensitivity does bring you into some things. There are lots of false starts and that's okay. God's no is as good as God's yes. When God says yes, we all celebrate and say, “Isn't God good? It’s wonderful.” When God says no, we don't respond the same way, but God's no is as good as God's yes because all he wants is what he wants for us. He knows what's best for us. Why would he get us into something? When we get no, I always remind my team, “God is either preparing or protecting.” It’s one of the two. He's either protecting us from something that is the thing we shouldn't get into, or he's teaching us through this and preparing us for something else that's going to be coming.
A lot of times, one of the biggest fears that I work with a lot of men is the fear of failure. You talk about you got these 13 projects and only 3 of them worked out. A lot of times, in our minds we focus on, “I'm a failure because I failed at these other ten projects.” That is definitely out there. We wrap up this show. I want to make this practical. If someone is tuning in to the show and they are saying, “I've been doing it all wrong. I've had long-term planning. I got my vision board that everyone talks about, my dreams, and all my visions of what I want. I look at it every single day and I read it every day of my vision." Can you talk to them about how they slowly start to shift into being a sailboat versus a powerboat?
I get the question often. People don't always know what to ask college presidents. They say, “What's the university going to look like ten years from now?” My transparent answer is, “I don't know. I don't know if we'll have more students or less. I don't know if different programs are better or what it'll be.” Here's what I do know. The best plan we can come up with around conference tables written out on whiteboards is pale in comparison to the plan that God has for us.
We want God's plan. In answer to the question, we have got to help our core constituency, the people we work closely with think differently about that future. Plan well what you know you've been given. That's good stewardship, but planning a future that you can't predict, especially in this world, which is unpredictable and is going to be for quite some time to come. Trust God for that. It's a theological decision. It’s an outlook, a culture, and a mindset. It's not a 1, 2, 3, how to do.
I do offer in the book some process for how you bring this along. Start with your first adopters, etc. Share a lot about what you're doing. It takes a while. You don't do this overnight and then not be all or nothing. To have this freedom to capture God's opportunities, rather than be focused on our plan is such a wonderful way to live. Part of it is because I've never in my life seen a long-range plan, which is not simply a list of things we wish we had that we don't have. Opportunity leadership is focused on rejoicing in God's blessings he has given us, be thankful for those, and be open to how he wants to use those going forward.
When we get focused on all the good strengths we have and the positives going on rather than on everything we don't have that others have and we wish we had, it does change the culture as well. It frees up people to be creative. It frees them up to be entrepreneurial in their spirit. It frees them up to use their gifts and how God designed them. That's all we want. It is to achieve what God designed us to be, to get free from this grip of feeling like we've got to do this long-range plan.
I have had many leaders tell me, “I read the book and it changed me because this is what I've been wanting to do, but you gave me permission to do it.” I had a pastor who just came back from a sabbatical. He said, “This has transformed how I think about the future of my church.” He has got a huge, gigantic church, “Now I've got freedom in this.”
A college president called and say, "I stayed up all night reading your book because I was so embarrassed about how I didn't have a plan, and now I've got a reason for it.” That's what I'm talking about. That's what I've been doing. I've been at it long enough and I don't need another job, but I can put it out there pretty bluntly about how it works and what it does. It's been a joy to share it with a lot of leaders.
Thank you so much for sharing it with us. I appreciate you. I love what you're doing. God has a huge plan for you and the university. I know that we have the Opportunity Leadership book. You've also written another book as well.
It's called The Longview: Lasting Strategies For Rising Leaders. If you're interested in it, the website is GoBelhaven.com/book. There, you can download the book for free to your Kindle. I've also got a five-part series on The Real Cost Of Higher Education, which may be helpful if you got college kids coming up in understanding how to manage the cost of what higher education has become.
Thank you so much, and God bless you.
What a treat. Thanks for letting me share with you.