Getting Down to Why: How Boards Can Make a Difference

By    //    Volume 24,  Number 2   //    March/April 2016

Boards everywhere are looking for ways to be more supportive and engaged. But even though most board members understand that their role is to remain at the level of strategic governance, many are simply not sure how to do so. Instead, they may try to help by suggesting action steps, setting formal expectations, imposing greater accountability, or focusing attention on a path some board members believe will be productive. More effective options exist. Fundamentally, governing boards aim to ensure that the institution is fulfilling its mission and is positioned to do so for years to come. But too often, the primary tools used— statements setting out the institution’s mission and strategic plan—are operational rather than strategic, focusing more on the institution’s activities than on its purpose.

In an environment swirling with challenges, demands, and opportunities, leaders of colleges and universities need grounding, fresh perspective, and longterm thinking to help them decide how best to navigate these waters. Governing boards can add significant value by focusing their attention and decision-making powers on the fundamental question of why the institution exists.

A college or university that exists to support the journey of academically able, late adolescents into becoming reflective critical thinkers who can help make the world a better place will make different decisions about such challenges than one that exists to lift people out of poverty toward greater personal and economic success. Focusing on impact, in terms of benefits to others, is more likely to yield wise decisions and longterm success than focusing on the needs of the institution.

Long-term perspective is the fundamental concept underlying strategic thinking, and it is hardest to achieve in times of stress and uncertainty. Often, executive leaders have no other source of strategic input than each other and the governing board. Working together, they can form a sense of direction that becomes their shared high-level strategic intent for the institution. Combining long-term perspective with institutional purpose allows them to formulate a vision of how the people and societies they serve will benefit from the institution’s work, and that, in turn, determines the criteria by which they make their decisions. Is the goal national ranking, a 5 percent operating margin, and an enrollment of 10,000 students? Or is the goal impact: a better world in ways that the institution is especially committed to and capable of delivering?

Focusing on purpose opens the institution to new ways of seeing and creating its future—ways that can inspire and reinvigorate people inside and out to help achieve its purpose.

Mission Statements Are Seldom Statements of Purpose

In higher education, mission statements are more likely to explain what the institution does than why it exists. A mission statement that says the institution provides defined programs that have certain qualities is not a statement of purpose. Purpose is the why, the difference the institution aims to make in the world.

For example, the purpose of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston is “Making Cancer History” not “providing research and care for people with cancer.” A symphony conductor might express the symphony’s purpose as “the spiritual elevation of our audience” rather than “to produce musical events that appeal to a variety of tastes.” Even an auto dealer’s billboard might proclaim “We make people happy” rather than claiming to have “market-leading auto sales.” Similarly, a college might exist to strengthen civil society, contribute to the economic and cultural vitality of the region, or liberate the human spirit.

Many institutions review their mission statements periodically, but have not deeply reexamined their underlying purpose for decades, perhaps since their founding. As long as what they are doing attracts sufficient resources to continue operating, there may be no motivation to think again about purpose.

Defining the institution’s purpose is a challenging exercise, one in which board members—and many other stakeholders— should be deeply involved. Potential starting points include having the board or a particular board committee examine the existing statements of mission, vision, and values to begin a discussion of how current activities suggest fundamental, impact-directed priorities.

Repeatedly asking “Why?” helps board members and executive leaders reflect more deeply than does the more common question “What do we need?”

For example, imagine the following discussion:

Administration: We need a strong brand.

Board: Why?

Administration: So that potential students know who we are.

Board: Why does that matter?

Administration: We want them to choose us.

Board: Why? To do what?

At this point, the administration’s response might be oriented either toward survival— So that we can obtain their revenues and remain viable—or toward purpose—So that we can transform their lives.

Board: But why do we want to transform their lives? To what end?

Then boards might get an impact-based response that opens the way for reexamining current activities and future possibilities. For example, a purposeoriented response might be, “We want to prepare leaders who can play a productive role in tackling the problems plaguing our world, whether political, economic, environmental, or cultural.”

Strategic Planning Has Little to Do with Governance

Some board members might believe that the board’s work in strategic planning has helped the institution pursue its purpose. Yet greater board engagement in institutional strategic planning, as commonly practiced, will not enable the board to add strategic value. First, most of a typical strategic plan is either relatively fixed or appropriately delegated to management. Second, strategic planning itself is an insufficient answer to the challenges facing universities in these changing times.

The relatively fixed parts of strategic plans are the mission, vision, and values statements, which provide only context and rarely change. When they do change, the board is certainly involved, but the bulk of a strategic plan focuses on activities, deadlines, and metrics—all of which are management’s responsibility. What remains for active board consideration is the stated goals.

Over the past decade, many institutions arrived at the same short list of major goals for their strategic plans. Paraphrased, they are as follows:

1. We will get more students.

2. We will get more money.

3. We will improve quality.

4. We will build something.

5. We will be more famous.

Such goals focus on the elements of success for the institution—sprucing up the metaphorical ship—while only implying, at best, the elements needed to achieve success in aiding the people whom the institution exists to serve— metaphorically, its destination. Both the institution and its reason for being require strategic attention. Survival is a necessary but insufficient condition for success, although it typically has received the lion’s share of organizational attention.

By failing to reexamine the relationship between the intent to deliver benefits and the intent to survive organizationally, many institutions have based their strategic plans on assumptions—about student demographics, instructional effectiveness requirements, why students drop out, public funding sources, and the needs of the people they serve—that may no longer be true. Some institutions pay only incremental attention to new expectations for accountability and graduation rates, or to applying the results of growing research on pedagogical effectiveness. Trying to pursue strategic governance with that kind of strategic planning is futile.

Second, strategic planning itself has become an oxymoron in these volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous times. If you can plan it, it’s not strategic. Efforts to adapt strategic planning to the times have been marginally successful, at best. Institutions may use shorter time horizons, rolling annual renewals instead of periodic fresh starts, and dashboards to demonstrate accountability. But the challenges for many institutions today raise more fundamental questions about how best to lead strategically.

Nor do today’s challenges respond well to a strategic-planning process that typically requires at least six months from launch to fruition and can yield results that represent the “most comfortable common denominator” for organizational participants, rather than genuine solutions to the societal needs that the institution is equipped and motivated to address.

Purpose Is the Foundation of Strategy

Purpose is the deep, service-based answer to the question “Why does this institution exist?” Like the concept of the value proposition in business, purpose is a promise to deliver something that meets the user’s expectations of value.

Boards can benefit from thinking of their institution as a “social-profit” institution rather than a “nonprofit,” a distinction coined by David Grant, former president of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Colleges and universities exist to benefit people and society. To be purposeful, each institution needs first to understand what benefits it aims to provide. In a popular TED Talk, author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek captured the power of purpose succinctly: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

If we assume that “what we are doing meets the needs of the people we serve,” then the focus is on doing more and doing it better. Organizational change needs only to be marginal and tactical rather than strategic. In higher education today, however, constituencies are demanding improvements in cost, quality, access, value, convenience, accountability, student success, and degree completion. The fundamental purposes of higher education are often unclear, misunderstood, or undervalued. Could that be in part because institutions themselves are focusing less on purpose than on institutional factors?

Despite the efforts of many, the sector generally has lagged in making purposecentered changes to address new demographics, economics, and expectations. Concerns for institutional survival can consume attention and resources. Longstanding practices are so habitual that they are assumed to be inevitable and thus are never questioned. Interdependent systems, regulations, and policies developed to manage traditional operations have the unfortunate effect of seriously limiting the ability to change. Some standard operating procedures even place institutional convenience ahead of beneficiaries’ needs. (See the box below, How NOT to Improve the Student Experience.)

To govern strategically, boards must challenge the assumptions that survival is paramount, success is driven by the functional business model, and long-standing methods are adequate. They must take purpose as the imperative and make policy and budget decisions accordingly.

Institutions can continue for quite some time, in a hospitable environment, to place their own needs on par with or above those of their intended beneficiaries. And so they have. But they cannot thrive that way over the long term as their beneficiaries’ needs and expectations change. Instead, they need to see clearly the impact they aim to make on the world and then reverse-engineer their work to focus on how best to make that impact.

Strategy Should Follow Purpose

In this context, the definition of strategy is “the ongoing, purposeful navigation of change.” Effective, ongoing navigation of change to better achieve the institution’s purpose is not mindless altruism. It does not replace strategic awareness of the environment and the institution. It depends on, rather than ignores, the latest developments in business analytics and systematic approaches to continuous improvement. Purpose becomes the core of organizational culture, enabling everyone to express and shape the strategy continually as they experience and respond to what they know and what they learn in real time. When a board takes on the role of helping administrators drive strategies to better fulfill the institution’s purpose, these efforts do not replace attending to the institution’s functional viability. It’s just that purpose comes first.

Purpose informs organizational change and makes constructive change easier. Many board members express frustration at the slow pace of change in higher education. Helping the institution focus on purpose addresses that frustration. People who have a strong sense of purpose want to help remove barriers. When the institutional culture and goals are purpose-centered, rather than focused on self-preservation or the status quo, changes that continually revitalize the institution can arise anywhere. People at all levels may see changes that keep the institution in line with its purposes as satisfying solutions, or at least as something to be understood and accepted more than feared and rejected.

Another strategic benefit of becoming purpose-centered is that it helps both board members and executive leaders to discern, from external chaos, what really matters to the institution’s future. Purpose guides the choice between building a climbing wall or a tutoring program. Purposeful, impact-based analyses supplement market-based information about which students to recruit. They help leaders determine whether knowing the new research on supporting underprepared students is more relevant than staying abreast of online learning options.

Institutions have long realized that emerging generations of traditional-age students are fundamentally different from those of the past, not only in family income and education, ethnicity, culture, first language, and academic preparation, but also in learning styles and preferences resulting from growing up with technology. Yet many institutions remain less-than-adequately prepared for this change. Boards that ask questions about how external changes like these should impact institutional policies and major decisions can help their institutions identify and resolve the need for change more proactively. Questions such as “How does the faculty’s preference for low- or no-tech instruction connect with the learning styles of technology-oriented learners?” can open a significant dialogue. The ultimate outcome might be greater understanding of and appreciation for what the faculty are doing. Or it might be a realization that the mismatch is a significant impediment to achieving the institution’s purpose, and thus is a situation that urgently requires change.

When “Why?” Comes First

When strategy means purposeful, ongoing navigation of change, strategic governance requires a culture and leadership practices that are based on deep understanding of the institution’s purpose and on a commitment to fulfilling that purpose as the core imperative—whatever it takes. The presence of a consensus on purpose is detectable using the following criteria, which boards can help craft and for which they can hold executive leaders accountable.

The institution has a statement of purpose. That statement describes the impact(s) the institution aims to have on society, or the benefits it delivers that make it a worthwhile investment of time and other resources. The purpose should be articulated in brief and memorable language, and also as a fuller narrative that generates greater understanding and better enables everyone in the institution to detect how they contribute to fulfilling the purpose. The critical first task is to discover, define, and truly understand the purpose. This requires board and executive leadership, as well as broad, deep engagement from other stakeholders. A statement of purpose may require many revisions, but it will be ready when those who must bring it to life through their work feel a sense of ownership for it.

Of course, having a statement of purpose is not enough. Its value comes from embedding the purpose deep into the life of the institution and its people, using the purpose as a litmus test and guide for what it is doing, how it is operating, and the decisions that impact its future. A specific, clear, memorable purpose enables everyone in the institution to contribute to its achievement on a daily basis. The purpose becomes the North Star of daily life, driving the campus culture.

The institution is understood to be a means, not an end. Maintaining jobs for faculty and staff, pursuing prestige, or growing bigger to maximize revenues are not socially justifiable reasons for government and people to invest millions of dollars in an institution. Focusing on the institution this way distorts decisions on all levels. Focusing on whether a given policy or practice fulfills the institution’s reason for being restores its integrity and should lead to greater public confidence when an institution’s leaders can point to that rationale as an underlying premise for decision making.

Purpose is the priority. In a purposecentered culture, faculty, staff, and administrators pay more attention to fulfilling the purpose than to their job descriptions. They see and seize opportunities to advance the purpose. One of the most important such initiatives, especially early in a purpose-oriented culture change, is to call attention to situations in which people are blind to the realization that “the way we’ve always done it” no longer serves the purpose well. When all faculty and staff believe that such initiative is appreciated and safe, regardless of topic, the culture is purpose-driven.

Everyone participates in strategic leadership. Vitally important moments can occur any time at any level in any sector of the institution. When people throughout the institution are attuned to internal and external critical factors, they are expected to raise early alerts and make corrections. Board and executive leadership can model this adherence to underlying purposes.

People talk strategy constantly, but use different vocabulary. Faculty, staff, and administrators living in a purpose-oriented culture actually are talking strategy whenever someone moves to fill a gap in service or notices a new opportunity to serve. They are more likely to discuss student success and attainment than marketing and recruiting. Discussions focus on filling needs instead of filling classes, and more attention is paid to impact than to enrollment.

The board and executives use two dashboards. The primary dashboard shows indicators of impact, of moving the needle on fulfilling the purpose. Such indicators often cannot be quantified, but might be tracked using a rubric to describe what various levels of success would look like in the real world. If regional impact is part of the purpose, for example, an indicator might be number of graduates remaining in the region or public attendance at institutional events. To create a civil society, constructive student participation in resolving community problems may serve as evidence. The secondary dashboard shows indicators of institutional viability. Many institutions already have a dashboard like this to ensure that the institution maintains sufficient resources and capabilities to continue to fulfill its purpose.

Hiring and employee performance reviews focus on purpose. Applicants and appointing authorities need clarity about the institution’s and the applicant’s commitment to purpose. Congruence at the time of hiring is much easier to achieve than the closure of a commitment gap for existing personnel, particularly given the hurdles in releasing existing personnel from service. Consistent use of a fair, legal, systematic process for performance improvement and, if necessary, termination, is an essential component of a purpose-focused strategy. Higher education’s core purpose is to improve lives; tolerating employee behaviors that undermine the purpose does real and sometimes unconscionable harm.

The institution may or may not have a strategy-focused document. Documentation remains a powerful tool for aligning diverse constituencies. Some institutions may choose to develop a strategic plan in typical fashion, using the statement of purpose as the core focus of the plan. For others, an alternative format may better express the spirit of a fresh start and reinforce a new way of thinking. One option might be a document that defines the top few current priorities for improving the institution’s commitment to fulfill its overarching purposes, such as “ensuring productive use of student time” or “better understanding and integrating the knowledge and skill requirements of local industry.” In any case, charting progress and making periodic revisions are important.

That said, most of the familiar leadership, management, and problem-solving tools remain useful. The essential step for strategic governance is a pervasive paradigm shift from focusing on “what we do” to “why we do it.”

The Vital Roles of Board Members

At the most basic level, board members can simply ask more “why” questions, not to challenge but to help all those present at board meetings get into the habit of thinking more deeply about how their decisions relate to the institution’s purpose. Such questions can also help bring to the surface long-held assumptions that are no longer valid. Why are we offering this program? Why don’t we have a tutoring program? Why are we attracting/ retaining fewer low-income students?

A board might begin by focusing a retreat on three questions: What is our institution’s purpose? How are we pursuing it? What could we do better? Or they might set aside a significant portion of a board meeting to discuss the answers provided to those questions by executive leaders. Other questions could include: How relevant is the strategic plan, actually? How well does the strategic plan advance our purposes? Would the institution benefit from developing an actual statement of purpose? How well does our institutional/academic culture represent our purpose? (For other questions, see the box below, Questions Regarding Purpose for Boards and Executive Leaders.)

By pursuing questions such as these, boards can help colleges and universities see what they may have been missing. Extraordinary pressures on institutions that became obvious with the Great Recession have morphed but not receded. The typical response has been to focus on getting more or new types of financial resources, and bolstering enrollment using the most direct means available, such as ramped-up marketing, branding, recruiting, amenities, new programs, and facilities. It is easy for “who we are and why we’re here” to get lost, or at least to take second or third place in the press for survival.

Nonetheless, getting down to fundamental purpose is the foundation for success. As T.S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Standard Operating Procedure: How NOT to Improve the Student Experience

Although meeting the needs of students is likely inherent in the true purpose of nearly every college and university, many institutions have blind spots or difficulty changing long-standing practices that do not serve that purpose well.

In a recent informal self-assessment, the chief academic officers of five universities agreed that most of the 11 unfortunate indicators listed below apply to their institutions to some degree, despite their commitment to provide the best possible quality student experience. The institution that relied most significantly on quantitative evidence rated itself low on eight of the 11 items. How does your institution stack up?

1. Opaque, unpredictable, and unnecessary policies for transferring credits among institutions.

2. Indifference to low graduation rates; acceptance of low graduation rates as inevitable; blindness to a dropout’s loan repayment dilemmas.

3. Admitting marginal students to “make the class” (aka, “make the budget”) without providing adequate support for them.

4. Less-than-impressive efforts to contain institutional costs.

5. Minimal or no efforts to retain students by moving them out of “undecided major” and proactively helping them understand options that are best suited for them.

6. Classes scheduled for faculty convenience more than for student access.

7. Accepting and retaining students who clearly would find a more appropriate major or other success factors elsewhere.

8. Expecting students to take courses that they might well be qualified to pass without spending seat time or tuition dollars.

9. Failure to provide adequate, timely access to courses that students need to graduate on time.

10. Credit requirements that say more about securing a department’s budget than meeting students’ needs.

11. Poor teaching excused/accepted, perhaps because faculty (a) are tenured, (b) never learned how to teach, or (c) are primarily evaluated on nonteaching criteria.

Mission Versus Purpose

A typical mission statement focuses primarily on what the institution does. Here is an example:

  • Provide professional education grounded in the liberal arts and sciences and in practical experience.
  • Is a comprehensive institution dedicated to excellence in teaching, research, scholarship, creative work, and service.

Statements of institutional purpose might sound like these:

  • Help people understand how to create economically and environmentally sustainable communities.
  • Partner with students of any age advancing toward their personal and professional goals.
  • Enable midcareer adults to fulfill their career potential.
  • Contribute talented people who can build a satisfying and prosperous region.
  • Create a learning society.
  • Improve the quality of life for people in this region.
  • Create and advance the workforce needed by this region for economic prosperity and civil society.
  • Build a more just and inclusive society.
  • Improve global health.
  • Provide opportunity for a meaningful, fulfilling life to people who have experienced disadvantages.
  • Strengthen civil society.

Questions Regarding Purpose for Boards and Executive Leaders

  • Does our mission statement express the institution’s purpose? If not, do we need a purpose statement?
  • Does everyone understand our purpose as an institution? Is it embedded in our culture?
  • What is our purpose as board members/executive leaders of this institution? How do we aim to add value, for whom, and to what end?
  • If our purpose drove our policies and decisions, what would change?
  • What can advance or impede the achievement of our fundamental purpose?
  • How do we assess how well we’re achieving our purpose?
  • Does our current strategic plan serve us well?
  • Do we have the will and the capabilities to actually make progress on fulfilling our purpose?