Strategic Planning is Like Running a Half-Marathon

Strategic planning for a lot of companies is an annual exercise in thinking big, dreaming of possibilities. Unfortunately, for a lot of these organizations, strategic planning stops there and this annual ritual that when the ritual is done, everyone returns back to business as usual.

Let’s stop for a minute to really understand what strategic planning really is. Strategic planning is that time when I decided I wanted to run in a half marathon. It was easy to say, “I’m going to run a half or full marathon.” This particular half marathon was the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon. So, I now had my strategic goal and it contained all of the attributes a strategic goal needs to have. It had a specific vision of what and when the finish line would be crossed. I could even visualize what that moment looked like. I could see myself running a lap of the Indy 500 racetrack which as part of the mini-marathon route. I could even take the beer at the finish line as I celebrated with other runners.

But the just saying it doesn’t make it happen. Saying it, is your strategic goal, but a goal is not a plan; it only defines what the endpoint looks like. To make your run a reality, you have to begin a disciplined process of logging miles over an extended period of months. That sounds easy, but it requires constant inspiration, motivation, and desire. To sustain this effort, the training must include a series of quick wins. You might set that stop sign at the end of the street as your first goal. Then you might set that first half mile, then one mile, then two miles without walking. Reaching these shorter, attainable goals are continual reminders of your progress toward the bigger goals. There were days when this regiment was hard. Since the Mini-Marathon is the week before Memorial Day weekend, I often had to train on snow-covered running paths in frigid weather. But having this vision of successfully toasting the finish line helped to sustain me.

This is what strategic planning looks and feels like.

First, paint a picture of what the end looks like. This vision needs to identify how the member, employee, credit union, business partners, and community are going to benefit when the credit union’s goal is attained.

Second, once this vision is identified, the planning process needs to identify how each stakeholder/business unit will contribute to this goal; what do they need to change, improve, evolve to so the vision becomes reality.

Third, once the strategic stakeholders know what they need to look like and how they need to work in the future, the vision needs to be operationalized. Each strategic stakeholder needs to identify specifically what they need to do this year, next year, and the years after to become what they want to become. This operationalizing becomes their business plan and includes the projects, staff, and skills needed for the next year and how these requirements will be funded. This effort becomes the anchor for the annual budgeting process so the work and talent can be paid for. The plans should be very detailed for the first year and become less detailed as the plan moves into future years.

Four, these stakeholder plans need to include ongoing, specific and measurable, milestones that allow strategic stakeholders and the organization to see progress toward the ultimate goal. These milestones become the way the organization reports on strategic progress with the board and the entire organization. How and when these milestones will be measured and reported must be identified in these business plans. Plus, these smaller wins will help to reinforce the gains your organization is making to this vision for the future.

One this strategic planning methodology has been put into place, the annual strategic planning ritual becomes an exercise in re-evaluating, re-affirming, and adjusting the strategic plans. The planning team needs to do the following at each succeeding strategic planning event:

  1. Understand the state of the industry today; what has changed from last year.
  2. Learn what is now disrupting their member, prospect, market, and industry.
  3. Discuss ideas on how they, as an organization, can sustain and thrive in spite of these disruptions.
  4. Review the current strategic vision to affirm or adjust based upon what the organization now knows.
  5. Review the progress the organization has made on their plans over the course of the past year, understand where and why the strategic owners have attained their milestones, and tweak the milestones.
  6. Delegate to strategic owners to present to senior management and the board their new business plan with resource needs and projects for the next budgeting cycle.

Executing on your strategic plan should transform your credit union, like completing a half marathon transforms you and being successful is worthy of a huge celebration.


Rich Jones is the Founder/Principal of Leading2Leadership LLC. Before starting his strategic planning agency, he spent over 20 years in leadership roles in the financial services sector. Before becoming an executive in the financial services sector, Rich was an entrepreneur, building and selling two businesses and working for early-stage start-up companies in executive roles in marketing, business development, and seeking investment partners. With more than three decades of experience, he brings innovative thought to companies and executives. Rich published “Leading2Leadership, a Situational Primer to Leadership Excellence.” The book is available on and was designed to be used as a book study for leadership development programs; it breaks leadership skills into manageable situations for discussion and reflection. Rich works with credit unions, CUSOs, and vendors, designing digital, data, culture, marketing, and branding transformation strategies. In 2014, Chosen as a Credit Union Rock Star by CU Magazine, and in 2018, Rich received the Lifetime Achievement Award from CUNA Marketing and Business Development Council. A Marine and graduate of Colorado State University, Jones shares his expertise at

Leave a Comment