The true value of the oft-scorned mission statement

by Wayne Sigler, Ed.D., Senior Consultant, AACRAO Consulting



“The mission says why you do what you do, not the means by which you do it.” 1


“The end here is not the mission statement itself.  

It’s aligning people behind key goals.” 2


“A fundamental responsibility of leadership is to make

sure that everybody knows the mission, understands it, lives it. 1



When many people who work in higher education student-facing service units (enrollment management, student services, and student affairs) hear the term “mission statement” their thoughts likely turn to “don’t bother me with that!”  The experience they had with mission statements may have resulted in a document that was so long and complicated that almost no one could remember what it said.

My experience working with mission statements for many years led me to share the same frustrations outlined above.  Over time, however, I have become convinced that an effective mission statement is a valuable guidance and calibration tool to help organizations and their staff to thrive by consistently delivering the outcomes that its stakeholders value and expect.   Often, when a student-facing service unit’s outcomes are not on target with its stakeholders’ expectations, the reasons are that the unit’s leaders have not clearly defined what the service unit’s actual job is and the outcomes for which the unit is responsible.

The Purpose of a Mission Statement

David D. O’Halloran, a former executive in the social services sector and expert on developing effective mission statements noted:  “A mission statement should describe the fundamental objectives of the business and should include what people variously refer to as guiding principles, credos, and corporate philosophies.”  (3)

O’Halloran also observed that “Organizations ought to know what they’re about and what they are doing…If they don’t have a well-thought out mission statement, I don’t know how they can have that clear sense of direction.  Nor can they be confident that they’re really doing all the things they should be doing.” (3)

Outcomes of an effective Mission Statement

  • Describes the purpose of an organization and what it plans to accomplish. The strong engagement of an organization’s personnel in the purpose and success of their institution and organizational unit is a sine qua non for outstanding staff productivity and retention.  Jim Collins, the author of the bestseller Good to Great, points out that: “No matter how much the world changes, people still have a fundamental need to belong to something they can feel proud of.  They have a fundamental need for guiding values and sense of purpose that give their life and work meaning.” (4)
  • Focuses the organization and its people on achieving the outcomes valued and expected by its stakeholders. The only real job security that any organization and its people have is to consistently demonstrate their achievement of the measureable outcomes its stakeholders value and expect.
  • Reminds an organizational unit to examine the paradigm that guides its work and determine if a shift in paradigm is needed. This is a crucial step in the process of changing the culture, when needed.

Elements of an effective mission statement

Operational. Peter F. Drucker, "widely considered to be the world’s foremost pioneer of management theory," (1) observed that "A mission statement must be operational, otherwise it’s just good intentions.  A mission statement has to focus on what the institution really tries to do and do it so that everybody in the organization can say, 'This is my contribution to the goal.'" (5)

Genuine and lasting.  It must be viewed as worthy of the unit personnel’s respect and as something that helps them focus their work on the most critical tasks.

Memorable. Even highly dedicated staff will not search for a lengthy mission statement that is filed away.  To function as a working guide, it must be brief enough to be easily remembered.

Taken seriously by all of the unit’s staff. In order for this to happen, the unit’s leadership (both “titled” and informal) must demonstrate a genuine commitment to the organization’s mission, continuously model it, and make certain that staff are also respected and cared for in line with its stated mission and values.

Knowing what should and should not be changed. Jim Collins maintains that "Every truly great organization demonstrates the characteristics of preserve the core, yet stimulate progress… Indeed, the great paradox of change is that organizations that best adapt to a changing world first and foremost know what should not change; they have a fixed anchor of guiding principles around which they can more easily change everything else.  They know the difference between what is truly sacred and what is not, between what should never change and what should be always open for change, between 'what we stand for' and 'how we do things.'" (4)

Organizational Unit and sub-unit mission statements

Drucker noted that:  “Each social sector institution exists to make a distinctive difference in the lives of individuals and in society.  Making this difference [also stated by Drucker as “changing lives”] is the mission-the organization’s purpose and very reason for being.” (1)

Each student-facing service unit will need to define its own description of its purpose and reason for being.  To me, Drucker’s overall view of a social sector mission is an excellent starting point.  One option for a mission statement for a student-facing service unit, such as a One-Stop Center, could be:  “Effectively support students in their journey to find and achieve their dreams by making it easy to do business with the institution.”  An option for an Office of Financial Aid mission statement is “Support student recruitment, retention, timely graduation and overall favorable student perception of the institution through effective and efficient service.”

It’s well worth the effort!

Taking the time to develop effective mission statements for your organization and yourself is well worth the effort.  It’s the key to determining where the unit(s) for which you are responsible is headed, what it is responsible for accomplishing, and to stay on track for success.  Remember Drucker’s admonition: "The ultimate test is not the beauty of the mission statement.  The ultimate test is your performance." (1)


Note:  Some of the contents of this article were drawn from the author’s book, Managing for Outcomes: Shifting from Process-Centric to Results-Oriented Operations. 2007, AACRAO.

1 Drucker, Peter F. 2008.  “What is our Mission? ” The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization. Leader-to-Leader Institute, Jossey-Bass.

2 Brown, Tom. September 01, 1997.  “Turning Mission Statements into Action,” Harvard Business Review

3 Krattenmaker, Tom. March 01, 2002.  “Write a Mission Statement that Your Company Is willing to Live,” Harvard Business Review

4 Collins, Jim. 2008. “What is our Mission? ” The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization. Leader to Leader Institute, Jossey-Bass.

5 Drucker, Peter F. 1990. Managing the Nonprofit Organization, Principles and Practices.  HarperCollins.