The transition period from one year to the next seems to involve a lot of wrapping up: we wrap up presents, we wrap up projects, we wrap up loose ends. In the midst of all this finalizing, we’re also looking ahead: what do we want to achieve in the next 12 months? (And, perhaps more wistfully: what didn’t we accomplish this year?)
Business, by nature, is about goal setting— it’s difficult for organizations to continually improve and grow if they don’t have something to aim for. At the same time, professionals at all levels are constantly challenged with remaining on top of day-to-day operations, leaving little time for much else. Jim Taylor, a San Francisco-based psychologist focused on the psychology of performance related to business, sports, and parenting, and author of a number of books including Practice Development in Sport and Performance Psychology, noted that aside from time, people often aren’t given the tools they need to achieve goals. Office politics can also get in the way: “For example, two teams need to work together to accomplish a certain goal but the two leaders of the teams don’t get along, or there’s conflict, or there are power struggles or ego struggles.”
Jim Taylor is a San Francisco-based psychologist focused on the psychology of performance related to business, sports, and parenting, and author of a number of books including Practice Development in Sport and Performance Psychology. For Taylor, goals include a destination and a process: where do you want to go, and how are you going to get there? For them to be effective, he said, they should be very specific, and stated explicitly. They should also be measurable, and they should be expressed to either the team to which they apply, or to the entire organization. “It creates a level of accountability,” he said.
Goals should also be attainable, but not without a considerable effort. “If goals are too easy, then there’s not going to be a lot of effort, and there’s not going to be a lot of inspirational output, meaning I’m not going to feel that good in achieving this goal because I didn’t work a whole lot for it,” Taylor said. “People like to have a sense of agency, they like to feel like: I set a goal; I work toward a goal; I achieve a goal.” In other words, we like to earn things rather than having them given to us.
Jay Myers is president and CEO of Interactive Solutions Inc. (ISI), a systems integration firm based in Memphis, TN, and author of Hitting the Curveballs: How Crisis Can Strengthen and Grow Your Business and Keep Swinging: An Entrepreneur’s Story of Overcoming Adversity and Achieving Small Business Success. On the other end of the scale, however, goals shouldn’t be so ambitious that they’re impossible to achieve. Jay Myers, president and CEO of Interactive Solutions Inc. (ISI), a systems integration firm based in Memphis, TN, and author of Hitting the Curveballs: How Crisis Can Strengthen and Grow Your Business and Keep Swinging: An Entrepreneur’s Story of Overcoming Adversity and Achieving Small Business Success, said he spends a lot of time collaborating with his team to ensure the goals they’re setting are attainable. “With a realistic goal, you’re motivating your people to work hard to achieve it … [but] you deflate people with unrealistic goals, and very frankly, what our observation is, that’s what promotes a lot of morale problems and problems with employee retention,” he said. “You certainly want to reach, but there’s always a fine line between reaching and being unrealistic and getting into a situation where you are creating a morale problem.” He explained that at ISI, he and his team members are continually gathering information from trade events, peers, and customers to take the industry’s temperature. This information then serves as the basis upon which the firm can build solid, attainable goals.
As head of K Communications, a consulting firm based in Portland, OR, Karen Natzel is a “business therapist” to leaders seeking to improve their organizations. Inevitably, Natzel assists her clients with goal setting, and she believes that in order to be successful in achieving goals, professionals need to establish goals that are inspiring to them to begin with. “Sometimes their goals aren’t really their own; they are a list of ‘should-dos’ instead of coming from a place of excitement and belief,” she said. “If it’s a ‘should,’ it’s probably somebody else’s goal.”
Karen Natzel is a “business therapist” at K Communications, a consulting firm based in Portland, OR. She says one of her personal goals lies in rock climbing, and achieving that goal helps her understand how to achieve goals in business. In setting a specific goal, Natzel said, you’ve got to know the “why” behind it. She cites a more personal goal as an example: I will go to the gym three times a week. But why do you really want to go to the gym? Chances are, if you intend to go to the gym at six o’clock in the morning, you’ll find a bunch of reasons not to achieve this goal, unless you’ve defined why you set it. What, as method actors would ask, is your motivation? “For me personally, my motivation is so I can go and perform really well in my [rock] climbing. My other motivation is when I’m in a good rhythm of working out, I feel strong—I feel like I have more energy, I feel more confident.” These outcomes are much more inspiring than fulfilling the quota of making it to the gym three times a week, she said. In this case, the gym is the tool she uses to accomplish outcomes that are meaningful to her.
Natzel believes that emotional intelligence plays a significant role in whether or not we achieve our goals. “When we have a goal and we’re stretching ourselves, we want to be good at it right away, which is ridiculous,” she said. She suggested that when setting goals, identify what obstacles you’ll come up against while striving to achieve them. “Are they emotional triggers? Time? Whatever normal excuses we have for why things happen the way they do, just make sure you’re aware of those so that when they show up you’re like, ‘Oh, there that is. Here’s my strategy for that.’”
It’s also important to recognize that a goal partly met is not a failure. Natzel cited a method she uses whereby she establishes two categories for a goal: the promise (the very minimum achievement), and the go-for (the big push). “If I say I’m going to hit 15 percent and I hit 12, it doesn’t mean I have to be discouraged,” she said. Instead, it’s more effective to examine what worked and what didn’t, and if the go-for was realistic to begin with. “It’s having a mindset of continual improvement.”
Taylor observed that sometimes organizations set too many goals, overwhelming employees who wind up avoiding even attempting to accomplish them at all. “An important process in setting goals is really prioritizing and identifying: what are the most fundamental goals? Because often in companies, they will set goals that are almost symptomatic goals, whereas if they focused on the fundamental goals, those other goals will get accomplished just by definition,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is priorities. “Before I get to goals with a team, I ask them: what are their priorities? And what are the key decisions they have to make? Because if they have those two pieces of information, those inform the goals that are best established.”
Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.
Don’t Gag on Your Goals
We all know the wisdom behind the expression “don’t bite off more than you can chew,” but when it comes to generating sales, it can be tempting to gorge oneself. The problem is, the sales department is only one component of an organization. And, if your sales goals are unrealistically high, you jeopardize the entire company.
“Sales are sales, but you have to put that stuff in,” said Jay Myers, president and CEO at ISI. “How many designers do you have? How many programmers do you have? How many installers do you have? You all work together. And if someone is out there just blowing past with total disregard for everybody else, you’re likely going to have some projects that are going to slip, due dates that are not going to be met, and some angry customers. Is that the kind of growth you want? I don’t think so.”