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AVCs Start With WHY

January 22, 2018 Dr. Art Munin University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

I attended the AVP Institute in 2015 (yeah for sunny California in January) and there are many aspects to the institute that have stuck with me.  Perhaps one of the more pronounced pieces was the inclusion of Simon Sinek’s work entitled “Start with Why.”  There are several videos on YouTube that can give you an overview of this philosophy and I highly recommend his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.  In short, Sinek challenges leaders to concentrate intently on WHY we do what we do as opposed to focusing solely on WHAT we do.  To put into higher education terms, WHAT we do is adjudicate student conduct cases.  We provide late night programming.  We cultivate opportunities for students to develop multicultural competence.  We create bulletin boards in the residence halls.  WHAT we do is important.  However, if we solely focus on the WHAT, we lose sight of the guiding force that calls us to something greater.  WHAT fails to connect entities that appear separate into a unifying whole.  The WHY challenges us to identify our purpose or cause.  The WHY pushes us to identify the reason we exist.  We need the WHY to draw unity and a shared vision.

I brought this philosophy to my work as an AVC this past summer.  I wanted my staff to redraft our mission statement to better reflect how the purview of our work has changed.  However, I did not want to end up with the typical 3-4 sentence mission statement that lives only on a website.  Another takeaway from the AVP Institute was that we need our missions to be something that staff can “recite and rally around.”  Therefore, we went through a process to identify our WHY statements.  Here is what we drafted for the Dean of Students Office:

  • We fill the gaps in serving students
  • We help students navigate the institution
  • We are uniquely situated to positively influence the student experience
  • We help guide the institution on policies, laws, and regulations that affect students

Drafting this list took far longer than it would have taken to write a mission statement.  Moving away from focusing on WHAT is more difficult than one would think.  However, the outcome of this work has been far more beneficial.  As a staff, we now have a series of simple statements that are used to consistently describe the work of the Dean of Students Office. When we are making a major decision on the development of the office, our WHY statements serve as a North Star. 

As an AVC, one quote from Sinek’s book particularly stuck with me throughout this process.  “Leaders never start with what needs to be done.  Leaders start with WHY we need to do things.  Leaders inspire action” (Sinek, 2009, 228).

As an AVC, do you know what your WHY is?