Printer Friendly

Fine-tuning your mission: your mission statement can put you right on top of your market--or make you irrelevant. (Marketing).

Based on conversations with hundreds of presidents and administrators, it appears that many people are frustrated with their institutions' mission statements and routinely describe them as too vague, too long, and too much. One president described his mission statement as "flabby." Scott Adams, writing in The Dilbert Principle, says a mission statement is a "long awkward sentence that demonstrates management's inability to think clearly."

Apparently, there is a bit of confusion about the role and purpose of a mission statement. With that in mind, let's start with a simple question: What is a mission statement? For our purposes, a mission statement is a declaration of an organization's central, defining purpose; its raison d'etre, its reason for being. Fundamentally, the mission statement is the cornerstone upon which the vision--and the strategic plans that accomplishes that vision--rests.


Let's take a look at four mission statements. Can you identify the institutions to which they belong?

Mission statement #1: "The--is a comprehensive institution committed to providing a diverse, dynamic learning environment, founded on a strong liberal arts curriculum and characterized by excellence in teaching, scholarship, and service. The University focuses both on undergraduate education that emphasizes a personalized learning environment and on selected masters, doctoral, and other graduate programs that provide students with specialized educational experiences.--programs incorporate scholarship and service to individuals, communities, and organizations throughout the state, the nation, and the world."

Mission statement #2: "--reaffirms its commitment to educating a diverse community of women at the highest level of academic excellence and to fostering the alliance of liberal arts education with purposeful engagement in the world."

Mission statement #3: "--provides leadership for our community's future through innovative experiences and environments for learning."

Mission statement #4: "As a small residential institution dedicated to the highest standards of instruction and research,--will provide an unequaled education that will serve our students for a lifetime, advance the frontiers of knowledge to the betterment of all humankind, and meet the needs of our wider community through partnerships with other institutions. We therefore take as our mission:

* To prepare our students to be the leaders of the next century by providing an education distinguished for its high level of excellence and personal attention.

* To contribute materially to the advancement of knowledge and to educate the next generation of scholars by supporting outstanding research programs as well as graduate and professional study.

* To cooperate actively with other institutions in the use of new discoveries and knowledge for the benefit of society."

Let me give you a couple of hints: The first mission statement is from a regional public in the Midwest. The second is from a prestigious women's college in the East. The third is a community college, also in the Midwest. The final mission statement is from a very prestigious private in Texas.


Still confused about who's who? Here's why: Contrary to popular opinion, mission statements are not for public consumption. By themselves, they are seldom unique. They seldom differentiate. Instead, they are internal guideposts that help shape initial decisions. What makes a mission statement unique is the verve and aplomb with which it is executed.

The four mission statements outlined above are not particularly unique. However, the institutions they guide are. Let's look at mission statement #1, from the University of Northern Iowa. Chances are most readers will not be that familiar with UNI. But I can tell you, the people of the Midwest are. UNI is an exceptional teaching institution, well recognized by its constituencies for the quality of its faculty, facilities, and graduates.


There are four reasons for having a vital, clear mission.

One--A mission helps focus the organization on what's truly important--and by extension, what is not. Savvy administrators help use the mission statement to deflect distractions and to keep themselves from getting dragged off strategy.

Two--A widely held mission will reduce the amount of unnecessary conflict in an organization by preventing people in the organization from developing competing missions or using resources in ways that are contrary to the mission.

Three--A clear mission is a very powerful tool to use when hiring. Asking candidates to respond to your mission statement can offer keen insights into their suitability. This is especially important for senior leadership positions or for off-campus positions.

Four--A mission can be a source of inspiration to key stakeholders, especially faculty, staff, and administrators. Because mission statements say, "This is who we are and what we stand for," they offer a degree of certainty in an uncertain time.


Few colleges actually change their missions; rather, they periodically tweak them. (One notable exception was the Quaker school in Philadelphia that quite literally became a military academy overnight when they sensed a shift in their population base.) The need or desire to tweak a mission statement generally arises when there is a change in the marketplace, as part of a larger strategic planning process, during an accreditation review or a change in leadership, or prior to a major capital campaign.

To clarify your mission, you must ask your most important audiences--both internal and external--the following questions:

* What are our core values? What matters most? What are our enduring qualities? What are our unchangeables?

* What needs do we fill? How well do we fill them? How do we know?

* How should we respond and relate to our most important stakeholders and customers?

* What makes us unique or distinctive?

* In what ways have we furthered the mission over the past decade?

* Who would miss us if we vanished?

A president I interviewed while writing this column said that a mission statement is all about finding relevance in today's marketplace. Afraid that he might anger his peers, he asked that I not use his name. But he explained, "Many colleges and universities--perhaps even my own--are relevant to only one group: faculty. Unfortunately, unless they can find relevance with supporting constituencies--prospective students, donors, and alumni--they wilE increasingly find themselves ignored by the marketplace." He's right. Relevance is an exceptionally important goal for any mission statement.


Leonard Goodstein in Applied Strategic Planning: How to Develop a Plan That Really Works (Goodstein, Nolan & Pfeiffer; McGraw-Hill Trade; 1993) believes that an exceptional mission statement must be:

* Clear, understandable, and applicable to all internal stakeholders

* Brief enough for most people to keep it in mind

* Clear about: a) Which customer or client needs the organization is attempting to fill, not which products or services are offered; b) Who the organization's primary customers or clients are; c) Why the organization exists; that is, the overriding purpose that the organization is trying to serve, and its transcendental goals

* Broad enough to allow flexibility in implementation, but not broad enough to permit a lack of focus

* A guidepost by which internal stakeholders in the organization can make decisions

* Reflective of the organization's values, beliefs, and philosophy

* Achievable: realistic enough for organization members to buy into

To the degree that you meet these criteria, you likely have an exceptional mission statement.


After you have clarified and affirmed your mission, you must communicate it to the larger campus community. The following scenarios, inspired by John Kotter in Leading Change (Harvard Business School Press; 1996) offer two options for communicating a mission statement.

In case A, the mission statement is introduced by the president in three speeches and is the subject of three articles in her newsletter, for a grand total of six repeats over a six-month period.

In case B, the president and four vice presidents pledge to each find four opportunities per day to tie conversations back to the mission. When the VP for Advancement is meeting with her top three people to review monthly results, she asks that all decisions be evaluated in light of the mission, which she repeats. When the VP for Finance completes performance evaluations for an employee, he ties his assessments to how effectively that employee advanced the mission. When the VP for Academics conducts an orientation for new faculty, he answers the first inquiry by saying: "I think yes, but let me explain why. Our mission ..."

The net result: In option A, there were six communiques about the mission. In option B there were 3,600. Which is the better option for communicating?

A number of years ago, Indiana Wesleyan University went through the mission and visioning process. At the conclusion of the endeavor, the school created a small, plastic card that carried the institution's mission statement and core values. This card was widely distributed on and off campus. In addition, cards are often given to visitors and prospective vendors.


There's no way around it: Mission statements are critically important for organizational success. They affirm. They guide. They lay the foundation for distinctiveness. Without a mission statement that is clear and valued by your most important audiences, you may quickly find yourself irrelevant. Do the work.

Bob Sevier is a senior VP of Stamats Communications ( He pens a free e-newsletter, QuickTakes, focusing on strategic planning and brand marketing. A complete glossary of marketing and strategic planning terms is also available. For more information, e-mail
COPYRIGHT 2003 Professional Media Group LLC
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sevier, Robert A.
Publication:University Business
Date:Jun 1, 2003
Previous Article:The challenged financial aid officer, 2004: financial aid officers anticipate their most daunting challenges for the coming year. (On The Money).
Next Article:Dewey goes digital: as campus Internet technologies enter the next millennium, schools rush to move their libraries online. Is this finally the end...

Related Articles
Staying focused and effective.
A question of balance: who does your school exist for--students or faculty? Maybe it's time to restore the power balance.
Mission possible.
The missing data problem.
Setting objectives.
Fine Art Printing for Photographers.
Pentagon's African command: will it float?

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters