Mission: Imperative

When accreditation is mission-based, mission statements are essential. But how do schools craft and implement the perfect mission statement?
Mission: Imperative

At a recent meeting of more than 60 business school deans, Virginia Tech’s Richard Sorensen issued a challenge. The dean of the Pamplin College of Business in Blacksburg asked, “If you all printed out your mission statements and tacked them to a wall, could you pick out which one is yours?”

While the participants didn’t actually carry out the exercise, it’s a valid question. As Sorensen notes, “There are very good schools that have only slightly differentiated mission statements.” Mission statements have always been important to help schools tell their stories of who they are and what they offer. But they’ve become even more critical for colleges seeking accreditation from AACSB International, because AACSB’s accreditation process is based on how well schools are carrying out their own stated missions.

So how does a school craft a brief, thoughtful mission statement that accurately expresses its strategy, its goals, and its unique place on the b-school continuum? And once the statement is written, how do administrators use it in the day-to-day life of the institution? In the following pages, deans from three business schools describe how they arrived at their well-thought-out mission statements and how they implement them in their overall strategies.

MASTERING THE MISSION

Whether a school is writing its first mission statement or extensively revising one to reflect a new direction, administrators might find it useful to consider these ten steps:

View the mission statement as a complement to the school’s overall strategic plan.

The school’s strategy must drive the mission statement, not the other way around, notes Bernard Ramanantsoa, dean of HEC Paris in France. “Don’t try to write the mission statement from scratch, then try to write the strategy afterward.”

Development of the strategic plan and the mission statement were closely intertwined at Victoria Business School of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, says professor Bob Buckle, pro vicechancellor and dean of the school. A few years ago, the school developed its strategic plan—in part to put in place a continuous improvement process, and in part to make sure the school’s goals and vision aligned with the university’s. Buckle set up a structure and timetable that allows him to gather feedback from his management team and advisory board every year as they consider what initiatives and priorities to set for the coming year and how to budget for them.

He says, “We have an annual cycle for the development of our strategic plan, with the mission statement providing an overarching, longterm anchor for what we try to do each year. It’s a succinct statement of what we’re trying to achieve.”

Identify your strengths.

When Virginia Tech’s business school originally developed its mission statement, administrators first considered the strengths of the home university, which included excellent engineering and computer sciences programs. They also did a SWOT analysis of the market and realized the school could not compete head-to-head with the well-funded full-time MBA at a nearby university.

“So we purposely staked out different territory,” says Sorensen. “We concentrated on our undergraduate program, we made sure our graduate program served different areas of the state, and we developed joint programs with IT and engineering departments.” Virginia Tech’s mission statement specifically reflects those goals.

In addition to using the mission statement to identify its strengths, a school can use the statement to spell out what makes it distinctive, says Buckle of Victoria Business School. “For instance, we’re very serious about the importance of engaging with the government and the public sector. We also attach importance to providing our students with an international perspective. So these are reflected in our mission statement,” he says. “The mission statement is a useful guide to the sorts of initiatives and priorities you might have in the coming years. It helps you ensure consistency with your raison d’etre.”

Identify the strengths you want to have.

Globalization wasn’t a core value when Pamplin began writing its mission statement, but faculty members insisted that global experiences would be immensely beneficial to students. “At that time, most of our students had limited travel experience, and many came from middle or lower socioeconomic groups,” says Sorensen. “It was a real eye-opener for them to travel overseas to see other cultures.” Thus, Pamplin’s statement notes that the school prepares “students for global business challenges, including providing opportunities for global experiences before graduation.”

Similarly, HEC formulated its current mission statement about ten years ago when it decided to pursue a new strategy. Up until that time, the school had primarily focused on teaching, but as it aimed at developing a more international presence, it wanted to increase its emphasis on research. “We rewrote the mission statement to formalize our new strategy more explicitly,” says Ramanantsoa. “First-tier business schools are clearly research schools, and that’s where we wanted to position ourselves.”

For that reason, HEC’s mission statement includes commitments “to combine state-of-the-art research with innovative training” and “to heighten expertise through research and field surveys,” among other objectives.

Consider the needs of your community.

It’s important to keep in mind who will be hiring the graduates of the school and make sure those employers are being served. “We asked ourselves, ‘What have been the experiences of our alumni? What are the needs of the business community?’” says Sorensen. “That’s when we decided to focus on building really strong technical skills.”

Listen to the voices of many constituencies.

Pamplin’s mission statement was crafted by a committee drawn from department heads and faculty chairs, but the school has always received input from other groups. Says Sorensen, “Our advisory board members and alumni emphasize that graduates need the softer skills as well as the technical ones. They need a grounding in ethics, leadership, global perspectives, and the value of diversity.” Those goals are included in the mission statement.

Likewise, when formulating its mission statement, HEC sought the input of a number of key figures within the school, including associate deans, the deans for faculty and for research, and department heads. But the school also brought in several consulting firms that specialized in strategy, brand reputation, and communication.

“The problem with a mission statement is that you must say a lot of things in a few words, and we wanted the consultants to help us with two challenges,” says Ramanantsoa. “First, we wanted to be sure the mission statement was congruent with our strategic plans. Second, we wanted the mission statement to be communicated as clearly as possible.” Advice from outside experts helped the school achieve both goals.

Don’t proclaim it if you can’t provide it.

“When Virginia Tech first began talking about emphasizing diversity in the mission statement, I wanted to make sure we could operationalize it,” says Sorensen. “My position is, if you can’t operationalize something, it’s just a wish list. But now we have programs, workshops, and case competitions all built around diversity. And our mission statement includes a section about diversity as a core value.”

Buckle takes a similar position. Victoria Business School’s mission statement includes a list of values that the school promotes, which include diversity, integrity, innovation, academic freedom, and leadership. This means the school must give students opportunities to develop in those areas. “For instance, the university has introduced the Victoria International Leadership Program, which encourages students to volunteer as an extracurricular activity,” says Buckle. “In the process, they attend leadership seminars and receive other training.”

Buckle believes that assurance of learning programs are extraordinarily important to help the school determine if it is, in fact, delivering the skills it promotes in its mission statement. “As we assess our assurance of learning program, we do a curriculum mapping to see if we’re providing enough opportunities to meet these learning goals, and if we’re not, to determine how we can do so.”

Test major decisions against the mission statement.

HEC uses the mission statement when it is trying to decide how or whether to implement program revisions. “We might ask, ‘Should we enlarge the program or modify the selection process? What kind of faculty should we recruit?’ These questions come up every year, and we often say, ‘Let’s go back to the mission statement,’” says Ramanantsoa.

In other contexts—both formal and informal—HEC turns to the mission statement to answer questions about the school’s priorities. On the formal side, the school always begins with the mission statement during accreditation and re-accreditation efforts, whether it’s dealing with AACSB, EFMD, or the French national accreditation commission.

Informally, the school relies on the mission statement when administrators have conversations with students about the possible evolution of the school. The associate deans meet with students every term, and Ramanantsoa makes sure he meets with students once or twice a year to discuss any topics they want to bring up.

“Students often ask why the school adheres to a particular format or doesn’t follow a certain course of action,” he says. “Some questions are easy to answer. ‘We don’t do that because we don’t have the resources.’ But for more sophisticated questions, we always refer back to the mission statement.”

He adds, “I’m not saying the answers to all questions are in the mission statement, but it’s kind of like the constitution of the school. That doesn’t mean we can never change it, but we do try to adhere to it for the main issues.”

Sorensen puts it bluntly. “If an initiative makes sense with the mission statement, we’ll do it. If it’s contrary to the mission statement, either we won’t do it or we have to change the mission statement.”

Integrate the mission statement into all facets of the school’s life.

At Victoria Business School, the mission statement is posted on a wall of the ground floor so students, faculty, and visitors can see it when they walk through the front door. It’s also displayed in the boardroom, which is used for a wide variety of meetings, and it’s provided on the Web site.

Virginia Tech’s mission statement is prominent on the Web site and included in most of the school’s published materials. Says Sorensen, “I go over it every spring when I teach an introductory business course. I show students how the mission statement helps us determine which programs we offer and how a mission statement can help set the direction for any organization.”

Be prepared to revise the mission statement when necessary.

“The mission statement always has to be a work in progress to some extent,” says Sorensen. “A school might include a goal in its mission statement and then discover that it doesn’t have the resources to implement it. So the school has to rethink either the statement or its goals.”

While Pamplin rarely undertakes major changes to its statement any more, it often makes tweaks. For example, the original statement said that graduates will use their skills to help solve business problems; this has been revised to emphasize that graduates create solutions to such problems. “It’s a small change, but it expressed the concept more clearly,” says Sorensen.

Victoria Business School undertook a much more major revision recently to reflect the fact that it had absorbed the school of government, which previously had existed as a separate college within the university. The merger was a logical one, because the business school already had partnered with the school of government to deliver master’s-level programs in public policy and public management. In addition, the business school, which is located in the heart of New Zealand’s capital city, had always maintained close ties with the government.

But adding the school of government made it imperative for the business school to revisit its mission statement to spell out its new emphasis. The revised statement reads: “Victoria Business School creates and shares knowledge of governance and management of resources in the public and private sectors to develop capability and provide our stakeholders with a global perspective.”

Buckle feels it was particularly necessary to highlight governance. “Our reworded mission statement reflects the shift in emphasis that’s taking place around the world about the awareness of the importance of good governance,” he notes.

Whether the mission statement has been in place for ten years or has recently been completely rewritten, Ramanantsoa of HEC advises paying attention to how the statement currently is received by stakeholders. When people stop reacting positively to the mission statement, he warns, “that means something is wrong.” And it might be time to revisit the school’s strategy and its mission.

But don’t make changes lightly.

“By definition, the mission statement is not something that should be changed every six months,” says Ramanantsoa.

In fact, once you’ve crafted the statement that suits your school, commit to it. At Virginia Tech, according to Sorensen, “It’s become part of our DNA.” Says Buckle of Victoria Business School, “If the environment changes or the makeup of the business school changes or the university’s objectives for the business school change, we would revisit the mission statement and ask if it’s still appropriate. Otherwise, I’d imagine that this one is sufficiently robust to prevail for quite a few years.”

MISSION IN ACTION

As schools pursuing AACSB accreditation seek to create or refine their mission statements, they might find themselves first taking a hard look at their schools and what defines them. “Writing a mission statement can help a school more fully understand exactly what differentiates it from its peers—but figuring that out is sometimes the hard part,” Sorensen notes. “Schools need to determine their strengths and weaknesses, as well as what they really want to be good at. They need to determine who their constituency is and what part of the business community they’re working with. Then they develop a mission statement that captures those values.”

When Sorensen visits a school as part of a peer review team, he purposely looks at its mission statement, its governance, and its utilization of resources. “I’ll tell a school when it has an undifferentiated mission statement. That usually happens when the school just presents a lot of verbiage without a critical analysis of its strengths,” he says. “This gives administrators a chance to rewrite the mission statement—to make it reflect the strengths of their school—even before the accreditation visit.”

Buckle acknowledges that both the mission statement and the strategic plan have assumed more importance at Victoria Business School as it has pursued accreditation. “The accreditation process helped us learn about what other business schools do. It also helped us learn about the importance of putting together a coherent plan and good management structures. We developed a better understanding of the role a strategic plan can have.”

Schools seeking accreditation must think more deeply about how well they are meeting their own stated goals, Buckle observes. He adds, “I think the mission statement is much more central to the way we operate and the way we decide on priorities than it was ten years ago.”

A mission statement should be a short, coherent description of what a school is, does, and stands for. For schools pursuing accreditation, that simple declaration is an expression of everything they are and wish to be. Even for schools that are not seeking such a credential, a mission statement can help them analyze what makes them unique and where they fit in the larger world of business education.