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Are your goals enabling your performance?

In our continuing focus on performance at a team and organisational level, this article examines goals.  

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Goals come in all shapes and sizes.  They may have a timeline for achievement measured in hours, days, weeks or even months.  They may be scoped by you, your team or a group of people working over vast spans of geography, time zones and cultures.  All goals should deliver outcomes that build success; and their achievement on a regular basis should be a baseline measurement of performance.

The concept of SMART Goals has been around for a while, but to me it still stands as one of the most reliable frameworks for effective goal setting. Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timed. Given how broadly accepted this concept is, it is often assumed that this is how goals are consistently set. Looking a couple of steps beyond SMART, I also find that it is often presumed that individuals and teams are held accountable to achieve goals, and that these are aligned with the overall mission of the organisation.  My experience through corporate and entrepreneurial leadership, as well as in my work supporting leaders over the past 15 years, suggests this is not necessarily the case.

Why are goals important to performance?

Effective goal setting is a key element of the overall framework that drives team performance.  Well defined goals that are clearly linked to the overall objectives of the organisation provide individuals with a strong sense of contribution.  The clear connection of a goal to the organisation’s overall strategy and performance also provides purpose to individual and team performance and roles.  

“Goals are the fuel in the furnace of achievement” Brian Tracy

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Communicated appropriately, the function of goal setting is also to convey a sense of importance of all individual contributions, no matter where in the organisation the individual serves.  A great historic example is JFK’s conversation with a janitor at NASA about his contribution to the space race.  The janitor’s response to President Kennedy’s question of what he was doing – “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon” – is a charming illustration of small goals. Keeping a facility clean, whilst seemingly far from the fulcrum of influence, but rightly aligned to the overall goal and vision of the mission, the janitor executed with gusto and precision his contribution to the mission as a valued part of the goal’s outcome.

Goals also provide a tangible and meaningful focus for workflow. Goals allow individuals and teams to take ownership, accountability, and control over defining their contribution to the endgame of the project, quarter, annual target or global strategy of the organisation.

When I reflect on times that I didn’t accomplish what I expected from a project, or my team didn’t deliver on time, my diagnosis of these instances show that I did one of two things wrong.  Either I didn’t communicate the significance of a goal that proved to be a vital step.  Or, I did not break a complex goal down into sufficiently concise steps so that the execution of the overall objective could be followed to completion.  

I appreciate for many of you these points appear to be the most simple elements of leadership, but for me they bear repeating as I so regularly see them poorly executed or entirely overlooked by leaders are all levels of organisations.  High performers especially, who are promoted to leadership roles without sufficient development often fall short in this area.  This is often due to a lack of self-reflection to appreciate that not everyone thinks as he/she does, or that others do not operate or deliver in the same way, or that people do not work at the same pace as they are used to.  These new leaders often miss the importance of communicating or simplifying complexity.  This was certainly true of my leadership in my formative years.

How can a leader help with goals?

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It’s remarkable to me how often leaders don’t get the basics right when it comes to goal setting.  Frequently when we’re working as consultants to organisations large or small, successful or in turnaround mode, we find that goal setting is the initial business area requiring attention.  

As a quick check list, here are the areas that leaders can cover to ensure goal setting enables high performance – along with a few pearls of wisdom from others to inspire you in each area:

  • Define the goal – ensure that the goal is clear, understandable and communicated consistently.
    • “In the absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia” Author Unknown
  • Understanding the goal – it is vital to communicate both directly to individuals and the team the crucial components of the goal, who is responsible for what, the flow of delivery, which individual contributions are inter-dependant on others and which are independent, and what resources are required.
    • “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare” Japanese proverb.
  • Prioritisation of the goal – be certain that all involved in delivering the goal are aware of it’s significance, and the extent to which achieving this specific goal should be designated more important than other goals or usual activities.
    • “If a goal is worth having, it’s worth blocking out the time in your day-to-day life necessary to achieve it” Jill Koenig
  • Knowledge of the broader teams’ and organisations objectives – again it’s communication, this time focused on ensuring that the team has knowledge of how their attainment of their goal will influence or impact directly on the overall organisational goals.
    •  “Always start with the end in mind” Steven Covey
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Thanks for your time and attention reviewing this article, I hope you’ll be able to refresh your approach to goal setting as a leader and for yourself, and apply the check list as necessary.  Look out for further references and supporting resources over the coming week, and next week we will shift our attention to another vital element of the performance framework, roles.